Tucked away behind London’s Fleet Street, most people will never notice the quiet lane that winds down to the St Bride Library. Founded in 1895 when the surrounding area was the heart of London’s publishing industry, the library is dedicated to preserving and promoting the now antique technology that, until the advent of the personal computer, disseminated the written word for over 500 years.
For the typographer Paul Barnes, the library’s collection of sample books, punches, matrices and type is a treasure trove of pre-digital inspiration. As the co-founder of Commercial Type, the type foundry that worked on the Guardian redesign and the England football strip, Paul’s expertise was enlisted to develop Sekford’s typographic identity. On a clear January morning we sat down with Paul in the St Bride Library to talk about the importance of craft, the influences behind the Sekford typefaces and why, when it comes to typography, the past is always relevant.
Sample books were published by foundries to showcase their typefaces
How did you come to typography?
I grew up in the 80s with vinyl records and through Peter Saville’s very dry, typographical album covers I discovered movements like Futurism and the typography of the early 1920s. My father taught at a polytechnic and introduced me to one of the art teachers who in turn put me on to typography.
There were type specimens around the household – my grandfather had been an editor on the Daily Express – and I realised that letters had always interested me. I’m fascinated by what they mean, the nuances of what they say to people and how you can communicate with the visual codes of typography.
The doors to the library were painted by an artisan who also painted the barrows in London’s markets, conveniently illustrating Paul’s interest in vernacular lettering
How has typography changed over time?
A good way to look at this is to see how people’s reading patterns have changed. Until the 19th century, most typefaces were made for books, that was how people consumed the letter. Then with the industrial revolution came the real innovation in letters – the first sans serif was designed in 1816 and forms like Egyptian were developed to respond to the demand for adverts and billboards.
How important is the history of typography in your work today?
Unlike graphic design in general, typography always has one foot in the past. It’s got this incredibly rich history which you can try and get away from but the past is a bit like gravity in this world, you can’t escape it. You have to realise that and make a relationship with this history.
Carved expertly from a steel bar, a piece of type starts life as a punch that is then driven into a brass matrix from which the type is cast
How did you develop the typefaces for Sekford?
I had been working on a typeface called Chiswick with my partner at Commercial type, Christian Schwartz. It was part of this project trying to understand an English vernacular of lettering, something based on these elegant serif typefaces but also on hand-carved and hand-painted lettering on gravestones and signs.
A customised version of the Chiswick numerals with a higher contrast in weight was developed for the Sekford dials
We also looked to the tradition of hand-painted numerals on grandfather clocks and pocket watches. For Sekford I thought about how to define British luxury and it made me think of tradition and craftsmanship. Even if we’ve lost it a bit in the last 100 years, the British still excel at these traditional crafts.
And what about the Sekford Sans?
I didn’t work on the sans, that was my partner Christian, but it was really inspired by letters by Edward Johnston. Johnston was part of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement but he was specifically interested in lettering. What’s interesting about people like William Morris and Edward Johnston is that they had seen the Georgian and Victorian British tradition at the end of its lifetime – if you look at type from 1890 you can see that it’s getting pretty decadent, pretty over the top. So in a sense people like Morris and Johnston came as a brush to sweep everything away.
Sekford Sans is based on the humanist typeface that Edward Johnston developed for signage on the London Underground
So craft is still important despite the leap from analogue to digital technologies in typography?
Absolutely. With the tools we have today we can go back, restart these traditions and move them forward. What we discovered with our research into the vernacular was that it wasn’t static, it evolved. You can go to a graveyard and a headstone from 1787 will be different from one from 1820 – there’s a sense of development while at the same time trying to achieve a general standard. When these things were done by hand it became your livelihood and so you became very skilled at doing it. Generally in the 21st century we have become somewhat de-skilled, but that element of craft is important with typography – you can be working on something for months and years so your craft has to be really fine.
A macro view of a 14pt punch, showing the intricate detail punchcutters could achieve
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