This month we talk to Imogen Owen, a modern calligrapher, teacher and author, about the beautifully analogue world of hand-lettering.
Meditative, unique, elegant and beautiful are just a few of the words that can help to describe the resurgence of hand-crafting, and none more so than when considering the gentle and quiet art of calligraphy. ‘I think it’s all to do with the immediacy and homogenisation the digital age has brought,’ says hand-lettering artist and designer Imogen Owen. Her delicate script and hand-printed stationery has encouraged hundreds, if not thousands, of paper-lovers to pick up pen and ink and try their hand at lettering and revive the lost art of letter-writing. ‘Let’s face it, we never comment when we receive a nice email!’ laughs Imogen. ‘But we treasure a special letter, written by hand just for us.’
This dedication to the hand-written word began at Camberwell College of Arts, where Imogen studied graphics. ‘They have a great Letterpress department there, and I became fascinated by the idea of owning my own huge press.’ Despite researching smaller table top presses, Imogen found her dream- a ‘hulking great 1940s vintage machine, that had to be delivered by three men.’ The three-phase electronic machine encouraged Imogen to work from home, and she honed her unique script and hand-printed wedding stationery to be exhibited at Top Drawer in 2013, which immediately led to work for Paperchase, amongst others. ‘I’m always looking at trends, particularly from the US, but I suppose my fluid style of design is quite different to the traditional calligraphy here in Britain,’ Imogen muses.
After teaching herself the Copperplate method of hand-lettering, Imogen set up an Instagram account, and within hours had received two requests to teach workshops. Luckily, alongside the business she was building, Imogen had been teaching at a university, so she partnered with stationery store Quill in London to offer her first Modern Calligraphy workshops. ‘It got to the stage where I was teaching full workshops- around 25 people per class- all weekend, every weekend, it has been totally bonkers!’ explains Imogen. One of Imogen’s most popular workshops has been The Art of Elegant Swearing at West Elm, or ‘Pottymouth Party’. ‘It’s fun to write “bollocks” in fancy writing!’ Imogen laughs. ‘It’s not offensive if it’s pretty…’ And this notion has extended to Imogen’s range of mugs, which feature her signature elegant script, neatly and prettily announcing all sorts of profanities.
Imogen’s teaching experience and exploration of her art are never more present than in her first book, Modern Calligraphy (Quadrille, April 2017). ‘I was first approached to write a book in 2014, but I look back on my work then and feel I’ve improved so much,’ admits Imogen. ‘The book had to be about simplicity, and ultimately something I would like to have bought when I was starting out.’ The book features brush lettering, calligraphy and other styles of hand-lettering such as chalk lettering, to offer everything for the beginner and experienced hand-lettering enthusiast. ‘There are lots of tips I’ve learnt from teaching beginners, and really help ease the kind of impatience we experience when learning something new,’ continues Imogen. ‘Coming from a design background, I’m keen to encourage people to explore their own style- and so in the book I’ve explored things like weight, placement of lines etc. and typography so that the beginner will be able to compose their own ideas.’
Imogen spends at least one day a week in London, but her studio is at her parent’s home in Leicestershire. With sculptors for parents, there is no shortage of huge studio space there and Imogen revels in the daily routine of a 6.30am swim and rambling dog walk before settling down to work. ‘I’ll usually answer emails in the studio, and then get the presses set up with my studio assistant and letterpress assistant,’ Imogen explains. ‘After that I’ll often make samples for a wedding client, then perhaps make up a wholesale order, write a magazine piece or prepare for a show.’ Imogen will be exhibiting at New York City’s National Stationery Show in May, and is also sourcing some unique Japanese equipment for the hand-lettering kits she sells on her website. ‘The appeal of my work, for me, is the ability to zone out, away from a screen, focussing on shapes and playing with form.’ With the soundtrack of a favourite audiobook and without the distraction of a digital screen, this could be a metaphor for all hand-crafted hobbies, and a satisfying one indeed.
Describe your work in three words: Fun, naughty and luxurious
What are your making rituals? Audiobook, hot drink, clean desk, sharpened pencil, new nib, I am pretty chaotic in lots of ways, but before starting any new project, I like to start with a clean slate, so desk tidied and clean, fresh sheet of paper, clean water, new nib etc, and a great story to get lost in for hours…
Tea or Coffee? Tea first thing & last thing, but coffee in the day and I’m a total arse about how I like both!
Mountains or Sea? Sea, I love to snorkel for hours and never get bored. Although to be honest, I just like to be outdoors as much as possible in any kind of environment (apart from caves, they freak me out)
Night Owl or Early Bird? Both, for action I’m a total early bird (work/exercise etc) but I’ll happily stay out and dance till dawn… and then probably get up a few hours later and start work.
I wish someone had told me… That your knowledge is just as valuable as your products are to your business, so think carefully about what you want to share. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, then trust your instincts on it.