Monthly Archives: April 2010

Exposed to the art of typography

Image capture (by phone) of exhibits at Typeshed 11, February 2009

Last year I attended a four-day international symposium on type design. It was called Typeshed 11 and was based in Shed 11 on the Wellington waterfront. It was the first time a symposium of this kind had been held in New Zealand.

The conference delegates from throughout the world, were primarily people involved in graphic and font design. I’d never really given much thought about how a font – including every single element comprising it – comes into being, or the considerations underlying. It’s certainly not a ‘select the size’ and ‘hit the enter key’ scenario.

Every single element has to be carefully designed – the space around it, the dimensions within it, it’s shape and it’s relationship to all the other letters, numbers and symbols. It’s an incredibly exacting and time-consuming process requiring extreme patience and tenacity. Absolutely incredible!

I was exposed to many totally passionate people – from world-renowned Samoan-born  font designer, 77-year old Joseph Churchward who’s lifelong passion for font design design began while working for the Evening Post (Wellington), to Bruno Maag a Swiss national, who runs Dalton Maag, a leading typographic design studio (also known as a foundry) in London.

There are number of font designers in New Zealand. Kris Sowersby is one of them.  New Zealanders familiar with the BNZ font – letters looking like they’ve been squeezed from a tube of toothpaste – might be interested to know that this is his work.

I was reminded of the symposium today when I received a newsletter from FontShop. There was an article in it about an exhibition ‘Shape my Language’ in the Walking-Chair Design Gallery in Vienna, Austria – an exhibition focusing on the work of Bruno Maag. I just had to take a closer look and remind myself of this inspirational man.

Not only was Bruno passionate in his presentation about the work his company does (mind-bogglingly impressive), he also spoke with great fervour about his other passion – cooking. One the final day of the symposium, he and three others were scheduled to conduct a panel discussion on any topic they wished.

After brief deliberation and much to our delight – they chose cooking. So, equipped with a little camping gas burner, fresh produce from Moore Wilsons and bucket-loads of humour they got to work. Bruno had to decided to cook mussels steamed in white wine, herbs and garlic served with crusty french bread. While three of the team (including two other world-renowned font designers) chopped and stirred, Sarah Maxey (a book designer and artist) created an artwork – to be the prize for one of the lucky spectators. Shed 11 was consumed by the delicious aroma and smiles lit up every face in the room.

Bruno told us how his family, all travelling with him, thought Moore Wilson’s was food heaven. He loved it – went on and on about the variety – the cheeses, the meats, the seafood – and the quality and abundance of the fresh produce. It was February after all – so no surprise for us kiwis!!!

When the dish was complete, it was a bit like the loaves and fishes. Everyone in the room got to sample a morsel…sharing in the food and the event is something I’ll never forget. Sarah Maxey’s little artwork, including red wine spillage, was finished and given to one very lucky punter. A fabulous reminder of a special hour very well spent.

I feel a bit sad that it took an email from FontShop to remind me of it.

Stars in our eyes

Ah, the thrill of it...

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…

I’ve just been to a fancy dress party.  We were asked to use the letter ‘L’ for inspiration – being the first letter of the person in whose honour the party was being held.

Before I continue I should explain that I’ve had a lifelong love of being on stage – whether in opera, musical theatre, theatre and even in choirs. I’ve always delighted in being ‘in character’ and no rehearsal has ever been too long or too arduous. Get the picture?  I’m in my element on stage.

But in recent years I’ve never really been that keen on fancy dress (odd for someone who’s always loved dressing in character). 1. because the of effort required and 2. because when I go out I like having the opportunity look a teensy bit glam.

I’d been to a party not so long ago where we were instructed to dress in our favourite rock era. I found it challenging, but when discussing the dilemna with my hairdresser (the things we talk about!) he offered to do a rock coiff for me on the day.

Then while my foils were maturing (girls will understand),  I flicked through some magazines for inspiration and found I had all the right garments hanging in my wardrobe. Just a matter of putting them together in a more creative way and ‘Hey presto’ – rock chick!

