Lord of the
letters
Philippe Apeloig’s original typography for Hermès’s collection of Slim watches.
Sketches for the exhibition poster for “Les Suisses de Paris,” currently at Zürich’s Museum für Gestaltung.
The Hermès scarf inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, created for the centenary of his birth.

Philippe Apeloig
sees himself as a tightrope walker, and you can nearly picture him, Y-shaped, way on high. 

He is a major figure in his field, trained by some of the best, moving from the Musée d’Orsay to multiple collaborative projects, including teaming up with Hermès for the Slim watch, the “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments” scarf, the poster for the house’s show jumping competition, Saut, along with numerous posters for the opera, theater and exhibitions, including his own, “Typorama,” organized in 2014 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. We meet in his studio on Rue La Fayette, in Paris. He is soberly dressed in sweater and gray corduroy slacks with ankle boots. Bare hands.

How do you go about creating a watch or a poster? Is it a full immersion or do you rather skim over the surface of reality?

Although you should probably do the opposite, I start from the complex and move toward simplicity. I work by paring down. I draw inspiration from the work of sculptors like Brancusi and Giacometti. The latter worked via a process of elimination. He did not layer on clay. It’s an approach that precludes anything superfluous or decorative. For the Hermès Slim watch, I had to convey the idea of lightness and finesse.

Your work is about paring down all the time; do certain aspects of your life compensate with a more complex dimension?

No. I like the baroque in architecture, and in writing, notably García Márquez, but I remain true to my tightrope walker technique: not too heavy, not too light. I can do without many things. I have learned as much by not seeing as by seeing, so as not to get tainted.

Are there certain elements you’re sorry to let go?

Hmm … it’s not always easy to make choices. I work in a back-and-forth process, with a single obsession: unity. Every number has an existence: the 6 and 9 are twins; the 2 doesn’t have anything to do with the 4; the 7 has its diagonal. I could make one number more beautiful than the others by adding a line, but then it would be separated from the others and break the harmony.

Aside from chocolate, how do you nourish your vision?

Oh! I love chocolate. It gives me energy. It’s a driving force. Plus, I am very urban. I like the chaos of the city, and all that is beautiful, rich and ugly. I read a lot and go to museums. Dance has influenced me a lot, its purity, movement and incorporation of all the arts, as in Cunningham’s work.

It seems as if your letters had studied at the Actors Studio.

I have always tried to understand how to create movement in something that is, in essence, immobile. Giving a sense of rhythm, motion, depth and perspective facinates me, personifying the French word SAUT (jump), for example, to create the show jumping poster. I avoid illustration, which I think is sometimes too noisy, too literal; I like to work the imagination. So I focused on the “A” of SAUT. We opened up the slanted lines to create movement, to respect and capture the effort of the horse and the rider.

Do you work with empty space?

Yes, like an architect who sculpts and fashions empty space. It is not absence, but rather the essence of the art of typography: playing with light and shadow. In a similar way, I like erasure and allusion; not giving everything away so that the eye has to complete what’s missing. You see this with Matisse. With Hitchcock. Their remarkable talent lay in suggestion, drawing you in.

Leaving aside militant graphic art, what kind of commitment to humanity is reflected in your work?

I’d have a hard time being persuasive in terms of political commitment; I would even be clumsy. To paraphrase Gide, you don’t make beautiful things with good intentions. But far from activism, we create a genuine connection with our partners every day, based on values, mutual respect and our differences. And we are expected to learn. I didn’t know anything about show jumping, and was only marginally interested in it. We therefore had to challenge ourselves, to make ourselves vulnerable and then move forward together.

Are there any letters you have trouble with?

Not really. The “k” is a bit of a challenge, albeit an appealing one, while the “o” and the “i,” which seem so simple, are actually tricky because there is so little material inside.

You are always forward-looking.What do you see?

Light.

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A man of his times