Designers and men of letters

22:41, May 12 2014
David Bennewith
SIZE AND SHAPE: David Bennewith at his exhibition on Wellington typographer Joseph Churchward at City Gallery. "He was very good type designer. He knew how they were going to be reproduced, and he knew his tools and techniques."

Wellington typographer and graphic designer Joseph Churchward, who died last year at age 80, was renowned around the world for his hand-crafted fonts. He created more than 690 in his lifetime, including fonts for the TV One logo, The Evening Post and The Dominion.

Many of his typefaces were used overseas by multinational companies, but most New Zealanders weren't aware of Churchward's significant achievements and talent until the last few years of his life, which included an exhibition at Te Papa in 2008 and the publication of a beautifully designed book, Joseph Churchward, five years ago.

The editor and co-author of the book - which had its origins as a biography assignment - was typographer and graphic designer David Bennewith, a Kiwi based in Amsterdam.

Joseph Churchward
ISLAND LIFE: Joseph Churchward in 1994 at his studio in Apia, Samoa.

Bennewith has been in Wellington to prepare the new exhibition he's curated, Churchward Samoa. He has focused on a specific period in Churchward's life.

Churchward was born in Samoa but moved to Wellington at age 13. In 1969 he set up Churchward International Typefaces, the country's biggest typesetting firm.

However, in the late 80s his company was hit by plunging revenues from advertisers as a result of the 1987 sharemarket crash and people having easy access to fonts on the then-new Apple Macintosh computer. It went into receivership in 1988.


Dave Edmunds record
MUSICAL NOTE: A Dave Edmunds single sleeve from the 1970s using Churchward fonts.

Churchward decided to go back to Samoa to work as a freelance designer - effectively starting from scratch - and didn't return to Wellington until 1995.

"When he tried to set up his company again in Samoa is fascinating," says Bennewith, who, while he was a student, contacted Churchward about a decade ago.

"He left a company that had at least 12 [employees], and he's back to just himself and suddenly doing everything again. You start seeing an intensity to his work, and it speaks about how you start up again.

"The business [in Samoa], from what I understand, didn't work as well as he hoped. There was a point he couldn't get as much work as he wanted.

"It was clear that he worked hard to get as many commissions as he could in Samoa. He was doing a lot of things he was doing in New Zealand, but on a different scale. Apia's this relatively small city, and there's probably only so much you can do there as a designer."

The examples of Churchward's work in the exhibition include his typefaces on sheets of the once- popular rub-on lettering Letraset and other brands. There are also a few of his original hand-drawn and painted designs for fonts and logos.

The artefacts even include a short, blunt letter dated 1988 from a regular customer, about Churchward's company going into receivership.

"He'd send me packages very regularly, photocopies of newspaper articles or type specimens and things that would have been hard for me to find," Bennewith recalls.

"When I visited him a few times, he gave me artefacts of original things that I still have. [Some] went into the making of the book. I've got three huge plastic crates full of material."

Bennewith often sources Churchward artefacts overseas himself. It includes several vinyl singles from the 60s and early 70s with sleeves that used Churchward fonts, including singles by glam rockers The Sweet, The Partridge Family and rocker Dave Edmunds.

Seeing how the typefaces have been used on objects like the records has been as important as viewing the original typefaces to understand Churchward's oeuvre, Bennewith says.

"I don't approach the works from a historian's perspective. It's very important for me that [his] work is somehow . . . 'real'.

"These thoughts come up a lot when working with Joseph's work. It's asking questions about it, like why did he do this? What would be a reason?"'

Churchward also had extensive knowledge of the production process. Bennewith says he designed fonts knowing that they could be printed or reproduced without any problems.

"He was very good type designer. He knew how they were going to be reproduced, and he knew his tools and techniques."

Despite ongoing writing - he's written three essays on Churchward since the book - Bennewith says it was City Gallery that approached him to suggest an exhibition.

"At first, I was a bit hesitant to do it in the time frame [the gallery suggested], but then I was looking through the material, and there's this moment in the book [when Churchward returns to Samoa] that I've always been interested in, and it's not really explored."

Churchward stayed away from using computers to help him create his fonts, although some today can be bought online via website

Bennewith has also digitised some of Churchward's fonts. He will continue to research Churchward, as well as collecting artefacts and examples of his work.

He is open to the idea of producing another book on Churchward, but has some reservations.

"The book is something I am incredibly proud of, but as a designer I'm very resistant to the idea of repeating myself."

THE DETAILS Churchward Samoa, City Gallery, Wellington, until August 3.

The Dominion Post