Creating typefaces for the world

FONT FAN: Joe Churchward completed an estimated 690 hand-drawn alphabets.
Fairfax NZ
FONT FAN: Joe Churchward completed an estimated 690 hand-drawn alphabets.

Joseph Churchward, typographer and graphic designer: b Apia, Western Samoa, August 20, 1932; m Tua (Anna) Tasi, 4s, 4d; d Wellington, April 26, 2013, aged 80.

Joe Churchward came of age as a font and graphic designer during New Zealand's own era of Mad Men- style advertising.

Prolific, outgoing, quirky and tirelessly hardworking he projected his alphabets from his mind onto the world like it was his personal canvas.

Daughter Marianna Churchward, whom he named a font after, recalls him in hospital intensely focused on the ceiling. She finally asked him what he was doing - he told her he was conjuring his latest letters on the blank slate above him.

"I have a computer in my head. If someone wants a certain curve I immediately draw it from my head," he told the Dominion Post in 2004.

The multi-ethnic typography pioneer was proud of his Samoan, Chinese, Scottish, English and Tongan blood.

"The biggest thrill I have had was completing 48 Chinese types, as I feel I have done something for my Chinese heritage," he told The Wellingtonian in 2008.

That rich heritage would help shape the hundreds of alphabets and designs that are and were used around the world - from the Samoan police badge, and his logo for the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs to the masthead of this newspaper and his first unique typeface for Woolworths in 1969.

The lettering prodigy was born in Apia to parents who ran a restaurant and breadmaking business in the Samoan capital.

As a patriarch he went on to have eight children and was a devoted grandfather to his 18 grandchildren.

He became besotted with script as a boy in Samoa when he drew his first letters on the beach and was captivated as the tide pulled the outlines away.

When he died last Friday he had completed an estimated 690 hand-drawn alphabets. The total is thought to be a world record. Each alphabet took between 150 and 300 hours.

He came to Wellington aged 13 and attended Miramar South School.

About this time he became friends with Alan Lord. Mr Lord remembers his friend as an athletic, intrepid and creative man. Throughout the years the two shared many adventures including biking from Wellington to Auckland and swimming around shipwrecked boats in Samoa. After primary school Mr Churchward went to Wellington Technical College to study art where his talent for lettering flourished.

By the age of 18 he was working for Wellington ad agency Charles Haines as a commercial artist where that talent was refined and evolved for more than a decade.

"They were all too lazy to do lettering and, over time, every day of the week, I did it. I became an expert."

In 1969 he left to set up Churchward International Typefaces in Willis St, the country's biggest typesetting firm.

By 1971 he had 22 typefaces licensed internationally to German typesetting giant Berthold Fototype - by the end of the decade his fonts were being used by a clutch of multinational companies.

But his early refusal to embrace the Apple Mac computers that would become industry standard coupled with plunging revenues from advertisers following the 1987 stockmarket crash forced the business into receivership by 1988.

This reversal of fortunes also proved to be a rebirth. He went back to Samoa as a freelance designer then returned to Wellington in 1995 and spent the next 15 years often labouring in seclusion from his Hataitai home studio.

His fonts are world- renowned, but he has never become a household name here even though his fonts and designs have adorned many everyday items, from milk bottles to keyboards to the old Evening Post, as well as being used by brands like Telecom, London's Tate Museum, the Lonely Planet, Te Papa and the New York Sightseeing Bus Company.

Although he hated computers and eschewed the digital world, many of his fonts have been saved from analogue obscurity and can be found in digitised form via the website

In 2010 he was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for his work in handcrafting hundreds of typefaces. He received many other design awards and in 2008 a retrospective of his work was held at Te Papa.

Mr Churchward died after a two-year battle with bowel cancer. As his eyesight began to fade "The Letters man" was forced to retire from hand-lettering and took solace in one of his other loves - gardening. MATT STEWART

Sources: Churchward family, Alan Lord, David Bennewith.

The Dominion Post