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This review first appeared in issue 34 of Forum, the journal of Letter Exchange, September 2017

Masters of Invention

The first thing to say about Masters of Invention is it is not an exhibition about graffiti. It is an exhibition about the people that write graffiti, their origins and influences, their influence and development. Curator Errol Donald has put together a thorough, thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of materials that puts the act of graffiti writing into a cultural context and guides the viewer/reader through an explanation of this maligned and misunderstood activity.

The exhibition starts with an image that demonstrates the act of making your mark is an innate human response and shows the desire to ‘tag’ had been around since the dawn of civilisation. It’s a prehistoric silhouette of a hand created by blowing pigment over the outstretched fingers of the ‘artist’. Yes, some of the oldest known marks made by man were done with spray paint!

This is paired with a photograph of a name deeply incised into a column at the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Greece: Byron. One of our most revered poets was quite happy to desecrate this classical monument for the sake of letting subsequent generations know he’d been there. To my mind, this suggests tagging is not just an innate response but also an intellectual one. While the discovery that you can leave your mark on the world may be a revelation, repetition of the act is a calculated statement of identity.

In his Foreword to the catalogue, Ewan Clayton describes the impact of encountering graffiti writing in the 1980s. He says: “And I saw a new kind of history of writing. It put me viscerally in touch with questions about why people write. The importance of writing to naming things and to delineating spaces, marking something out and to writing as expressions of pure form, vision and commitment, risk and community too.”

These themes are evident in the film Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence screened as part of the exhibition programme. The film documents the rise of tagging and graffiti writing in New York and Philladelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In it, one of the early practitioners is quite open when he states “Yeah, we were vandals…”. The film goes on to argue that graffiti writing gave voice to the voiceless and provided a degree of community cohesion in those turbulent times for the urban underclass.

The impact of the then new craze of tagging is reinforced by an article from the New York Times from July 1971 reproduced in the exhibition. Headlined ‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals, it is described as the first public conversation about graffiti in New York City.

Also included in the exhibition is an original work by one of the writers featured in the film, Mike 171. Refreshingly, it has no pretentions to being art and is simply his tag – the same one he has used for nearly 50 years – quickly written in marker pen. That it is on canvas, I took as an ironic comment on the way street art has been commercialised, another subject covered in the film.

The exhibition avoids a nostalgic look back at classic examples of graffiti writing in its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, it takes the more interesting approach of looking at how it influenced type design at the time. A fascinating display of drawings and sketches from the collection of former Letraset type director Colin Brignall shows how they were developing fonts based on graffiti writing. On a trip to New York in 1985, Colin met designer David Sagorski and together they created a range of display fonts, the first graffiti-inspired fonts to be brought to the commercial market.

Accompanying the historical and cultural background material are contemporary works from graffiti writers who cut their teeth on the streets of the 1980s. A photograph of Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman’s work for the Lindisfarne Gospels Project shows his large-scale ‘calligraffiti’ work based on the work in the original Gospels book. Another (my particular favourite) is a work on paper by Mode2 that captures the lyrical flow and dance-like qualities of calligraphy while still being recognisably descended from graffiti writing. This relationship between lettering and dance is another theme explored by Ewan in his introduction.

At this point though we leave recognisable letterforms behind. A cast-concrete sculpture by Boris Tellegen aka Delta is a three-dimensional extrusion of the letterforms he developed on the wall that reminded me of constructivist experiments.

There is a beautifully rendered x-ray fly from SHOK-1, a dreamy abstract cloudscape from Simon Edwards aka Scribla, and a stunning calligraphic starburst by Keith Hopewell. These last three are all done with spray paint and demonstrate the extraordinary craft skills these artists have developed in their chosen medium.

This exhibition is boldly conceived and sweeping in its ambition as Errol takes us on a journey through the origins of graffiti writing through to the artistic opportunities it opens up. And by making the visitors book a hanging roll of lining paper, it allows us all to experience the thrill of writing your name large on the wall!

