Yannis Karlopoulos in his studio. Photo by Anastasia Voutyropoulou.

“ο καλύμνιος σφουγγαράς ψιθύρισε πως θα βουτήξει χωρίς να διστάζει”
“the Kalymnos sponge-diver whispered that he would dive without hesitation”

Yannis Karlopoulos is, among other things, an amateur poet. But this isn’t one of his lines. “I write this when I find a typewriter,” explains the influential Greek graphic designer, standing in his basement studio in the central Athens neighborhood of Petralona. The phrase is a pangram – a sentence featuring every letter of the alphabet used by designers to test out fonts – invented by Karlopoulos to check the letters on his vintage Olivettis, Olympias, and Bar-Lets; flea market finds that form a fraction of the archive collected in the designer’s basement studio. 

I’ve been visiting Karlopoulos and his colleagues for a few months. Each time I’m greeted with fresh coffee and pastries and each time I glimpse something on the walls, in the stacks, or on the tables that I missed the time before. Descending from street level, the first room is an assemblage of shops signs, early 2000s Macs, various bricks, and a vitrine full of supermarket product packaging. The back room features vintage soaps, each branded to reveal their origin within the Aegean archipelago, which sit above stacks of indie magazines and architecture catalogues, which are themselves placed above miniature stools. The spring sunlight filters through a Karagiozis—a shadow puppet depicting a folkloric character – and an old flag that hangs in the window. If there was a word in Greek for wunderkammer, it would describe the Karlopoulos studio. Yet more than just an archive or a nice place to browse, this is a place of work and these assorted objects are tools for that work—everything from the soap, to the typewriters, to the Macs, to the pangram. 

Born in the outskirts of Thessaloniki in 1967, Karlopoulos’s childhood was characterized by a love of drawing and the old agricultural and construction tools collected by his father, who built fireplaces. “In my home there were not a lot of books. When I got my first books at my childhood primary school, it was a whole new world,” he says. During the early ’80s, he began taking free lessons in architectural drawing—a requirement to progress in his schooling—in the city center, an experience that would have a formative impact on his lifelong approach to work. “It was my first approach to the center of Thessaloniki; a suburban boy with my bicycle. It was like a preview of professional life. To be with five people, early in the morning on a Sunday in an empty city, doing something we love,” he told me. “I think after 40 years, I have never given up trying to create this circumstance—to be with other people making something that we love.”

This burgeoning passion took Karlopoulos to the then newly-founded Technological Educational Institute of Athens (today the University of West Attica) where he took on work hand-painting cinema posters and murals for Orthodox monasteries alongside his studies. “In that period, the job of a graphic designer was not so famous, the point of the job wasn’t understood,” he explains. “I just thought I was going to make letters with my hands, that’s it.”

“I realized that Greek fonts were designed by non-Greek designers.”

After graduating in 1989, Karlopoulos received a scholarship to study in Paris where he had two major revelations. First, he began experimenting with digital design and desktop publishing software as an early adopter of the Apple operating systems. Second, “I realized that Greek fonts were designed by non-Greek designers.” Over the subsequent 30 years, Karlopoulos has carved out a body of work that can be read as a perpetual exploration of graphic design work in the digital age and as a simultaneous study of Greek graphic identity within the contemporary world. 

The intersection of these interests is neatly summed up with Ποιματα (Poems) a 1997 book by Ugo Foscolo designed by Karlopoulos and laid out in Omonoia, a typeface the designer drew by hand. Nestled in the archive are his original drawings for Omonoia, complete with tracing paper, guidelines, and notes. It’s a delicate script font, classic yet modern. In his studio, Karlopoulos points out the subtle difference between the Greek alfa (α) and the Latin a. The typeface’s name—Omonoia—refers to a prominent and historic square at the center of Athens, itself a reference to concord or agreement. “It means when you’re in peace,” he explains. “Where the west and the east come together, the design of the letters inside them are in peace. They find a point of balance between opposing things.”

Omonoia is one of the fonts that would later be digitized for general use by Greek designers via fonts.gr, the type library co-founded by Karlopoulos with Panayiotis Haratzopoulos in 1995 with the aim to “enrich and renew” Greek typography in the digital age. While clearly a successful business venture, fonts.gr is a vital piece of infrastructure in the evolution of Greek graphic design. As Karlopoulos puts it, “A graphic designer with no type is not a graphic designer. If you are an artist you have to create your tools. So what is your tool? A library, a type library.” The library continues to operate, providing Greek editions of classic Latin fonts such as Gill Sans or Mercury, alongside more locally familiar typefaces: Dromon, based on Athenian road signs or Salamis, recognizable for its use in real estate signage. 

The library is just one of a number of businesses co-founded by Karlopoulos which contribute to media cultures in contemporary Athens and beyond. Fosphotos, for example, is a photo agency for contemporary Greek photography established with Gerasimos Domenikos, Mari Zonoudaki, and Manolis Verigakis. Better known are widely-read publications such as Popaganda, a digital platform for culture and news in Greece, and Lifo, a printed lifestyle magazine that is distributed freely across Athens, both also co-founded and art directed by Karlopoulos. 

It’s this editorial design work for which Yannis Karlopoulos is best known and, considering the collections in the studio, is arguably the strongest of his many passions. Amongst the books and magazines in the stacks are 1975 studies of vernacular designs from the island of Paros and reprints of classic childrens’ alphabet books by the celebrated Athenian painter Kostas Grammatopoulos, as well as a stack of Lifo magazines that reaches my waist. 

Virginia Christak, Yannis Karlopoulos and Dimitris Mitropoulos. Photo by Anastasia Voutyropoulou.

Karlopoulos handles the books firmly and with precision, even a little roughly. He picks up a few at a time, scattering them across the table amidst our coffees to highlight the points of comparison between disparate editions. Copies of 01 magazine come out, a youth culture publication from the 1990s and one of Karlopoulos’ early projects using digital publishing techniques. 01 was modelled on The Face, with the same punk-meets-rave graphic design and editorial energy. (In one issue, a writer takes ecstasy and describes its effects for readers.) Closer to the mainstream, Karlopoulos also worked for newspapers Το Βήμα and Τα Νέα through the early 2000s, before setting up Karlopoulos & Associates in 2010. The associates form a small, loyal, and multi-generational team to Karlopoulos, an echo of his close-knit drawing classes in early 1980s Thessaloniki. They work with clients primarily in the Greek cultural sector and maintain the focus on print that Karlopoulos has sustained throughout his career. 

One recent project is Πρώτο Πλάνο (First Shot), the magazine of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, a newsprint publication that Karlopoulos shows me alongside a catalogue of Greek architecture from the 1960s. The front cover is text heavy, mixing pixelated letter-forms with web 2.0 fonts and serif Greek glyphs, a captivating blend of cultural and historic touchpoints. I expect him to compare this cover with the layout design of the mid-century architecture catalogue. Instead, he refers to architect Dimitris Pikionis and his pathway to the Acropolis, a masterpiece of mid-century landscape design constructed from meticulously collected stones and cement, organized in geometric patterns that simultaneously allude to local history, neoclassical churches and a modernist graphic sentiment. “I take my references from many fields of graphic design,” explains Karlopoulos. “I asked myself, if I was to make this path with type, how would I make it?” Like the pangram, the early Macs, and the type library, Pikionis’ path is yet another tool for Yannis Karlopoulos—and a Greek one at that.