Letter by Letter with Stephen Banham

  • April 2014

Over March we had an excellent learning experience when renowned Typographer Stephen Banham of Letterbox lead us into the wonderland of Vernacular Type, leading "Letter by Letter", a special Typography Masterclass for the Melbourne's elite "thinking typographers".

The first session of this Masterclass was held in the spacious and gracious space of Stephen's " Letterbox" Studio on Sydney Road which is a breathtaking space of grand proportion. A bonus was certainly the opportunity to delve through his treasure trove type library (this justified the price of the ticket alone). It's no grand aspersion to say this is probably one the best collections of type related reading in the world. Stephen initiated the learning by discussing his own process, explaining how teaching and research informs his real world projects and vice versa (many of which he shared), including some impressive conceptual typographic installations that you can see in Frankston. One of his favourite books is Modern Lettering, by A Cecil Wade (pictured below), and it was evident that many of the uniquely beautiful letterforms in the book have influenced the aesthetic considerations some of his most elegant and curved letterforms. He seems to have an affinity with the curve. Here is a link that will enable you to flick through this book. Copies are rare as the book is long out of print but if you search hard you can find one. 

Letterbox Studio Library

Stephen explained that becoming a "Typo Archeologist" enables you to give your own terms to the plethora of typographic processes and interactions between Typography and audiences in the urban environment. This is because each typographic expression in the urban landscape is essentially a mapping or representation of the ongoing human process of removing buildings, adding, altering and removing signage. All type tells a unique story of the history and happenings of place, and no type is ever static. It all comes and goes, and changes as it adapts to fashions and protocols of its epoch.

Convergence, Multi Layering, Re Purposing, Absence and Spectacle are a few of the taxonomies ascribed to some of the different typographic processes Stephen showcased on the Masterclass tour down Sydney Road. The example of "Convergence" was particularly quirky, and evidence of Stephen's vigilant eye and ever curious mind. Gradually , over the last decade, Stephen has observed how a kebab shop next to the Commonwealth Bank has slowly converged its own identity with that of the neighbouring Commonwealth Bank! right down to colours of black and gold, and a rather plain corporate font choice that does not exactly express tasty kebab!

After completing their own research over the weekend, students were required to make their own findings and reinterpretations, then use these as a departure point to create their own letterform prototypes. 

Student Sahra Martin used the material from which historically much of Brunswick is built as her point of departure - Bricks. Being built on rich deposits of red clay, Brunswick was once famous for "Brunswick Bricks", with its kilns employing many of the italian migrants who arrived in Australia from Italy in the fifties and sixties. Below is her visual research and a short summary of process which I enjoyed: 

My collection of photographs, notes and resultant letterforms are based on the materials that built Brunswick - both physically and metaphorically. Whilst both bluestone and bricks were considered, bricks offered most towards the creation of a strong typographic solution. 

Hoffman Brickworks occupies a large space in Dawson St and is deeply ingrained in Brunswick’s history, economy, politics, social and cultural fabric. It is now home to a residential development which was built under the condition that it was sympathetic to the site, the result of a tireless community campaign - something that Brunswick is renowned for.

My final solution looks at rebranding this development as the current typography does not reflect its foundations. Using bricks as type and grid - both in positive and negative form - I have created two logotypes which represent the built environment’s historical and contemporary structures, whilst also drawing inspiration from the brick painting and neon signage around the area.

Final project review at OSNS HQ, with OSNS Collaborator, Stephen Banham