What comes to mind when you hear the word calligraphy? Perhaps the over-the-top, loopy cursive drawn and languidly formed on yellowed scrolls of yesteryear (large feather quill mandatory, obviously). Or maybe, in a more contemporary sense, on beautiful stationery or invitations that signify a truly special occasion is near.
It’s no wonder, then, that when I first came upon Sam Teich’s calligraphy on leaves (leaves!), clothing, and even reimagined in neon lights, I was caught off guard. This isn’t the calligraphy you’re probably familiar with. But it’s her playful sense of pushing notions, while still respecting tradition, that has captured the attention of casual observers and big consumer brands, forcing us all to rethink what the craft is about.
Read on for my interview with Sam to find out how she honed her modern sensibility, how she handles the inspiring-yet-demanding social media world, as well as some unexpected ways you can incorporate calligraphic elements in your own home.
HANA ASBRINK: Hi, Sam! Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you fell into calligraphy.
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SAM TEICH: I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and went to NYU for photography and graphic design. I didn’t realize it at the time, but lettering and writing was always my “thing.” I remember an elementary school teacher telling me I’d be the next person to decipher an ancient language. I taught myself cursive, loved gel pens. I took a traditional calligraphy class when I was about 10 (I still have my practice pages!). After college, I worked at a number of editorial publications, on the digital side and as a photo editor and photographer. I was spending so much time at a giant computer screen that I picked up the analog hobby again, in the more modern style. It's been my full-time job for two years now.
HA: What kind of parallels can you draw between photography and calligraphy?
ST: Composition and creativity play a big role in both photography and calligraphy, and in all aspects of design! Calligraphy encompasses more than just the actual writing of pretty-looking words. Some aspects―focus/emphasis, layout, color composition―translate from one medium to the other.
HA: Tell us a bit about those aha moments where you think, This would look great on a palm leaf!
ST: You would think I might’ve been the kid drawing on walls and floors with crayons, but that’s not the case. With basically everything I look at now though, I’m like, “Can I write on that?!”
HA: What’s an easy way for people to get into this hobby?
ST: I highly recommend in-person classes! That’s the reason I started teaching; I wanted to give people an easy way to trying something new. There was YouTube and multi-weeklong, major-dollars intensive courses, but not much in between. Skillshare is an amazing resource now, and Brit + Co has great online classes. Also, books! I recommend Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe and Nib + Ink by Chiara Perano. But really, if you can take an in-person workshop, do it: A tiny twist of your hand in one direction can make a world of difference, and it’s hard to get that to translate over video.
HA: How do you choose your instruments: modern pens versus traditional quills?
ST: To answer a very common question: No, I don’t write with a giant feather quill! For modern calligraphy, tools are basically the same for all artists. I use an oblique pen (some prefer a straight holder instead) and a pointed nib. There are hundreds of different nibs available―I have a few favorites, typically the firmer ones, but figuring out which is best for a certain material requires some trial and error. I also have multiple drawers full of paint pens, brushes, and inks, all of which have different applications.
HA: What are the best (and most challenging) parts of teaching calligraphy to others? Can you spot those with a natural flair?
ST: The most challenging part is getting people past the “I’m not artsy” or “My handwriting is awful” mentality. I have yet to teach a student (in multiple thousands!) who has struggled so badly that they’ve given up in frustration. I think one really difficult part is getting students to slow down and recognize that this is a first attempt, and they’re not going to be perfect right away. And this applies to more than just calligraphy class!
It is extremely rewarding to be able to share something I love doing with others, and watch people open up and be receptive to learning and trying new things. Even if it’s not something you’re going to continue doing, it’s such a good practice to challenge yourself and see what sticks and what doesn’t.
HA: What are some easy and unusual ways to use calligraphy to beautify your home?
ST: I love a good kitchen or dining room chalkboard! You can use it for a grocery lists, to-do lists, dinner menus. Or writing menu cards for a casual dinner at home is a special way to elevate an evening.
It is extremely rewarding to be able to share something I love doing with others, and watch people open up and be receptive to learning and trying new things.
HA: What is the most surprising thing you've learned as a calligrapher so far?
ST: I don’t know about the most surprising thing I’ve learned, but one of the most surprising comments I hear fairly frequently is, “But you didn’t do all that by hand, did you?”
HA: How would you describe your aesthetic?
ST: I think it’s fairly easy to tell from a quick look at my work that I’m a big fan of black and white. I’m drawn to clean, simple compositions. I love the contrast between delicate calligraphy and bold graphics. I also hope that a bit of my strong, sassy, confident New Yorker edge translates into my work. I don’t love anything over-flourished―I’d much rather splatter ink all over it!
HA: Where do you draw (ha!) your inspiration from?
ST: I know it sounds cheesy, but really the city itself: architecture and light. My least productive days are when it’s rainy and gross. Something about watching light hit buildings in a certain way sparks my creativity.
I love seeing what artists around the world are doing on Instagram, but I try not to look at it with an eye for inspiration. There are so many people out there sharing beautiful work, and it’s fascinating to see, but it’s a slippery slope into a game of comparison.
HA: Who are some of your favorite fellow artists and home & design brands?
ST: It is so hard to pick a favorite! I recently had a neon sign of my writing unveiled at the New York City facial shop Heyday, and it was so cool to be able to be there the first time they turned it on. I’ve written on lots of unusual surfaces, including plant leaves (60+ of them for Sweetgreen!) and a mirror that was as tall as I am.
HA: How have technology and social media impacted your career?
ST: I started doing calligraphy on the side to get away from all of the technology at my desk job; it’s exhausting being at a computer screen. So the time I spend at the computer now is definitely my least favorite! (But I did just get an iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, so that may change….).
There is a real reason social media managers have jobs. Instagram is so powerful. A lot of clients will first see my work there, and you can identify connections the same way you can on LinkedIn. It’s also great for me to be able to keep tabs on my work: Former students will show me projects, or I’ll be able to spot photos of custom pieces I’ve done at events, even months later. Finding a balance between curating and oversharing is challenging―it’s obviously a huge business tool for me, and I will post behind-the-scenes of projects and process photos, but some days I just post whatever my crazy dog is up to because it’s what I feel like sharing! I try to be very honest. This job isn’t just about beautifully lit photos and perfectly styled desks, but people don’t come to my Instagram feed to see me poring over accounting software.
HA: How do you stay focused, dedicated, and inspired?
ST: I’ve always been very driven—even when I was little, I was very goal-oriented—so I don’t typically have issues staying focused. That said, I’m not sitting and plugging away at a project for eight hours on end. I am very good about taking breaks―sometimes just a dog walk is enough to clear my head and get back into work mode, and I also exercise a lot. I make a point to have those dedicated times when I’m not checking my e-mail, or making endless to-do lists for the dozens of projects I always have going at once, because it makes the time I am sitting at my desk much more efficient.
HA: Any tips for those trying to pursue their dreams on the side?
ST: The work should come first. If you’re thinking, I want to start a side hustle or I want to be an entrepreneur, you probably haven’t found your “thing” yet. It’s only going to be sustainable if it’s something you love. I won’t use the word passion, because I think there’s so much pressure these days to find one or have one, and you don’t really have to identify it as such. You can like a lot of things, and that’s okay! Definitely learn as much as you can, and don’t think you have to know all the answers right away.
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