That recent experience, when I quite liked being someone else for the evening, spurred me on to putting more effort into finding a solution for the letter ‘L’.

That’s what it’s all about isn’t it. In dressing up as a character (or a thing) we look for familiar things and manipulate them to create a copy who we want to be. The ‘out of self’ experience somehow gives us more freedom to step away from the boring person we are from day to day.

First, I made an investment, a long platinum blonde wig. Then I went to my wardrobe for inspiration.

I found a  short black and silver lurex backless dress that I’d made many years ago (I have no idea what for, or why on earth it was so short), black tuxedo jacket, very very tarty black pantihose, high heels,  and big dark glasses. The look was complete – Lady Gaga – with careful application of her trademark lips.

I really enjoyed the license my new persona gave me – although I did draw the line at some of the possibilities. It’s no wonder the Queen requested an audience. I loved being a little bit anonymous and got a real buzz from being unrecognised (for a time) – it made me wonder why we don’t take a step outside self more often.

When is an allergy not an allergy?

Mushrooms - a food allergy or a common dislike?

Is it really an allergy or just a dislike? 

Lunch today was more than my usual sandwich. I shared the time with friends at one of Wellington’s favourite cafe/deli’s – La Bella Italia. The menu was fabulous and I was totally spoiled for choice. Not only were the offerings on the menu many and varied, but the specials described by our italian waiter sounded even more tempting in his heavily accented english.

However, one of my friends did not enjoy such luxury of choice. She’s allergic to seafood. How damned inconvenient is that!!!

I am so lucky. I’m not allergic to anything…I can eat whatever I like and feel genuinely sorry for those who do have food allergies. It must be incredibly hard having to watch food intake so carefully especially with young children.

Allergies these days seem so much more commonplace than they were when we were growing up. I don’t recall any of my friends having problems with food. We grew up in an era where you ate what you were given – absolutely everything on your plate – especially at anyone else’s house and even if you loathed it. There was certainly no room for saying “Oh, I don’t eat mushrooms, I don’t like them”, and pushing them to the side of your plate.

My Dad was Polish – in Poland tripe something of a national dish. My mother decided (only once) that she would cook some for him. The smell as it was going through the first cycle of cooking was disgusting and I mean truly disgusting – there’s no other word for it!

She had all the windows open and assured us that after the lengthy preparation (I think she had to boil it for several hours at least twice), we would all really enjoy it. It duly arrived in front of us and we spent much of the evening pushing it round the plate wondering how on earth we were going to dispose of the white gooey rubbery nodule-covered mass without actually eating it. I remember my stomach heaving with the first forkful – watched over by my father of course.

The house rule was that we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we’d eaten every morsel on our plates.

Thankfully our parents left the kitchen for a few minutes, so we took the opportunity to secrete the offending meal at the bottom of the rubbish bin. Even though we assured them that we’d eaten every scrap, Mum never ever cooked it again. Many years later when she and I were visiting Polish family in London for lunch, she told me her one fear was that they’d serve tripe – which they did! It was in a soup this time…naturally I did as I had been trained to do from childhood – I ate it all and said how delicious it was.

It wasn’t!

Only this time my stomach wasn’t heaving with each spoonful. Let’s face it (no offence to my Mum) it was cooked by someone who really knew what she was doing!

So getting back to allergies – I would be really interested in finding out how many people say they are allergic to something rather than owning up to simply not liking it. It’s far more acceptable isn’t it. I’m not saying that my friend was trying to hide a dislike of seafood – not at all. I mean, what’s not to like?  But maybe, just maybe we are far more sympathetic to the word ‘allergy’ than we are to ‘don’t like’.

If you serve a meal to someone who then says “Oh I’m sorry I can’t eat asparagus – I’m allergic to it,” we apologise profusely and beat ourselves up for not asking them earlier for a brief on what they can and cannot eat. How thoughtless we are…

Or are we?

