Wobbly, bubbly and impressively experimental, the portfolio of Brussels-based graphic designer Marielle Nils is filled with innovative text and typographic manipulation. She toys with scale and works freely, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved through the readability of a word. “The alphabet is a playground for me,” she says. “I experiment at the limit of legibility, observing sensations, tones and emotions.”
Having grown up in a small village in the south-west of France, Marielle began pursuing graphic design while studying in Creuse. This was followed by a two-year stint at the art school Ensba Lyon, a year-long internship at Speculoos in Brussels, plus a BA degree at Ensad Nancy in June 2021. The recent graduate now works freelance in the Belgian capital, during which time she gets her head down on the experimental landscape of typography and lettering. “What interests me in this process is the extent to which I can link myself to other visions, to give birth to forms,” she says. “I like to see forms that grow and develop at the crossroads of several views. The question of context is also essential for me. I want the form that I help to create to be part of a space, a group of people and a given time. The form needs to be part of life to properly exist.”
Putting thought into practice, Marielle runs us through a signifiant project of hers: Saturday Type Fever, an event that she organised in 2019 at the HfG in Karlsruhe, Germany, which featured a typographic marathon run by NoFoundry, a foundry run by a group of students from the school. The event was inspired by the HfG building which was used an an ammunition storage facility during the Second World War. Alongside her companions Aurane Loury, Luca Reverdit and Piero Belderbos, Marielle turned her attention to this history to inform and steer a typeface the group designed together – named Monsterz. It’s been used in an upcoming book designed by Émilie Guesse and Michael Bourguer on behalf of Ensad Nancy for this year’s Biennale Exemplaires in Toulouse.
“What guided our forms was the question: What forms would remain in the ruins of a new world war and how could they be used to create a typeface?” In response to this question posed by the team, Marielle explains how the process kicked off with hand-drawn shapes, “which then circulated among us to be embellished, amputated, augmented by each of us.” The result is a set of 26 letters that explicitly hark back to the influence of monsters – it’s gothic, creepy, drippy, spiky and animalistic.
This project and the “almost digestive process of drawing our desires and graphic personalities” inspires the work that Marielle makes today. In fact, much of her practice these days is driven by the idea of designing a typeface that is made as a collective of multiple people. Most recently, she’s been working on a project named Un Pique-Nique avec Francis – a picnic tablecloth featuring printed poems by Francis Ponge. “The verses wander on the fabric around which we find ourselves,” she says, while the titles are “frivolous and fluffy”. The typeface used reminds Marielle of wine stains, or the trail that an ant leaves or the shadows left by the leaves of a tree. Just like with Monsters, for this one, she also wanted to create different characters for the letters. “The challenge is to develop a system of ligatures that retains the spirit and energy of the original design and its movement,” she says. The font is still in progress but will be available as an open-source font on Velvetyne foundry soon.
In other news, Marielle also worked on the publication Hangar 606 alongside three friends: Hippolyte Dubois, Thierry Hutchinson and Joshua Rattray. Designed in response to an initiative taking place in La Souterraine in Creuse, they were invited to “propose cultural objects in this region” – 70 participants and 200 visitors were welcomed to the space. “The political part of this project is very important to me,” she adds. The journal therefore contains imagery of the event plus texts by participants, as well as “colour and mischief”; it’s incredibly bold and playful. The typeface, too, has been designed by the team and was devised from pallets, “which was the raw material for the project, the location being a former pallet wood furniture factory”.
She also released The Realm, a monochromatic and deeply graphic artwork inspired by the soul song originally released in 1983 and sampled on many occasions by DJS, from techno to house. “Its lyrics were popularised as one of the anthems of electronic music,” says Marielle. As such, the project has been formed into a comic strip, with the lyrics “mind, body and soul” grouped to form different narratives. “As the story progresses, the relationship between the square evolves, they intermingle, the planes blend together until the background of the square is no longer completely distinguishable.”
Even if she’s only just started her professional career, Marielle’s work to date is refined beyond her years. But most of all, she wants her designs to be felt. “I want to move, touch and surprise,” she says – and she’s certainly achieving that goal.
Hangar 6ó6 retrospective journal, designed by Aurane Loury and Marielle Nils (Copyright © Marielle Nils and Aurane Loury, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.