A Conversation with Belgian Lettering Artist Lieve Cornil

We’re off to Belgium today, to speak with Rendez-vous faculty member Lieve Cornil. Trained at the Scriptorium in Toulouse, Lieve has worked as a lettering artist and designer for thirty years. She notably founded the European Lettering Institute, a school that offers workshops as well as full-time professional programs in lettering and graphic design. She has exhibited her work across Europe and abroad and has been featured in multiple issues of Letter Arts Review. Read on to learn more about Lieve’s background, discover which teachers influenced her path and hear the story behind the European Lettering Institute!

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in lettering?

I was born in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), but we moved a lot, so I don’t have a specific place where I grew up. I remember this fantastic primary school teacher in Rotterdam who enjoyed all written letters. He told us about how important a good and legible hand was: it was a matter of being respectful to the reader, making sure he or she could read your written words well. This teacher organized writing classes even though it wasn’t part of the curriculum, and he gave us a special notebook just to practice our handwriting. I remember vividly the concentration it took to create these shapes. I think I was the only nine year old who enjoyed every second of that class. I know I completely fell in love with writing right there and then.

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What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

If we don’t take this first italic handwriting experience into consideration, then my first real calligraphy class was about blackletter. I was eighteen at the time and was introduced to Textura and Fraktur. I still think it was a great hand to start off with, learning how to make straight lines, how to hold the pen correctly and keep that angle steady! Nowadays, I usually use all italic variations, mostly because of commercial reasons: I try to respond to the clients’ demands. Other than that I have no preference for a specific hand: I just love letters: written, drawn, cut, sprayed and digitized….

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

Wow, this is a difficult question, as I have had the privilege of working with so many talented artists. Let me tell you what I learned from a few of them and why:

DETERMINATION: Jean Larcher (France): He found it difficult to teach me because I am left-handed. I decided during that workshop that nothing and no one had the right to stop me from becoming a calligrapher because of that. My left hand was not going to be a problem to reach my goal.

CREATIVE FREEDOM: Thomas Ingmire (United States): Working with Thomas was a true privilege: he allowed me to try things I wanted to but was scared of trying: he introduced me to the exploration and deformation of letterforms, the difficulty of artistic expression and the importance of visual language.

PROFESSIONALISM: Bernard Arin (France): The man who taught me everything that a future professional lettering artist should know. I owe him so much. Getting his blessing when I decided to set up the European Lettering Institute meant a great deal to me.

COLLABORATION: Mike Pratley (United Kingdom). I was lucky enough to work with Mike for years when I lived and worked in London. He showed me how professionals can work together on real jobs, how to deal with clients, how to present a finished piece of artwork. He was a true mentor who shared all of his knowledge, in addition to a solid professional and an extremely talented lettering artist.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

I have two workspaces, at the European Lettering Institute and at home. It is not great that things are in two places now, since the stuff I need is always in the other venue!!! Having this busy life, I don’t have a real routine at the moment (except for not drinking coffee when I have to write!). I do pick the right music for that day. I create when I have to, when the deadline is approaching. I do have to warm up: some rotations in shoulders and upper body, and then I always play for an hour with pens and inks, just to get into the mood of writing.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?

All kinds of bought and self-made writing tools to create a big variety of letterforms, white paint and black markers to correct when needed and my Mac to digitize my hand drawn or written letterforms because of market demands.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?

As I’ve been in the lettering business for thirty years, I find it very difficult to answer this question. There are so many projects I enjoyed, learned from and which were very rewarding. I enjoyed designing the global identity for the Walls logo together with Mike Pratley for Phil Carter at Carter Wong Design Consultancy. It was huge: trying to find a worldwide acceptable look, bringing so many different logos with so many different styles together into one family.

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The other job I enjoyed a lot was doing the lettering for Cafe du Phare here in Bruges. When the place was sold, the new owner discovered some original lettering dating from the twenties, hidden underneath layers of paint. Having to work from a small photograph, I had to redraw the original letters and paint them directly onto the wall. It was nerve-wrecking and challenging, but when I got down from the scaffolding I felt like I had pushed my (lettering) boundaries again.

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Would you share the story behind the European Lettering Institute? What inspired you to create this school, and how many students have benefited from the programs? What is on the horizon for 2019?

I was lucky to study at the Scriptorium de Toulouse in France, with Bernard Arin as my teacher. It was put together so well, between the program, the way of teaching, the small scale of the school, the individual freedom, the one-on-one instruction and the direct relationship with the actual job market. While there, I already had the dream of one day running a place like it. I knew I had to gain a job and some life experience before I could even envisage setting up such an enormous project. However, the time was right in 2009: students here in Bruges had been asking me to develop a long-term educational program and their hunger for more knowledge was the reason why I decided to go for it. As the numbers of students grew in the first five years, I knew I couldn’t keep running this organization all by myself. I started to look for partners and in 2014, we changed the name and structure of the school into the European Lettering Institute. We now have my colleague fellow calligrapher Carry Wouters who helps me organize everything. We started with seven Flemish students ten years ago, and today we have twenty students covering eight nationalities from all over the world. We have now reached our maximum number of students if we want to guarantee our level of quality teaching. We try working with other national and international professional lettering artists as well so students can benefit form different working methods: it helps them broaden their minds and develop their skills in different ways. The big advantage is the daily exchange between the students and staff, and between students. The energy is rich and challenging and demands are high on both sides. This year (we are halfway through already) we are participating in IAW Brussels 2019, an exchange between Western and Eastern calligraphers, with workshops, lectures and exhibitions in Brussels. In April, students will exhibit their work done in the creative class in an exchange project with the city of Bruges. And we will of course be preparing our annual summer workshop with Andrew Whittle, letter carver from the UK and myself. We always finish the academic year with this four day event.

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You will be teaching a five-day course at Rendez-vous entitled “Monoprint with Saul Bass Letterforms”. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

I love to work on a one-on-one basis, just as I was taught. I always want to get the most out of every student, regardless of their level. I like to push people and as I often say, it is great for me to know what you’re good at, but I am even more interested in finding out what you don’t know yet. That’s where I might be able to make a difference. I taught the Saul Bass class for the first time last year in Belgium during our annual summer school. I always try to come up with something different, something I am interested in discovering as well. I had been doing some research on Bass’s work and thought it might be fun to use his lettering as a source of inspiration to make these monoprints. What I am hoping to achieve is that people learn to work in a very spontaneous way, see things differently, try new ways of working and of course spend a wonderful five days doing what they love doing. I also would like to show them how to look for inspiration by analyzing other people’s work, not necessarily other calligraphers, but just artists in general. It has always helped me to broaden my mind and my outlook on calligraphy and lettering.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in Belgium? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

Living in an environment with many colleagues is always exciting and challenging. You are forced to look for new things and stretch your imagination. The buzz keeps the creative vibes very much alive!

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

When I was a kid, I used to play a lot of sports: basketball, squash, skiing and I swam a lot. I was convinced that one day, I would live in a house with a huge pool, so I would never have to leave the environment I loved so much. As time went on, life took over and lettering filled up my time. However, I was able to pass the “swimming vibe” on to my son, who then told me it was time to pick up swimming again. As he loved biking and running, he signed up with a triathlon club, and convinced me to sign up as well. So here we are: I am having the time of my life, going to training sessions with my son, swimming indoors and outdoors when we can, and we try every weekend to go for a ­­bike training as well. I just love it!

Lieve Cornil

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