A sense of smell

Uber-perfumed retailing - Lush


Not often a topic of discussion are they but a comment at work got me thinking.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t like my boyfriend using the same cologne as my father. That’s gross.”

We weren’t talking about using the exact same cologne – rather using the same fragrance. That sort of sentiment hadn’t ever occurred to me  but I had to agree that she had a point. I don’t think I’d have liked my lover smelling of the same fragrance associated with my Dad.

This got me thinking about the perfumes associated with special people in our lives, particularly grandparents and parents – those who we’ve known all your lives. About the scent of their skin in an embrace. I’m thinking of a dear friend in Christchurch and of her familiar fragrance when I last visited. Even though I hadn’t seen her for many many months, I recognised her special smell instantly. Familiar smells are welcoming – much like coming home – they’re reassuring.

Undoubtedly the most delicious smell is that of a new born baby – it’s indescribable. Any parents reading this understands what I’m talking about. Even now, if the scent of my babies drifted by, I’d know it. Us mothers are programmed for it , it’s part and parcel of bonding and is very primal. The smell loses intensity after the first few days but lingers for months especially when breastfeeding.

While I was growing up, there were only a few eau de colognes (or after-shaves) available for men. My father – yes I do talk about him a lot – had two favourites. I shouldn’t really call them favourites because if he’d had a greater choice, maybe he would have opted for something different. There’s also the question of where his supply of eau de colognes came from…it just could be that bottles of ‘Old Spice’ were actually gifts from his children! Us!!! Maybe we fueled his ‘love’ of Old Spice. Interesting thought!

He used to slap it, or another called something like ‘4-7-11’, on in the mornings. I can still see him doing it. We used to mimic his routine.

When we were still at primary school my mother was hospitalised for a week or so and my father looked after us, making our lunches in the morning and doing all the cooking. Trouble is – he’d make the sandwiches after slapping on his after-shave. So, our delicious cottage cheese and jam sandwiches, or our even more yummy chicken sandwiches – had a distinct taste of ‘Old Spice’ as well. Not yum…but I’m sure we still ate them.

Smell became taste – a whole new sensation but not one worth marketing.

The lost art of letter writing

Letters to my father - now part of family history

Letters to my father, forming part of family history

I was reading an article entitled ‘Paean to the Pen’ by Lindsay Wright in the April edition of  North & South magazine. It talks of the diminishing art of letter writing.

How long ago is it since you’ve received a handwritten letter? A beautifully crafted note in pen and ink on elegant note paper. I have a friend from England who writes to me in this way several times a year – but excepting those letters and the odd Christmas, birthday card or invitation, all else that arrives in the letterbox (not the virtual one) is computer-generated.

Lindsay says:

“There’s no power button to push on a pen. The power comes from within. The gentle flow of ballpoint on paper happens at a pace which matches the stream (or trickle) of thought between brain and fingers; a natural progression of ideas being transformed into words and communication.

“Handwriting is individual…”

She is so right. Nothing can replace the human touch of pen on paper – no matter how artistic or well-designed the digital font is.

I do concede that the immediacy of emails and texts has a huge attraction. No longer do we have to factor in a minimum of five days for our letters to reach the UK when we can engage in real-time online conversations with our friends.

But handwritten letters are undoubtedly the most special of communications. Do we ever tie emails up with ribbon in a bundle to store away as keepsakes?

Some years ago, I travelled to Poland to try and trace my father’s home – a home taken and then occupied by the Germans during World War II. His collection of letters helped me put together pieces of the puzzle. Although I can’t read Polish, I was able to discern names of the correspondents and I took some letters with me in the hope that someone would be able to translate them and give me an understanding of what the letters were about.

I was successful in that regard and was so thankful that these precious letters had been kept.

My father had a beautiful hand (as do most european-educated people) who took great pride in everything he did – from the way he dressed to the way he wrote.

I thank North & South for reminding me about the simple treasures I have.