I commend the Lettering Arts Centre for having the foresight to put on such a challenging and rewarding exhibition, I believe it’s the first in the UK be dedicated to this subject. In their own way they are continuing to honour the original purpose of graffiti writing: giving voice to the voiceless.
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Well, I’ve finally done it, I’ve cut my first word in stone! I’ve been meaning to try my hand at letter cutting for a while now but, apart from a few taps at the Lettering Arts Centre, I’d not had the opportunity. So, when John Neilson publicised his four-day course, I decided that at last, I should give it a try.

Our venue for the course was the delightful Old Chapel Farm in the very heart of Wales, far from the distractions of my day job. The workshop was set up in the eponymous Old Chapel, sturdy easels leaning around the perimeter walls, studious work stations in the middle of the space. Of the eight people on the course, only two of us had no letter cutting experience, I found it very helpful to watch the progress of the more experienced students as they sought to develop different aspects of their letter cutting skills.

At this point I need to remember that this is my Chairman’s piece and not a review of the course so, in summary: John is an excellent tutor, attentive, informative, patient, and challenging in good measure; Kevin and Fran are lovely hosts serving wholesome, healthy food in generous portions with characterful, home-brewed wine; and my fellow students were a pleasure to spent the time with.

Now I have experienced the craft of putting chisel to stone, I have a greater understanding of the practice of many Letter Exchange members. To my surprise, I found stone a lot easier to work with than I was expecting. My Portland slab was remarkably yielding under the chisel and quite forgiving of early errors when working towards the outline, I was able to correct my line as I progressed each letter.

What I found more difficult was what I was more familiar with, the drawing of the letters themselves. I’ve been tracing and drawing letters since I was at college and, while no virtuoso, I thought this would be the easiest part of the process for me. Wrong! Yes, I did quite quickly establish the letterforms I wanted (stealing copiously from Michael Harvey) and managed draw them to a good standard. But redrawing them to the correct size and spacing to fit comfortably on my piece of stone was much harder and took a lot longer than expected. I’m still not sure I got it right, don’t think the word is the correct proportion or size for the stone.

This was a very practical reminder of one of the core tenets of lettering, the space between and around the letters is as important as the letter itself. Within our own disciplines, our experience gives us an innate understanding of how letterforms work in our familiar medium. For me, moving to a new medium and material brought this aspect of lettering into sharp relief and will make me look again at how I do this in my own work.

As an organisation, Letter Exchange focuses on the letter rather than the medium or technique used to create it. I believe this puts us in a unique and important position. While we champion and nurture the various lettering crafts we are also influencing the development of lettering. Our skills are not preserved in aspic, our members are a thriving, dynamic group of letterers that want to learn from our peers to develop their own work.

There is a coda to this; the hardest part of the course for me was deciding which word to use. I know it was just an exercise but when confronted with the task, I became acutely aware of the importance of content. After all, what is important enough to literally be set in stone?
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One of the most important things I learned at art school was that the idea comes first. If your concept for a project is thought through clearly and thoroughly the look and feel of the end product will flow from that. It was a way of encouraging us to avoid relying on stylistic tricks or the latest fashions to carry the project. Style and fashion are of course essential for successful work but, if that’s all there is, the result is likely to be disappointing.

Some of the best examples of this way of thinking can be found in the recently-updated edition of A Smile in the Mind (published by Phaidon). It is packed full of brilliant ideas conceived in lateral leaps and executed with visual dexterity, many with a deceptive simplicity that engenders a ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ feeling. This is the advantage of a concept-led approach, when done well there is an inherent ‘rightness’ about the result.

A fine example of following the idea is the Antithesis of Sarcophagi by Gary Breeze and Martin Cook that won a gold medal at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show (see Forum 32). The idea is a really simple one: instead of the sculpture being in the garden, the garden is in the sculpture. The end result works simply and beautifully but that is because of the huge amount of planning that went into its realisation; it takes time and technical brilliance to make something look simple and effortless. As Mark Twain once said when writing to a friend: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

Following the idea can (and maybe should) take you out of your comfort zone to try things you’ve not done before. This was the case with my contribution to last year’s 26 Lies project. My writing partner Charlotte suggested her poem would work best as a performed piece which led to me directing my first short film. The simplicity, clarity and power of her words dictated the spare, direct approach of the film.

