A Conversation with Norwegian Calligrapher Christopher Haanes

As temperatures plummet well below freezing this week in Québec, it seems appropriate that our next faculty feature is of a calligrapher who is also no stranger to the cold. Based in Oslo, Christopher Haanes is a calligrapher, typographer and book designer. He teaches internationally and has authored five books, including a handbook on calligraphy in Norwegian (at the suggestion of none other than Hermann Zapf). He is also the scribe behind the recent Nobel Peace Prize certificates, honouring laureats such as Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad Basee Taha. In the interview below, Christopher shares insight into the certificate design process and reflections on his personal journey in the lettering arts.

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You have written about “those moments which create ripples”, such as when your father gave you a broad edged pen the age of nine. What was it about calligraphy that fascinated you from a young age?

I have wondered about that many times, and fail to come up with a convincing answer. What comes to mind is that I got a ‘kick out of it’, but that doesn’t really explain much. Why are we drawn to certain things and not others? What makes one person pick up a drum, and another a saxophone? Perhaps it was a way of connecting with my father, who was Irish, and whom I grew up without? Freudian explanations aside, I enjoy not knowing what it is about calligraphy that has made me stick to it as a profession for almost thirty years. It certainly hasn’t been the money, because if so I have made a ridiculous choice.

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

As there were no teachers to learn from and no workshops taking place in Norway, I first started copying some exemplars that my father gave me. In hindsight they were pretty poor versions of a minuscule book hand and an italic, but the sheets were charmingly made nonetheless. Edward Johnston’s book Writing & Illuminating & Lettering was an early influence, as well as Donald Jackson’s book The Story of Writing. But I don’t believe we ever ‘learn a hand’, but rather that we keep returning to various ‘hands’ to learn new thing about them, and to find new ways of reinventing them. I could simplify my answer and say that the basic hands fascinate me; the Roman capitals, italic and a minuscule book hand (‘foundational’ or other), plus gothic writing. It is true from a pedagogical point of view, but not true when I look back at the work I’ve made. It ranges from ‘standard hands’ to all sorts of variations and hybrid letterforms. I enjoy moving from strict, formal and disciplined shapes to more experimental shapes, then back again. It is like a pendulum moving.

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

Ann Camp, without question, has made the most impact on me. I am grateful for my training at Roehampton Institute, and I regret that there are so few places that serious students can study over time. I don’t think that there is any place that can compare itself to those courses in the world of today. Tom Perkins taught me drawn letters, and opened up the door to typographic letterforms. Now when it comes to influences there are of course numerous calligraphers that I have learnt from, just by looking at their work. Hermann Zapf is the one that I have kept coming back to for inspiration. I have been looking at Friedrich Poppl, Rudo Spemann and Werner Schneider, as well as modern scribes like Julian Waters, John Stevens and Carl Rohrs. Georgia Deaver must be mentioned.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space, especially between calligraphy, book design and typography? What is your best time of day for work, and do you have any particular routines or rituals before starting?

I work in my living room. I rarely do anything before noon, and I’m a night owl. So my work space might seem messy. Before doing demanding work I often need to do the dishes. It clears my head. Some tai chi breathing exercises are also very helpful; we need to remind ourselves that our whole body should be attentive to what is happening when we write. Book design is done on my MacBook, using InDesign. I don’t digitize type myself, but I think I have drawn more letters than people know of. The one typeface I have made was drawn by me and digitized by Sumner Stone, for a Norwegian publisher. I love my Moleskine notebook and sitting in a café, by a window, spending time with a pencil and the blank pages.

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

Basically all I need is a quiet space, an adjustable drawing board or surface, Chinese stick ink, nibs and a pen holder, plus some good paper, and I’m good.

Image Title Christopher’s personal photos of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2018, before the certificates were signed and mounted in a binding, alongside a painting. He also created the initials for the Nobel medal boxes.

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You have created several certificates to honour Nobel Prize winners including the most recent Peace Prize laureates. I’d would love to hear more about the process, from the brief to your design and execution. How did you select which hands to use, for the certificates and the monograms? Was there anything about this project that made it particularly challenging?

First of all I decided to stick to the colours that had been used before. The previous 20 years the Nobel Peace Prize had been made by another calligrapher and were quite poorly executed in my view. So a lot of adjustments were made. They wanted the name, Alfred Nobel, to be the main element, and then the name of the prize winner. Other than that, I decided to keep the work formal. Every year it should look more or less the same. And every year it sits next to a piece of art that is made by a different Norwegian artist. There is no collaboration between the artist and myself. Making a formal piece like this is a bit nerve-wracking, because every little thing will show up. There is nowhere to hide. So I find myself spending a lot of time mixing my ink and gouache, finding and testing the nibs, generally fine tuning all I need before starting out.

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What is the calligraphy community like in Norway, from your personal perspective? What does the lettering arts community mean to you?

I have little or no contact with other calligraphers in Norway. The international calligraphy community itself is diverse, so I have chosen an eclectic approach. There is a lot of kitsch, and I try to avoid that. But social media, especially Facebook, has helped me keep in touch with calligraphers all over the world, and is a great place to see and to share work. In a sense I am grateful for the years of working more or less isolated in Oslo, as I have been forced to find my own ways of working, my own ‘takes’ on our letters.

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What was the genesis behind the creation of your class “Vitalize Your Hands”? What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in this five day course? How would you describe your style of teaching and the type of learning environment you like to create for your students?

I remember Donald Jackson saying “I am so sick of my hands sometimes”, and I could relate to that. My answer to myself was to try to reinvent them for myself, so that they didn’t become dead standardized auto response actions. Putting life into letters is of the essence. Rather than choosing a painterly approach, or forcing an avantgarde outlook, I decided to go deeper into the letterforms themselves. Into the strokes themselves. There is a great unexplored potential in that. I think students will learn different things from the workshop, depending on both what they know beforehand and the effort that they put into it. Being a skill building class I expect everyone’s level of skill to have become better. I hope to be able to adjust to each individual student’s need. I prefer a quiet class with no chatting, where students respect one another’s need to focus. I demonstrate a lot, and I’ve been told I have a weird sense of humour. I try to incorporate some tai chi into my classes, for relaxation and general body awareness. There will be movement exercises as well as formal practice.

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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?

In a sense my hobby is my profession, and vice versa. I come out of the punk and post punk generation, so I am partly coloured by that era. I guess I’m as full of paradox and ambivalence as anyone.

Christopher Haanes

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