Karl Nawrot creates type, illustrates, and draws abstract graphic compositions. What makes the French designer stand out from others in the trade though, is his overarching architectural sensibility. Nawrot uses techniques usually associated with the architectural process to create letterforms drawn using various media. Whether pencil, foam board, or plastic, his creations are the typographic equivalent of an architectural model.
Currently living in Lyon, France, the designer has taught drawing at the prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academie, and spent three years lecturing on drawing and typography at the University of Seoul. In 2015, he won first prize at the International Poster and Graphic Design festival of Chaumount, and his work—which is difficult to pin down as being any one particular discipline—has been exhibited at numerous galleries around the world.
The act of creating is key to what Nawrot produces, and his exhibitions continually emphasise process over outcome. “I don’t really work conceptually but I follow an organic way of working instead,” he explains. “That often means I need to build a physical narrative in order to understand what I’m looking for. It’s important for me that the final product is linked to a story, a fiction.”
I’ve heard him say that he’s interested in design that is “stuck between the past and future.” What’s important when you look at his work is to realize you’re engaging with something that has the potential to become. While Nawrot rejects using the word “tool” for what he designs, I still consider many of his pieces to be tools: they’re tools for experimenting with new ways of typographic composition, for innovating wildly within a field that has little room for dramatic experimentation.
In 2013, Nawrot’s Ghost(s) Writer was exhibited at the International Typography Biennale in Seoul; the mysterious sculpture creates abstract shapes that echo the alphabet. “I started to build modules in 2007,” Nawrot explains.“They were related to the idea of three-dimensional grids. Ghost(s) Writer was not specifically designed to make letters, its function is left to the user who can use it as a typewriter, a drawing machine, or even a sculpture.”
Instead of “tool”, Nawrot prefers to call the various mechanisms that he creates for composition, “objects haunted by their own production.”
Nawrot’s interest in creating these objects led to a fascination with stencils in 2008. “The idea behind the stencil cards was to play with and against the idea of a modular font—I wanted to have a set of letters built with the same family of forms, that weren’t following any construction rules—which is obviously opposite to the idea of a modular font.”
One of Nawrot’s most architecturally-minded typefaces was for the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in 2012, where he also created various 3D models to develop fonts. His family of four typefaces were based on four different Bauhaus professors—Josa for Josef Albers, Breu for Marcel Breuer, Mona for Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Pauk for Paul Klee.
“Breu was inspired by Breuer’s Brutalist architecture,” says Nawrot, who drew on Breuer’s abandoned building, The Parador Ariston, for the design. “After seeing the inside space, I felt that I wasn’t looking at rooms anymore but rather caves. Before drawing the font, I created two plaster models of Breuer’s construction, which interpreted his architecture as both a nest and cave. At the end, the font was an illustration of this idea.”