I’m currently following another idea for my contribution to this summer’s Orchestra of Letters exhibition at Snape. Early on in the process I came up with a simple but compelling idea which I have been pursuing with enthusiasm. However, I realised I have neither the technical skills nor facilities (or time for that matter) to do it properly myself. But these limitations can become strengths as I turn to collaborators and manufacturers that can add to the project and build on my initial concept. At the moment, I do not know where the project will end up but excitement and challenge of the process is proving rewarding.

Letter Exchange itself can be seen as an example of following the idea. Again, it’s a simple enough concept, form an organisation of people who all have a common interest in lettering. The realisation of that idea has been the result of much hard work and dedication by many of our members over the years and that continues to be the case.

2018 is the 30th anniversary of our formation and we plan to celebrate this with a conference. The process of following this particular idea has started; venue, theme, format, and contributions are all being discussed. Where we will end up, none of us know at the moment but, if we are true to our founding principles – the concept behind Letter Exchange – then it will be an event to look forward to.
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This statement first appeared in Issue 32 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, September 2016

A few years back, I worked with a cement company to create a campaign aimed at their employees emphasising the importance of following health and safety regulations. I suggested the theme of the campaign should be ‘Our rules are set in stone’. This common idiom reflects the idea that if something is important enough, it is worth the effort needed to create a long-lasting record.

This will be very familiar to our Members. Much of the work they undertake is about permanence, commemorating an individual or event in a way that will communicate with many generations to come. This is particularly the case for letter cutters producing a simple grave marker for a loved one or a civic memorial to those who died in conflict.

But it is also the case for calligraphers creating official documents to be passed down the generations. In her talk in March, Patricia Lovett passionately defended the use of vellum and the need to preserve the skills required to produce it. The government had recently announced that, to save money, it planned to stop using vellum to print our laws on despite its proven longevity far exceeding that of paper. Patricia instigated a campaign to preserve this traditional practice which has persuaded Parliament to reconsider the plans.

Artist David Shrigley played with the idea of a commitment to permanence by rendering the most trivial of written text, a shopping list, on to a headstone. It’s a simple concept in the abstract but seeing the stone propped against a wall in the gallery gives it much greater poignancy. The powerful visual association we have with a tombstone makes you wonder whose life it is commemorating and whether ultimately, we may all be remembered only as a list.

I think something similar happened with that monumental pr disaster from the last election, the ‘Ed Stone’, a three-metre slab emblazoned with key points from the Labour manifesto. In theory, it makes sense to imply you are committed to a long term approach by proclaiming ‘our policies are set in stone’. In reality, what you see is a memorial, something intrinsically linked to the past not the future. Even the most jaded hack following the campaign could turn that into a scathing headline.

I don’t think a similar stunt will be planned again particularly as the recent upheavals in the political landscape make writing something on a Post-it note seem like an overly-optimistic commitment!

On the subject of those monumental changes, as far as I am aware, the UK’s decision to leave the EU will have no noticeable impact on Letter Exchange. We have always valued the exchange of ideas with fellow letterers wherever they are and regularly collaborate internationally. We will continue to work with colleagues and welcome new members from across Europe and the rest of the world.

I hope Letter Exchange and the work of our members will provide a degree of stability in these uncertain times.
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This review first appeared in Issue 32 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, September 2016

Alan Kitching in Suffolk

Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress exhibition
Lettering Arts Centre 3 June to 20 August

Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress by John L Walters
Lawrence King Publishing 2016, ISBN 978 1 78067 772 9, 408pp 235x290mm

Letterpress workshop, 15 June 2016, Lettering Arts Centre

I first encountered Alan Kitching while working at Pentagram Design when he was invited to come and talk to us about his work. Letterpress printing had been part of my course at Norwich School of Art so I was familiar with the basics but the dynamic, playful, exuberant work Alan showed us was a revelation. Our Christmas gift from the company that year was a print by Alan; 25 years later it is still on my wall.

That print is among the 400+ illustrations in a new book about Alan’s career, it is also included in the accompanying exhibition. I saw the show at the Lettering Arts Centre in Snape, however, the main reason for going there on 15 June was for a one-day letterpress workshop with Alan.

