French typographer Pierre di Sciullo likes to woe with big, bold letters – preferably created in 3D and incorporated into the very architecture itself. Natasha Edwards learns more about some of his latest grand schemes

For someone who works with text, Pierre di Sciullo thinks big. While he continues to design typefaces, book jackets and exhibitions, the past year has seen the French graphic artist design a facade for the Musée Champollion, a four-storey-high sheet of glass and copper inscribed with 1000 characters from different alphabet systems; signage for the new Nice tramway, a three-dimensional ‘T’ logo that appears hollow from face on, and reads as a solid from the side; and a poster-sticking action for Paris’s Nuit Blanche arts all-nighter. Here, text – far from being intimate, abstract and two-dimensional – becomes something physical and sculptural. Yet along with this new public presence, there is still something militant about di Sciullo’s work, implying a social activism (he refuses to work in advertising or for luxury goods) from a designer who emerged from the 1980s graphic underground.

After dropping out of art school after only a few weeks, di Sciullo discovered graphic design by way of strip cartoons after realising that he was more interested in graphic experimentation than narrative. The move into typography came through the ‘gravezine’ movement – a genre of fanzine created by graphic artists – when he created his publication Qui? Résiste (also the name of his website). ‘The gravezine milieu was very diverse,’ says di Sciullo. ‘What it had in common was a desire for a confrontation between text and images. My desire was to develop the text side; most of the gravezines were more centred on the visual aspect.’

A sort of laboratory for his ideas – he has produced just 11 issues in 24 years – the turning point came with No 8, consisting almost entirely of typefaces he had designed in an exploration of language, legibility and the unreadable (along with trying to simplify writing, at times he also likes to complicate it). Winning the Charles Nypels Prize in the Netherlands in 1995 brought new visibility in France and abroad, and whereas once he had had to hide his work on Qui? Résiste, people now began commissioning him because of it.

The move into three dimensions came from a desire to take letters out into the street. ‘I didn’t want to be seen as an old man with a long white beard, still producing his 500th issue of Qui? Résiste. I also wanted to work in space,’ he says. An initial experience of architecture came with the logo for the Centre National de la Danse in the Paris suburb of Pantin. Rather than using illuminated boxes, di Sciullo cut out sheet metal, playing with shadows and volumes. Inside, he adapted his Constructivist-inspired Minimum font to create letters that, appropriate for the centre’s purpose, dance in space.

In parallel, he has continued to invent typefaces/ Aligourane and Amanar are two fonts created for the Touareg nomads of the Sahara, that di Sciullo has made freely downloadable on the Internet so that this ancient written language has access to new media. And there is Kouije, a typeface that takes into account the way French is spelled and spoken, with a system of ligatures, varying heights and strokes – thin for silent letters, tall for stress – which he is using for new signage and a logo for the Forum des Images, a film archive in Paris, as a way of acknowledging that sounds and words are linked in cinema.

The project where di Sciullo’s preoccupations converge on a monumental scale is the Musée Champollion in Figeac, birthplace of the Egyptologist who first decrypted hieroglyphics. Including work by architect Moatti & Rivière and scenographer Pascal Payeur, di Sciullo’s Moucharabiya Polyglot is a display of 1000 symbols, collected from hieroglyphs, Chinese, Arabic, Dogon, Hebrew and runes to modern typefaces. These are cut into a gleaming copper sheet, visible through openings in the medieval stone facade, which casts reflections into the museum. ‘The pictographic are side-by-side with the alphabetic, the enigmatic and the magic, the sacred and the profane. Their conjunction forms a sign of the passion for writing that expresses the role of the museum,’ he says.

Also underway is a crèche, infant and junior school complex at Issy-les-Moulineaux where word games and jokes make letters part of the environment for children learning to read. And next month sees him return to strip cartoons with his participation in the collective film Peur du Noir, already screened at Rome Film Festival, and to be released in France in February, where typography’s black and white becomes an abstract graphic exploration of fear of the dark.

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