Lieve Cornil has worked as a lettering artist for 25 years. Since 2010, under the name Studio XII, she has been running three- and four-year full-time courses in Lettering Arts from her school in Bruges. Cornil effectively inherited the concept for a lettering workshop programme that was taught to her whilst a student at Bernard Arin’s Scriptorium of Toulouse, which closed in 2005 after some 38 years. With Arin’s blessing, Cornil has carried on the tradition of teaching lettering and graphic design to an enthusiastic coterie of like-minded creatives eager to study calligraphy, letter-carving, graphic and type design.
Having graduated from the Scriptorium in 1994, Cornil moved to London in 1995 and worked as a freelance lettering artist, but since 2002 she has been based in the Belgian city, an ideal location for immersing oneself in the culture of letterforms and calligraphic art. The school itself is about to move from its base in a monastery (before that it began life in Cornil’s studio in an old florist’s) to new premises on the other side of the city.
Cornil relocated to Bruges, where her parents live, having travelled extensively – but there are few places better suited to setting up a lettering school. “Since there are so many professional calligraphers and lettercarvers here, it made sense to stay and set up a professional training course,” Cornil says. “I’ve found it to be much more interesting to live in a place where there’s a lot happening already than to be a pioneer and start ploughing the field. Lettering artists such as Brody Neuenschwander, Yves Leterme and the Boudens family, formal calligraphy and lettercarving, made it possible for me to feed off a lettering culture that already existed.”
Cornil’s intention was to set up a professional context for the lettering arts, she says, in order to show people that, with the right training, it is possible to make a living as a lettering artist. “When there are many professionals at work in a town, it will generate new work,” she says. “We create the market, so to speak. Bruges is also good for tourism; many visitors are happy to visit the studio because it is located in a beautiful place.”
The concept behind Arin’s Scriptorium was to create a small, professional workshop environment where people would get the chance to learn about graphic design and its commercial applications by putting the letterform – be it written or drawn – at the very centre of the study. “Nowhere else spends so much time on lettering – in both a historical and contemporary sense,” says Cornil of the school’s curriculum. “People have the chance to discover the evolution of script through exercises, not only through looking at manuscripts.”
Cornil sees an understanding of the historical context of lettering as a springboard for moving forward – so alongside the tablets of stone, which are arranged for carving around the studio, Adobe’s suite of design programmes are all now part of the course as well. And Cornil readily admits that it’s an intense experience which takes considerable commitment.
“If my aim was to train people to be fully skilled, I’d need ten years to get them there. I give them the basics and then they can decide which route to take.”
“I’m looking for students who really want this, who want to learn about letterforms, be they drawn, written, digitised, printed or carved,” she says. “I want them to have an understanding of the designer’s life – when we get jobs in, I’m always looking for students to take part in putting quotes together, dealing with clients. The fact that I keep the studio alive as a design studio can be exciting for the students.” Cornil also offers designers, who wish to specialise in a particular aspect of lettering, the option to study on a one-year course.
These skills take years to perfect, and many of the techniques that Cornil teaches are no doubt difficult to master. “Calligraphy, lettercarving, hand-drawn lettering – it all takes years of practice to get good at,” she says. “If my aim was to train people to be fully skilled, I’d need ten years to get them there; there’s no point in that. What I do is give them all the tools: the history of lettering, how to analyse manuscripts, drawing skills, how layouts really work, colour studies, lettercarving. They get the basics and then they can decide which route they would like to take.”
As a privately run institution the school is not tied to the state education system, but students are subject to a midterm evaluation. “When I asked Bernard if I should apply for recognition, he said: beware, if this becomes a government thing they might get involved in the teaching programme – there never is a professional lettering artist on these decision boards. And I think he’s right; I chose to go private, but would love it for people to see the training students are getting here; that their professional way of working and their portfolio is enough to take them on.”
This is, Cornil says, essentially how the Scriptorium worked. “When you went to see an agency in France and said you graduated from the Scriptorium, it meant something. This is what I’m aiming for. However, it will take a few graduate students to show other professionals what they
But Cornil’s school is certainly gaining recognition, not least from the growing list of artists and designers she has invited to hold workshops, which also form an important part of the school calendar. “By showing students there are other ways to work, I give them a chance to discover who they are and how they want to design and hopefully to get much better than all of their teachers together,” she says. “We live in a small world; so let’s get international. In the summer workshop, for example, we have an English lettercarver and a Norwegian lettersculptor working together, teaching students, sharing thoughts, disagreeing on design philosophies. Isn’t this the ideal world for any designer to be trained in?”
Phil Carter, creative director of design studio Carter Wong, held a workshop last year, setting a brief for the students to design a logo and ‘trail’ graphics for a walk through the city, based on a particular theme. “The last thing I wanted (and the students agreed) was a typical historic or canal tour, of which there are already many,” says Carter. “Therefore it was very gratifying to see the diverse nature of the subjects they chose, and the opportunities it then gave them. I had everything from a ‘typography in the environment’ scheme using 3D letters of Bruges itself as street furniture, literally spelling out the trail; to a scheme signposting the places of interest to children by way of a lifesize cut-out dog sign leading you through the streets. Another paired-up team took the idea of a trail for disillusioned teens on a weekend break with their parents. So the sites of interest included skateshops and the only wall of graffiti art in Bruges, called ‘the tunnel’.”
For Cornil, an appreciation of the way type and image work together is a fundamental aspect of the course. “Most art degrees here focus on the image and all the exciting technologies that go with it,” she says. “Unfortunately, this is at the expense of understanding the relationship between type and image. Rather than helping graphic designers with their concept, we look at how to choose their letterforms, manipulate them, look at legibility, the importance of visual language throughout the letterforms.”
Studio XII offers a unique experience and its personal approach is key. This encourages dialogue with the students and means that, as part of an active studio, they can meet and establish relationships with design professionals. “Working together, learning from each other,” says Cornil.
“I hope the students go away with the feeling they have learnt all they need to get out there in the real professional world, that they’re ready to integrate in a team, that they know about the financial side of things and how to respond to a brief and present it correctly to the client. I’m hoping the awareness of lettering will increase, that it will remain a part of the graphic design industry and become more recognised as a sound and exciting profession,” she adds. “Lettering is sometimes not that popular, but since we are still using the alphabet, using these 26 signs, we need to spend time teaching their complexities and wonderful shapes.”
Studio XII offers a three or four-year course in graphic and lettering design and can host up to 20 students. Each year, there are three terms of ten weeks; students spend 18 hours per week in the studio and work on course assignments during the rest of the week. Courses run from September till June. For more details on the courses and workshops available at Studio XII, visit studioxii.com; Lieve Cornil’s website is lievecornil.com
More type-based workshops
London Centre for Book Arts. The LCBA offers a fine array of book arts-related resources, classes and workshops. Participants can focus on all manner of techniques from papermaking and binding, to foilblocking and letterpress work at the large studio space near Hackney Wick in London.
The Typography Workshop. Alan Kitching’s Concise Letterpress Typography Workshop is a two-day course on typographic fundamentals. Attendees explore letterpress and typesetting and work on a brief particular to the Kitching workshop: to visually interpret a word from his 1963 edition of Rudolph Hostettler’s The Printer’s Terms.