Clerkenwell and the type industry.
Today sees the beginning of Clerkenwell Design Week 2014, a huge festival celebrating all types of design and creativity in the most vibrant area of London.
To coincide with the event, I wrote an article for the latest edition The Clerkenwell Post about the area’s typographic heritage and its influence on my work. The article feature my Exmouth Market letterpress print (above) about one of the area’s well-known streets. Here’s the unabridged article:
Clerkenwell’s creative profile continually evolves. Over the last ten years high-end furniture stores have outnumbered the design agencies and the area, once known for watchmakers and publishing companies, is now home to more architect firms per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. Clerkenwell’s creative history however is dominated by one industry: type.
With the rise of literacy and the Church and State’s weakening control over what was published, printing flourish in the 18th Century. Centres of the craft rapidly grew around Fleet Street and the City of London. With Clerkenwell conveniently close by, type foundries gravitated here to supply the trade. These foundries designed and cast metal fonts—families of individual letters—used by printers, and specifically typesetters, to compose the texts for countless publications; prayers books, newspapers, fiction and advertising. The Founder’s London A-Z, a gazetteer of historical foundries published in 1998 by the St. Bride Printing Library, lists 30 in EC1 alone, of which William Caslon’s remains the most famous.
As a designer working with and writing about type in Clerkenwell it’s uplifting to be surrounded by 300 years of the craft’s heritage. Although technological advancement saw the metal type foundries disappear from the 1960s, just a short walk is enough to see a reminder of the influence type had in this area. The founders erected many buildings here, a few still bearing their names. Although Caslon’s foundry is associated with his grand premises on Chiswell Street, he produced his first type specimen while based on Ironmonger Row, near the site of his conspicuous family tomb in St. Luke’s churchyard.
Caslon’s classic type designs from the 1720s set the style for English type for hundreds of years, surviving numerous typographic trends. The typeface synonymous with his name was used to print the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and for many years a common rule of thumb amongst printers and typesetters was “When in doubt, use Caslon”. The Caslon typeface has been recreated digitally ensuring its popular use on computers today (and by this very magazine). I’ve used the typeface on several occasions when something formal, antique or floral is required, with its beautiful swashes (look at the ‘T’ in this magazine’s masthead, and flourishes in the introductory paragraphs), it’s not surprising to learn that Caslon had previously engraved rifles for wealthy clients.
Unconsciously, I’m certain these local typographic prompts contributed to my rekindled passion for typography and my recent career change from owning a web design agency to refocus on type. My first self-initiated project was a ‘typographic time capsule’ of Exmouth Market and this one street alone provided a huge source of type and lettering inspiration. The print documents the street’s colourful history; its beginnings as a Spa, the blood sports and atrocious graveyard, then captures a snapshot of its current restaurants, shop, cafés and bars (three of which have already closed since the print was produced late last year). Each of the decorated initials spelling “Exmouth” reflects the story that’s weaved around them. For example, the ‘O’ represents Joseph Grimaldi—father of all modern-day clowns, who lived at № 56 and the ‘H’ echoes the original butcher’s livery, now maintained by the restaurant Medcalf. I chose the typeface Minion Pro, which isn’t connected to our location but is a classical modern typeface that retains the flair of Caslon’s approach.
Together with various lettering projects, I’m currently in the process of designing my first typeface. The learning curve is steep and the process requires and incredible amount of patience. Designing a harmonious a-z is challenging enough but practical usage requires; italics, bolds, diacritics, numerals and European language support, resulting in a typeface of hundreds of carefully crafted characters. Extremely large font families with many weights can include tens of thousands of characters.
But I’m not the only designer to appreciate the location for its illustrious past. While the metal type foundries are gone, digital type design is booming and in this Internet age the demand for new and innovative typefaces continues. Two well-respected foundries have set-up type design studios here; the first, Font Smith, has designed custom typefaces for Channel 4 and the Post Office, as well as Clerkenwell, a typeface inspired by the area. The second, Monotype, patented the first hot metal typesetting machine in 1896 and maintains an extensive catalogue of over 18,000 typefaces including Helvetica and Times New Roman.
Whether this is an indicator of Clerkenwell’s resurgence as a home of type or not, nowhere in the world can match its history. I recently discovered that once there were even two foundries on my street, one in the vicinity of my home. I’d like to think the foundry was right here where I write. [Ends]
If you’re in the area this week, the Exmouth print is on sale at Family Tree, 53 Exmouth Market.