The 9:30 start meant an early alarm but the three-hour drive was well worth it when I was greeted by bright sunshine and fresh east anglian air. There were six of us on the course – including four other LX Full Members – we gathered in a recently-converted space behind the main Lettering Arts Centre. In the centre of the room was a small but sturdy press, the surrounding tables creaked under the weight of piles of wooden letters.

Alan’s experience running workshops was evident from the start. A stack of folders, pre-printed with all our names and the project title, Musical Monograms, stood waiting to receive our work. We were handed a sheet with a list of musicians and composers, our task to create a monogram from the initials of our chosen name and print an edition of twelve. We would each take home a folder containing all six designs with additional sets going to the Lettering Arts Centre, the paper sponsors Fedrigoni (they supplied lovely 300gsm Old Mill Bianco), and to Alan’s archive.

This simple brief was ideally suited to the one-day format although Alan made it clear from the start that there was a lot to do in the time especially as most of the designs required two passes with drying time in between. He made sure we developed our ideas quickly, encouraging us to do tests on newsprint, cut them out and play with the layout. I picked Antonio Vivaldi mainly because you can flip the V to make the A.

Under the watchful eye of Alan and his assistant Roxanne, we worked two at a time to set up our type on the bed of the press, secure it with type ‘furniture’ and magnets, ink the letters with hand rollers, position the paper then draw across the mangle-like printing roller. We soon learned is that this is an imperfect process, ink can be inconsistent, type and paper can move, the pressure of the roller might not be right. But, for Alan, this is all part of the joy of the process, his enthusiastic comments always encouraging. One of my early prints was under-inked but Alan really liked the delicate impression that resulted. I learned a lot about the basics of letterpress but maybe the most important insight I took away from the day was
‘embrace the accidental’.

Alan and Roxanne printed an extra sheet with the six selected names. But, while we tidied up the room, I noticed Alan was still working on the press printing a large letter K. He didn’t say what it was for but it seemed to me he was doing it simply because he enjoyed it and still wanted to try things and experiment.

We were treated to a further demonstration of Alan’s enthusiasm when he offered to show us around the exhibition. It was a real privilege to hear him talk about his work.

The exhibits cover his whole career from early experimental pieces to his work with the Guardian and up to his most recent prints. It was great to see all the issues of Broadside, Alan’s occasional, self-promotional publication, as well as the typographic maps that I remember so well from that first talk in the early 90s. And useful to see roughs and sketches as well as the finished works printed in books and newspapers. I was particularly taken by his London Marathon print, a colourful, chaotic feast of overlapping placenames.

Alan’s work has been appearing catalogues and journals for over fifty years but, when I asked him if he had a favourite, he picked the latest work in the exhibition, a print commemorating this year’s centenary of Edward Johnston’s London Underground typeface. This for me underpins Alan’s approach. Letterpress printing may be a traditional process but he uses it to create new and exciting work, he’s not looking back he’s looking forward to see what what he can do next and what he can still learn.

In addition to my portfolio of musical monograms, I also headed home with a copy of the new book Alan Kitching: Life in Letterpress published by Lawrence King. It is a comprehensive survey of Alan’s life and work beautifully designed by Simon Esterson and written by John L Walters.

The book follows Alan’s career as it develops and focuses on the key influences. There are some great archive photos of a youthful Kitching working as an apprentice compositor with printer J. W. Brown & Son in Darlington where he started working in 1956 straight after leaving school. This technical apprenticeship served him well and allowed him to develop his interest in design sparked by seeing the works of Jan Tschichold and Abram Games among others.

The chapters take us through Alan’s development with the next major influence coming at Watford College of Technology where he worked as a technician in the printing department before being asked by Anthony Froshaug to set up the Experimental Printing Workshop. Froshaug taught with Max Bill at the Ulm School and brought Bill’s ideas and those of Herbert Bayer to Watford. You can see how this affects the development of Kitching’s work.

The book is generously illustrated throughout with Alan’s work, his influences and archive photos. It is also liberally sprinkled with comments and recollections from Alan which provide a welcome insight into his approach. There are also comments from colleagues including a foreword by Derek Birdsall, his partner at Omnific Studios. The section about Omnific helps to place Alan at the centre of the dynamic development of British graphic design in the 60s and 70s.

