Particular Faces
Joseph Churchward's typeface design

Issue no5
okt / nov 2017
REMIX

Graphic designer David Bennewith has produced an amazing book about cult typeface designer Joseph Churchward (New Zealand). In this interview he tells about his 4-years research, which started at the Jan van Eyck Academy.

—Metropolis MHow did you get interested in the subject? Why Churchward?

—David BennewithBefore moving to Holland to do my masters in Typographic Design at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, I was working as a graphic designer in New Zealand for an agency called 'Inhouse Design'. In 2005, with the support of the agency, I was lucky enough to attend a design conference in Berlin. Being confronted with a flurry of design history (living & dead) I started to wonder of equivalent voices back home. I found out about Churchward through a friend and began to visit libraries to try to find examples of his work, which mostly existed in the now defunct New Zealand design council magazine 'Designscape'. Around this time, a little bit later, I moved to Arnhem – and the first assignment I was confronted with was about biography; we were asked to choose someone we admired and make a 16 page biography about them. My choice was obvious, but after finding out Churchward was still alive and seriously enthusiastic the assignment grew out of control/scope quite quickly .

—Metropolis MThere seems to be a tendency these days amidst designers and artists alike to look back to past practices as a form of inspiration, was this the case for you?

—David BennewithYes, and no, quite a hard question to answer retrospectively. To be honest I wasn't even sure what I was looking back for, or, at – even. I really walked into the project quite blind, and it certainly grew in scope beyond anything I ever imagined. What I encountered in this area was a lot of material that really challenged most of my pre-concieved thoughts about practice, and often I felt like giving up because of the complexities surrounding the material and it being connected to a living person.

—Metropolis MHow would you describe Mr Churchwards importance? What is good about his design?

—David BennewithChurchward is important in many ways: from studying how he learnt and applies his craft, to his contributions and actions that could be considered pioneering in terms of New Zealand type design. But, for me, it is his dedication to his practice that makes him exceptional. I believe he was literally born to design letters – it is the constant in a life full of (the usual & some exceptional) ups and downs – it's not often you meet, let alone get to work with, someone like that.

—Metropolis MMr Churchward did and still does do everything by hand, do you think more interesting design work can come from a closer attention to craft?

—David BennewithIf [by craft] you are talking about a skill involved in carrying out your work, yes. In terms of doing things by hand vs. machine, no. It is about how you engage with the materials you use.

—Metropolis MYou are both the editor and the producer of Churchward International Typefaces , can you tell us a bit about how you decided to approach the book in terms of content? How 'close' did you want to get to Mr Churchward?

—David BennewithWhat I tried to convey with the material, and the book as a whole, was a recounting of my personal engagement with the material itself. I guess this presents a kind of closeness. Joseph and I had a postal correspondence during the whole process, I also met him a number of times. He was so enthusiastic and generous that I would receive a new package in the post, full of photocopies, every two or three weeks. This amounted to a lot of material and it was an exercise in itself to edit it down. It was a very exciting and confusing way to get to know someone's work – as the material appeared very sporadic, in no order whatsoever; often duplicates of things would appear, like echo's. These packages had an energy to them that I thought would be interesting to try to describe in the book. Acting from the position of a designer I wanted to try to do this through the process – thinking about designing as a type of writing - the book is really connected to the process and circumstances of designing. So, for me, the 'design' of the book is really tied up in the production; conversations with the various printers of the various parts of the book. This process was helped immensely by Jo Frenken – production coordinator of the book at the Jan Van Eyck Academie. Jo spent a long time with me working out, approaching and visiting printers for the various parts of the book; for me he ended up being an uncredited author, actually. Regarding the printer as an expert in their field, more often than not they were involved in material decisions in relation to the content (paper stock, printing technique etc . . .) This also opened up the material further – giving the printer(s) a vested interest in the production. Many of the printers, who had been in the industry for a long time really responded to Churchward's work and it resulted in interesting conversations and stories that reflect back on the book itself. I wanted to try to show that the production of the material could also contribute to the story, the printed page not only transmitting in a physical sense but also a meta-physical one. Each section, and type of work presented in the book, refers back to Churchward's practice – the kind of work Joseph was engaged in doing – in some way. His type designing being the constant throughout his working life. By reducing arbitrary decisions that usually preside in the design process I hoped I could present an interesting view on the material. One other thing, in the years leading up to the final book I used and outlined Churchward types whenever I could in my own work. This really helped me make a connection with the material, through this process I felt I could understand him much better [as Churchward is quite an esoteric speaker when it comes to it]. In retrospect, this made quite a lot of sense. Throughout the book there are a series of 'typepages' I made that are a distillation of this connection. All of this work was additive to the process and a part of the research. Finally, the essays in the book bind the various material(s)/sections together. The authors were approached, and in one case offered, to reflect on Churchward's practice through areas of their own expertise. This contexturalises and reflects on the work in really interesting ways – and creates a larger scope and audience for the book. Throughout the project I became quite close to Churchward and regard him as a friend and mentor.

—Metropolis MWhy did you decide to make a book?

—David Bennewith Funnily enough this was one of the questions that completely stumped me in my first interview for a place at the Jan van Eyck Academie. My answer was "Because I am a graphic designer", even though it's an embarrassing, and terse, answer – it is still the best one I can think of. Making this book gave me an opportunity to completely engage with the peripheries and all facets of creating a printed production; from the idea to the distribution. Quite a rare opportunity.

—Metropolis MCan you tell us a bit about how you first contacted Mr Churchward and how that contact evolved?

—David BennewithI first got into contact with Churchward through his daughter, Marianna – who has an essay about a typeface Churchward designed for her in the book. When I began searching I wasn't even sure if he was still alive; let alone alive and working.

—Metropolis MWhat impact has your book had on Mr Churchward - personally and or in terms of new/other international reception of his typefaces?

—David BennewithChurchward is proud of the book, and we still talk every so often on the telephone. I think the book has given his work a new audience, not necessarily one that is restricted to the subject of design either, both in New Zealand and overseas. One quite amazing outcome of the research also has resulted in a selection of Churchward's work being obtained by Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand.

—Metropolis M Churchward International Typefaces was a 4 year intensive project for you, are you done with Churchward now?

—David BennewithNo. My archive is still growing and Churchward is still designing. I would really like to revisit the book one day, but won't make a second edition of the current version – it's a one off. I've been busy with the distribution of the book, which is going well, and has been a very interesting learning process. Also, just to see how it goes, I'm currently working on digitising a Churchward typeface for possible commercial release. One direct consequence of the project is that I have discovered much to think about in terms of writing, language, morphologies, designing and – while not connected to Churchward's work per se. – this is an area I am interested to continue exploring in my own work.

David Bennewith, Churchward International Typefaces, Colophon, 2009, http://colophon.info/

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