« I go to Colette, I buy Nikes, and I’m also a calligrapher. » Such is Nicolas Ouchenir’s answer to the stereotypes surrounding his profession, generally of men locked up in libraries meticulously copying ancient manuscripts.
Ouchenir, 34 going on 19, is also fashion and luxury’s calligrapher of choice. His client list is endless but that’s not what he wants to talk about.
Instead, he takes me to his favorite burger joint; jet lagged from a trip to Singapore, he chooses to chat about the lascivious, hilarious and deeply inspirational moments of his career. A punk in métier d’art, a wild child in haute couture, Ouchenir never ceases to doodle, scribble and scrawl in style.
How did you fall into it ?
I had never even heard of calligraphy as a job. But I always enjoyed writing. On the phone, some people doodle, but I did lines of ‘P’s. And when I found myself working at a gallery and writing envelopes, I realized that people came a lot more when they were written by hand. I kept doing that for a while and later contacted by a PR, and that’s how it all started.
How do you stop it from being a boring, old-fashioned job ?
People think of the same few cliché alphabets you find in encyclope- dia and calligraphy manuals. But what’s the point in that? You might as well print it out, you’ll never stand out as a calligrapher if you merely, duly apply something that already exists.
So you have to let it be alive, breath, exist, you have to leave the stains, accept each version will be slightly different and imperfect – that’s where its beauty comes from.
I recently used a children’s silver gel pen which left stains and leaks every- where, and the client was delighted
‘What wonderful stains you created, was that difficult to do ? (he laughs) 'Oh dear, hours of concentration, you have no idea!’
You should look like you perfectly master what you’re doing, but went slightly mad while doing it.
Do people generally understand what you do ?
Rarely. In people’s imagination, a calligrapher is a 90-year-old man in the desert doing Arabic calligraphy (he smiles), or locked up in libraries studying ancient texts. Mind you, religion has had impressive scribes throughout history, which became the memory of a country.
Maybe that should be a good name for you ? Nicolas Ouchenir, scribe, fashion’s memory ?
Or «Nicolas Ouchenir, Scribe – not the hotel » (he laughs)
What sort of tools do you use to write ?
Just name it, I’ve tried it. Glass dipped in ink, horsehair, pig’s hair, forks, matches, little pieces of rolled up paper – a nervous tick I have and I constantly with any piece of paper I get my hands on – look at the state of the tablecloth ! As for ink, it goes from homemade crush roses to beef blood.
Can you write with you left hand ?
I can now do the larger letters with my left hand. They’re not neces- sarily beautiful but evermore interes- ting. Beauty is subjective and oddity is key in what I do.
What’s the best frame of mind to be in order to invent a new alphabet, or simply work ?
You know, the funny thing about writing is that what I lay on paper is never what I had in mind. There is a form of instinct to it; it has a life of its own. So the best state to be is feeling fine with a slight problem, a lack of some sort. If everything is too perfect, I can’t work, what I produce is no good. If I’m too stressed it doesn’t work either.
What is your biggest drive ?
Being asked to do something nuts, or impossible, like « why don’t you do an alphabet inspired by mustaches, made out of mustache hair. » And bam, I start getting ideas. The clients are also an important part of it. I work on instinct, and if it’s somewhere I have a bad feeling about, or I don’t get on with, or simply find their approach to my work dis- respectful, I run the other, no matter the amount of money being offered. What I most dislike is someone overly nice but who doesn’t care about what you’re doing. Violent, angry, driven people who know what they want are my favorite kind to work with.
I also enjoy working with young magazines and brands, like Yazbukey or Lavallière. It’s a totally different approach and you have a blast – and it’s extremely important to me to work both with top and emerging clients.
Do you friends keep preciously ever scrap of paper you scribble on?
Worse even – you know what happened to me recently? I was out, explained what I did to someone and jokingly scribbled his name on a nap- kin. The next time I saw him, he had it tattooed across his chest. And there I was, recognizing my ‘m’, my ‘n’. Woops.
Are you ever asked bizarre commissions ?
I receive the odd porn letter commission – that’s always quite funny. And letters of insult are very entertaining too.
Calligraphy is such a noble art, do you ever draw inspiration from pop culture or other random, contemporary elements.
Absolutely, I have my iPhone on me the whole day and snap away. Recently I felt very inspired from the C of Carrefour supermarkets, which ended up on a recent invitation, in my own style of course !
What are people’s most frequent question to you ?
Always money related questions, which drives me nuts. Like, they’ll look at something you’ve just done and roll their eyes and say ‘can you make a lot of money just doing that ?
What is your off-duty hand-writing like ?
That’s a real issue, I don’t have one anymore. I’ll write a check and then write a postcard and the two handwritings will look totally different. There is something slightly insane about it. When I was growing up, I was always told I have a nice handwriting, although I hated it. I mostly hated the fact that people can tell something about you or your intention before reading it, something uncontrolled. You see the surface before seeing the depth – but hopefully with what I do I’ve managed to reconcile the two.