In the middle of the book there is a wonderful photo essay by Phil Sayer of Alan at work in his studio. In many ways, this sums up what the whole book is about. It’s a thorough, knowledgeable, respectful portrait of a master craftsman, designer, and teacher who is still very much in love with what he does.

Thanks to Sarah and Lynne at the Lettering Arts Centre for arranging the workshop, if was an unforgettable day.

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This review first appeared in Issue 31 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, March 2016

The Graphic Lexicon
By Jim Sutherland
Studio Sutherl& 2015
ISBN 978-0-9934249-0-8
115 x 160 mm
Limited edition of 1500 numbered copies

From the moment ‘The Graphic Lexicon’ lands on your doormat you know you are in for a visual treat. The precisely-crafted, corrugated-card wrapper is debossed with the book title, the address label is carefully positioned folding around onto the edge of the package which is sealed with custom-made tape featuring a selection of ampersands.

This is the first offering from Studio Sutherl& the new venture of Jim Sutherland, founder and creative force behind Hat-Trick Design. For each project under the Studio Sutherl& banner, Jim is teaming up with a different creative partner (hence the ampersand), in this case the writer Scott Perry.

The Graphic Lexicon is described as: “A celebration of the stories – fact and folklore – behind English words, symbols and punctuation.” The eclectic selection of words – from aboriginal to zero – has been chosen both for the intriguing origins and the opportunities they provide for graphic ingenuity. And this is Jim’s strength; his ability to play with type and image and his eye for a visual pun are superb.

The book full of imaginative combinations of word and image that illustrate the concisely-written, informative texts. No two interpretations are alike, the range and variety of ideas, images and graphic tricks is terrific. As well as being an informative and entertaining read, it would be an ideal text book for anyone studying graphic design. To my mind, this is a showcase for how any aspiring designer should think and how they should approach what they do.

It’s difficult to pick a favourite but ‘quintessential’ stands out for me both because I was not aware of the origin (an all-pervading fifth element: quint essentia) and the beautifully simple and ingenious way Jim has incorporated the numeral 5 into the word.

This is a book I will be dipping in and out of for a long while and I’m avidly awaiting the next offerings from Studio Sutherl&, full details on the website:
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This statement first appeared in Issue 31 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, March 2016

As 2016 dawns, I realise it is already four years since the London Olympics. Fortunately, that means the fiasco of the London Olympic branding is now four years behind us! While being nothing special, the logo for Rio 2016 looks perfectly serviceable, and if we look further ahead, the Tokyo 2020 logo is really quite elegant (although currently mired in a plagiarism scandal).

My problem with the 2012 logo was that it seemed, more than anything, to embody a breakdown of confidence between client and supplier. To clarify: it felt like the logo was trying to encompass everything about the event rather than being a symbol that represents it. In my view, this is a result of a lack of trust in the designer by the client and a lack of confidence by the designer to advise the client on how the whole brand should work.

The benchmark for Olympic branding was set by Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich games. He created a striking symbol and a strong typographic lock-up that held together the different communications material, for example the solarised, screen-printed posters for each sport. There is no evidence of a client who thinks they know about branding or a selection committee who all want to have their say.

The relationship with a client is important in whatever field you are working. I am currently working on a large annual report, it’s the second year I’ve done it and the client was very happy with last year’s. Yet they still provide me with mocked-up layouts they have generated in PowerPoint (whilst acknowledging the want me to ‘work my magic’ on them).

With graphic design (annual reports in particular) the design will go through many iterations before the final version is published so there are plenty of opportunities for refinement. If you are a letter cutter or calligrapher, then there will always be a gap between the agreed approach and the final finished work. In other words, the client has to trust that the supplier will produce what they want. It’s the professionalism, expertise, and experience of the lettering artist that helps bridge this gap, guiding the client through the creative process.

The client also needs to understand how the agreed design/layout will change during the production process. The idiosyncrasies of applying ink to paper, the quirks and qualities of the stone will affect and change the final work, usually improving it by adding a richness of texture and character.

The ubiquity and flexibility of today’s software programmes make it very easy for anyone to produce something that looks like a designed page hence my client helpfully trying to do my job for me. I am more than a little jealous of those of us who still have a significant distance between the client’s request and the finished artwork as Otl Aicher evidently had back in the early 1970s.

