Joseph's a master of letters

Last updated 15:47 01/09/2008
SHANE COWLISHAW/The Wellingtonian
LETTER MAN: Master typesetter Joseph Churchward's lifework will be celebrated at a new exhibition at Te Papa.

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Most people might take the alphabet for granted but for one man those 26 simple letters have formed the basis of a successful career.

Typesetter Joseph Churchward, whose life work is celebrated in a new exhibition at Te Papa built a highly distinguished career off the English alphabet from a young age.

At 75 he continues to work, and in an industry almost fully computerized, still designs his fonts freehand, spending up to 300 hours on each one.

"I realised how important the ABCs are to us, because if we didn't have language then we would be back to being like animals," he says.

Born in Samoa in 1933, Joseph came to Wellington to attend school in 1946 and began work as a commercial artist at the age of 15.

His skill with lettering was quickly recognised and he was set to work in the department.

"There was a lot of lettering work and they were all too lazy to do it. I was working seven days and seven nights, and at the end I became very experienced and they weren't too happy with it but I said it serves you right," he says.

In 1969 he founded Christchurch company Joseph's International Typefaces, which went on to become New Zealand's largest typesetting firm. Soon after a leading German company Berthold Fototypes accepted some of his fonts and Joseph's work was soon in use throughout the world.

Unfortunately, Joseph International fell victim to the 1987 stock market crash and the advancement of computer technology.

Joseph says he was one of the first in Wellington to see an Apple Mac computer but was unimpressed and decided against them. Six months later he was out of business.

"Computers are wonderful machines but I absolutely hate them."

Moving back to Samoa, he set up a new, smaller business there before moving back to New Zealand in 1995. Since then he has undertaken freelance work and now his fonts are finally available in digital form, via the website

To date Joseph has created more than 582 original typefaces, more than any other individual in the world. He is currently working on another 20, which will push him over his goal of 600.

Te Papa's exhibition Tangata o le Moana: The story of Pacific people in New Zealand is one of Joseph's designs, and he also helped to create the masthead for the Dominion Post.

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Even after creating so many fonts he is still visibly passionate about his work, which has given him great joy during his life.

"It is an honour, you know. I love money but I remember when I had just reached 20 [fonts], it was amazing. Now I have completed over 500, it feels like I'm floating on air, it's better than money."

Joseph is very proud of his family heritage, which includes Samoan, English, Scottish, Tongan and Chinese links, and says one of his most important achievements has been creating fonts that reflect these cultures.

"The biggest thrill I have had was completing 48 Chinese types, as I feel I have done something for my Chinese heritage," he says.

A biography of his life and work will be released later this year.

* Joseph Churchward's world of type will run from August 21 to February 2009 at Te Papa. Free entry.

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