A Conversation with Dutch Calligrapher Elmo van Slingerland

Hailing from the Netherlands, Elmo van Slingerland will be taking his students on a proverbial trip to Rome this summer! Elmo is a calligrapher and designer, with a body of work that ranges from traditional to gestural, so it’s no surprise that his five day Rendez-vous class will explore the formal and informal sides of Roman Capitals. His work is part of collections at the Museum of the Book (the Hague), the Berlin Calligraphy Collective and most recently, the Richard Harrison Collection at the San Francisco Public Library. Read on to learn how Elmo began his journey in the lettering arts and how calligraphy informed the creation of his typeface DTL Dorian!

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

I grew up in the city of Rotterdam, where I lived until I was thirty-one years old. I then moved to Gouda, where I still live. I do not come from a very creative family, except for my older brother who could draw reasonably well. I already loved drawing since my early childhood and soon knew that I wanted to become a "draftsman". In the end I went to the Graphic School in Rotterdam (nowadays it is called Grafisch Lyceum), to study as a paste-up artist. In the first year, calligraphy was part of the study. These were by far the best lessons for me!

A short time before I started at the Graphic School, I was already drawn by letter writing, because of a shop window in Rotterdam. There was a fountain pen displayed with a writing example, and I wanted to make such letters too! At that time I had no concept of calligraphy... and that something like that could be so decisive in your life. Eventually I saved money and bought the pen, took books with calligraphic examples from the library and started to trace these with transparent paper. Soon after, I went to the Rotterdam Graphic School and during this period, I also met Marion Andrews. She is a calligrapher and at that time, she and her husband Roger (bookbinder by profession) had a shop in Rotterdam for bookbinding and calligraphy materials. I bought nibs and paper there and always loved talking to her about calligraphy, which I gradually became more familiar with. She also gave an evening course in calligraphy where I was invited to participate. She also gave me the first calligraphy assignments (filling in certificates). Marion has been very important for my start in calligraphy, and of course Henk Verkamman, my calligraphy teacher at the Rotterdam Graphic School.

Marion founded the Flemish-Dutch calligraphy association Scriptores in 1985 together with Joke van den Brandt and Paul de Bruyne. The first workshop the association organized was in 1986, with Claude Mediavilla and Els Baekelandt in Beaune, France. I was invited to participate, and this workshop I see as a turning point for me and my real first step in the world of calligraphy. I will never forget that time. After that workshop, I got to know more people in the world of calligraphy and letter making, and I also started to take more workshops.

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

I immediately think of Claude Mediavilla, of course. He was the first with whom I took a serious calligraphy workshop and I was fascinated by his work, his knowledge, his way of looking.

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As a type designer, how does calligraphy influence and inform your work? Do you find that your experience in type design influences how you approach calligraphy?

For me, they certainly have a lot to do with one another. My first and only type design started as a study at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and was later taken into production by the DTL (Dutch Type Library). It is called DTL Dorian, and the design is unquestionably based on writing with the broad edged pen. My goal was to make a book letter that was easy to read in smaller texts, but also shows interesting details in large bodies of text. The character of the letter is certainly calligraphic.

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I am very form driven in my calligraphic letters and that was also in making type design. Attention to detail, curves, form quality (the lines/strokes, the inner spaces, the way straights go into curves, how strokes connect, etc) are important issues for me. These are elements that are essential to me in drawn and written letters and to which I pay a lot of attention.

I also see myself more as a graphic designer than as a calligrapher, as I have a great fascination for letters and signs (both written and drawn, and everything in between).

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular warm-up routines?

I work part-time as a graphic designer at Domani Report, an agency that specializes in annual reports. A few months a year I am working in The Hague, during the high season for annual reports. My work is making concepts, visualizing information with infographics and giving form to annual reports and related publications. A fantastic company on a beautiful location, with nice colleagues – they are like a family.

When I am not there, I work on my letters at home, nowadays also together with my wife. We are fortunate enough to have a studio at home.

I work best in the morning. I often need quite a bit of time to get into the rhythm, especially because I do not write every day. I need to warm up the muscles, so to speak.

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

I make the most use of the Speedball C nib, Hahnemühle printing paper and gouache or watercolour, but a simple pencil and a cup of coffee are also indispensable.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects?

I find it difficult to mention something. I have not done a lot of calligraphic assignments, but I was flattered when Museum Meermanno/Museum of the Book (The Hague) bought a piece for their collection.

Later, the Berlin Calligraphy Collection added some pieces to their collection (thanks to Werner Schneider), as well as the University Library (Department of Special Collections) in Amsterdam in 2017. In 2018, the Richard Harrison Collection in San Francisco commissioned some works.

I also have to mention Jan Broes. He is a collector of calligraphy and stone carved letters, and probably even more possessed by the letter than I am. He has regularly organized exhibitions in his own home, a beautiful medieval house in the center of Bruges, Belgium. My wife and I made almost all of the catalogues, which was a lot of work, but very rewarding.

I am also happy with my contribution to Dutch Alphabets, a portfolio compiled by Mathieu Lommen en Peter Verheul, with 47 very different broadsides of Dutch lettering artists, calligraphers and type designers.

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You will teach a five day class entitled “Roman Capitals – from Formal to Informal” at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in this five day experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

As I mentioned earlier, form quality and details are important for me. In this workshop I want to encourage students to focus on these aspects, and that it is not important whether you write formally or informally. My way of teaching is as positive and constructive as possible, and you will find me more at the desk of the student than in front of the class, explaining details. The use of the pen and manipulation of the pen is in my view very important at the student's table. I also want to share everything I know, and what I do not know. Moreover, I find it especially important that you enjoy what you do. Making letters can be so much fun, as you probably know already!

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in the Netherlands? What does the lettering arts community mean to you?

In the Netherlands, there are a few calligraphy organizations, of which the Flemish-Dutch association Scriptores is probably the largest. That is the only organization that I am a member of. I remain mainly in contact with the national and international lettering and calligraphy community via Facebook and Instagram. I find that these are interesting tools to maintain contacts and to see what is happening in the world of letters!

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies?

Besides the passion for making letters, I enjoy doing photography and listening to music. My big dream is to find more time to work on type design again – that was a long time ago. I also like traveling, as it is always very special to be able to teach and meet so many generous and kind people around the world!

Elmo van Slingerland

The Netherlands
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