If we are ever in the position to do something as prominent as an Olympic logo again, I suggest a more single-minded approach. Do away with the committees, hand the task over to an experienced lettering artist and leave them to produce something considered, crafted and beautiful.
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This statement first appeared in Issue 30 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, September 2015

Since becoming involved with Letter Exchange, I’ve been influenced and inspired by many things. In their own right, Forum, the Yearbook, our lectures and exhibitions are each rich sources of ideas and full of the very best examples of the lettering arts. Having access to all of them is invaluable and to be able to meet with my peers and discuss all aspects of lettering in detail is a real privilege.

But nothing has changed my perspective more than Ken Garland’s talk in April. Although its subject was ‘free lettering on the street’, I came away thinking about something else: the permanence or transience of lettering and what that means for its content. From Gunter Demnig’s cobblestone-sized Stolpersteine memorials for Holocaust victims to the chalk lettering of street artist Hymn and the ephemeral Chinese practice of dishu – calligraphy on the ground using water – Ken emphasised a dimension that maybe we take for granted: time.

In my review of the talk, I suggested that a transient piece of text executed with chalk or water and lasting a matter of hours may be more memorable to those that had the good fortune to see it than something carved in stone that could be seen any day. This may be true but I have since come to realise that our experience of most lettering is fleeting regardless of its permanence.

Last year, we promoted the 26 Words exhibition at the Lettering Arts Centre with text written on the pavements of the Snape Maltings complex. These were designed to be temporary and lasted a few weeks. While they were being done, they generated a lot of interest and crowds gathered, however, I doubt that most of the audience saw them again. But, if you know where to look, there is still the odd trace left.

About two years ago – after 25 years of intention – I finally managed to visit Ian Hamilton Findlay’s masterpiece Little Sparta. I was not disappointed! I was, however, acutely aware that its creator had died and the garden would not be added to. Wooden inscriptions in particular were starting to decay and I wondered if I would be able to read them next time I visit.

On a trip to Venice at the end of last year, I went in search of some runic lettering on a lion guarding the Arsenale. These 11th Century inscriptions – by order of Harald Hardrada, later killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge– are now almost completely eroded and I would have missed them if I didn’t know what to look for. But there they were and I’m so glad I was able to see them.

With all of these examples, my interaction with them was fleeting and unlikely to be repeated. And that enhanced my experience, particularly because the content meant something.

As letterers, regardless of the media we work in and the permanence of the text we produce, we have to assume the reader will only see it once. We need to communicate a message in that instant. Our task is to make the viewer stop, take notice, read and remember, and possibly to do something as a result.

“J is for just join in”, “A lane need not meander”, and “Harold was here” (I paraphrase) left their mark on me because of the combination of what they said and the way they were written. Regardless of how long our lettering will last we must ensure that what it says connects to the reader. Whether it is a book jacket, an exhibition piece or a memorial, if it’s brand new or obscured by an accretion of lichens, the content matters. And, if it connects with the reader, its poignancy will only increase as it fades.
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This article first appeared in Issue 30 of Forum, the journal of
Letter Exchange, September 2015

Book conservation at the British Library

In March 2014, Jerry Cinamon and Graham Moss gave a Letter Exchange talk about their collaboration producing a wonderful book on the work of Emil Weiss. Shortly after the talk, Jerry mentioned that two of the books he had used in his research at the British Library were in need of conservation. Under the Library’s ‘Adopt a Book’ scheme, it would cost £250 to repair both books leaving them in a useable state for future generations. Jerry asked if Letter Exchange could raise the funds so we put the word out to our members. It wasn’t long before the total was reached.

We arranged to visit the conservation centre at the Library to hand over the cheque and also to have a tour of the facilities there. I met up Jerry and his daughter Beth in the Library’s main reception hall where we were greeted by Shimei Zhou from the Library’s Development Office. She took us through to a block at the back of the library where she introduced us to Senior Conservator Rick Brown.

