Richard Kindersley is one of Britain’s pre-eminent lettercutters and experts on typographic design. The son of esteemed cutter and sculptor David Kindersley, who studied under Eric Gill, Richard has gone on to work on major national and international projects, including the monument commemorating the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, inscriptions for the UK Supreme Court and special commissions for the Victoria and Albert museum and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Visiting his studio in a quiet corner of Kennington, south London, where for many decades Richard has lived and worked, you are struck by tangible sense of his expertise. The scrapes in the walls, the dents in the floors and the half-carved blocks, ranging in size from small plaques to vast, 3 metre tall standing stones, attest to lifetime of happy devotion to his craft. Surrounded by books, tools, paper sketches (Richard draws all his designs by hand) and stone, we sat down to discuss the ancient origins of his craft, why lettercutters prefer to draw their own lettering and his early years, learning from his father.
How important was it to be taught by your father?
It was hugely important because with his teaching of letterforms came a whole raft of philosophical ideas and attitudes to work that were handed to him from Gill and to Gill from William Morris. I love some of the ideas they had of being truthful to the material you were working with, not trying to force it to do things it didn’t want to do. The need to have a conversation with the type of stone you were working with appealed to me enormously.
Although I also had a more formal education at the Cambridge School of Art, looking back at my 20s what I really value was the teaching from my father. He always used to say that if you make a mistake, you should try and think of it as providential and see how that mistake can be part of a process of making that work better.
What is the importance of designing your own lettering as opposed to being given a design to stencil and carve?
People are a lot more familiar with typefaces now than when I first started out because of the computer but they think of lettering simply by the drop-down menu. Yet for type designers or calligraphers, that’s dead – it’s been done, it’s in the public space. What we want to do is something more creative, to draw lettering that’s new and fresh and designed for a particular job. When you are working just with typefaces, you are designing letters in an abstract form and it will have thousands of different applications. Our work is much more bespoke.
How do you go about carving stone?
There’s been a big change over the past 30 years in how we actually work with stone. People like Gill would want to completely dominate the stone, cut it to size and make the surface very smooth so they can carve their beautiful letters into it. Nowadays there’s a sense that the stone in its natural form, when it’s just been split, has a quality and a voice, and there’s a big movement concerned with returning to this natural form.
In some circles people prefer to have the design roughed-out by 3D printer, using a tungsten drill – the idea being that you remove the hard work and the cutter finishes it off – but I think that’s completely wrong. When you see a piece of hand-carved lettering it looks very different from a machined tooled inscription, it’s so much more lively and interesting.
So I prefer to do everything by hand. I often joke that the tools we use are an incredibly mature technology. You can see the chisels and wooden mallets we use illustrated in Egyptian carving 6000 years ago, and they’re identical! It’s lovely the way they’ve been refined so early on.
So you have a sense of the history of lettercutting going back thousands of years?
I used to take students to Rome and show them the Imperial inscriptions from AD1 onwards, which are virtually perfect, and compare them to earlier Republican inscriptions, which weren’t as polished, and to the Greek inscriptions. You get this extraordinary sense of being part of that ancient, evolving process.
What do you see as being the future of lettercutting?
I’ve got a theory that in all human endeavours, particularly in the creative world, there is this shift from simplicity to complexity before a resetting to simplicity. The last big resetting was the Bauhaus. If you compare Bauhaus typography with what was going on at just before, with Art Nouveau – all the incredibly embellished and flowery stuff – you suddenly have this very strict, very precise new typography, almost as if the fog had cleared from design. Lettering today has become very self-expressive in a self-conscious way so I think we could come to see this resetting again in the coming years.
For the London Design Festival this September, Sekford will be partnering with stone experts Salvatori for Cutting Through Time – a special project exploring Richard’s concept of the evolution of typography in stone through live demonstrations of lettercutting in Salvatori’s Wigmore Street Store.
Stay subscribed to the Sekford Journal for monthly insights into Sekford and the friends, ideas, places and craftspeople that have shaped it.