The first thing we came to was a display cabinet filled with the tools for gold foiling leather book covers. Rick explained that this was now just a museum piece as the Library no longer does this kind of work in house. I have to say I was a bit disappointed that we had started with an example of disappearing skills, but that soon changed when Rick led us into the main conservation studio.

This is an enormous room, bright and airy, lit by north-facing skylights along its entire length. There was an atmosphere quiet efficiency as conservators went about their work among stacks of paper and the familiar t-bars of bookbinding presses.

Then came the surprise. Rick took us over to a desk where he had laid out both volumes in conservation boxes, their repairs done ready to be returned to the Library’s shelves. The promise of our contribution to their upkeep was enough for the Library to do the work.

Rick explained that what they do is conservation not restoration. There is no attempt to return the books to their original condition, they try to stop any deterioration and make them strong enough to be used and handled by researchers.

I was impressed by Rick’s enthusiasm for our project. Other projects he was working on at the time included a set of books owned by Thomas Cranmer (who had written his name neatly of the first page of each volume) and an amazing illustrated manuscript – the Akbahnameh – written in India and bound in Persia. He was also working on one of Leonado da Vinci’s notebooks but he wasn’t allowed to show us that!

But it was clear he had really enjoyed working on our two books. He described what he’d done with passion and genuine interest in the different techniques needed to work on these 20th Century books. He commented that it reminded him of when he started as an apprentice bookbinder, the materials and methods being very similar to those he first learned.

It’s reassuring that there are still people like Rick with the skills and commitment to help look after our valuable cultural resources for foreseeable future. And I’m glad that as an organisation we have made a small contribution to towards this.

Jerry took great pleasure in leafing through the two books he had last seen in their dilapidated state as he explains: “When I wrote a footnote in my Weiss book about the woeful state of two major Weiss books in the Rare Book Room of the British Library, I suppose I had in mind a rich benefactor somewhere – but they have now been restored by contributions from members of Letter Exchange! You did it! You collected the necessary funds to restore these important books for the use of future generations. Well done, Letter Exchange!”

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This was first published as the introduction to the catalogue for the Letter Exchange exhibition Hopes + Dreams – statements of intent explored.

A manifesto is a public declaration of intent, an opportunity to put into words your hopes and dreams, your vision and plans. It’s a way to encourage support for your ideas, to influence others and inspire support for your point of view. Whether political, artistic, or religious, manifestos have been the source of some of the most important, influential, and thought-provoking concepts in history.

For this exhibition, Letter Exchange invited our members to submit works based around the theme of manifestos. The broad brief allowed participants to explore this rich and diverse catalogue of texts to discover phrases and passages that resonate with them or indeed inspire them to create their own.

As a result, the words in the exhibition are eclectic and diverse, in turns enigmatic, obscure, uplifting and inspirational. But this diversity of content is matched by the range of approaches to the treatment of those texts. We are an organisation of professionals in the lettering arts, our members are individual practitioners. The strength of Letter Exchange lies in our diversity.

Our members may fall into broad categories – letter cutting, calligraphy, type design, and typography – but we each have our own way of working. What we do as an organisation is to bring these individuals together to discuss what we have in common and to learn from each other. This interaction encourages experimentation and helps the practice of fine lettering remain contemporary and relevant.

When Letter Exchange was established in 1988, we did so with our founding principles, looking at it in this context that could be seen as our manifesto. We set out the aims of Letter Exchange as the:
– promulgation of exhibitions of the lettering arts and crafts;
– organisation of visits to events and/or places of interest;
– collation and dissemination of relevant information;
– creation of a forum for discussion and debate;
– assistance of members and bona-fide students; and
– promotion of the professional use of fine lettering.

These are still as relevant to us today as they were when we were founded, and this exhibition embodies all of those aims. The exhibits demonstrate an innate understanding of letterforms and are executed with the technical skill that underpins our commitment to the very best in the lettering arts. But over
and above that, the experimentation, the willingness to try new ideas, to learn from our peers and to create something different is what lies at the heart of Letter Exchange.

In many ways, this exhibition can be seen as a manifesto for Letter Exchange, this is what we are about. The best practitioners of contemporary fine lettering producing new and challenging works, experimenting with materials and techniques to deliver thoughts and ideas in ways that will stand out and be memorable.
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