Pacific typeface design pioneer's prolific legacy
Late Pacific typeface designer lives on in fonts used by millions of people every day.
A late Samoan-born typeface designer who shunned the tools of the digital age but was revered by the international design community lives on in fonts used by millions of people every day.
The hand-drawn letters of Vale Joseph Churchward, whose funeral was held on Wednesday, appear in myriad media, from opticians' eye charts to the title of the Lonely Planet travel guide books.
Mr Churchward used his Samoan, Chinese, Tongan, English and Scottish ancestry to inform his work, producing 600 typefaces - more than any other individual designer in the world.
Safua Akeli is a curator of Pacific cultures at Te Papa who worked with Mr Churchward when installing an exhibition of his work in 2008.
She took Annell Husband into one of the museum's backrooms to look over some examples.
AKELI: There was just an individuality and a creativity that drew, I think, the attention of international companies like Berthold Phototypes, and particularly his Churchward Design font. I think that really put him on the map. And from there, I think realising that his creativity had gained this attention, he could move into doing Churchward Marianna about his daughter, his wife and so on. So I think that helped his confidence and also ensured that this was his path and this was his art and he was just going to follow it any way he wanted. (Laughs)
HUSBAND: You were saying how he incorporated aspects of his family into his designs. How did he do that? We've got an example here, haven't we, in the Marianna?
AKELI: This is Churchward Marianna. She was six years old when he created this font in the '60s. And she was quite plumpy, so he said it inspired him and he created this font.
HUSBAND: It's also got the energy of a six year old, hasn't it, the way it's italicised?
AKELI: It does, yes. Just the fact that it's easy for a child to use the shape. I think he catered to everyone. So this is such a lovely example of his work and his personality.
HUSBAND: And it was all quite painstaking, wasn't it? We can see that he's done the whiting out round the edges. I guess younger designers today, perhaps, they wouldn't even know those techniques, would they?
AKELI: No. I think it's sort of the end of an era, Churchward's work. When you've got these on negatives, you've got the hand-drawn board here. And the fact that just a curve, as I recall him saying, a curve makes a difference in a font and a difference on the eye.
HUSBAND: You were showing me the Churchward Maori font, which you were saying incorporated elements of the political landscape in the '80s. When did he produce this?
AKELI: 1983. He used his work as a political statement. I do recall him saying he called it Churchward Maori, 'cause he wanted Maori to come together, to be united for the cause. So I really have a special affection for this one. And he'd lived here since the '40s, so Churchward was well aware of the politics of the time. And also the relationship between Pacific and Maori, as well.
HUSBAND: So he was very driven by the creative process?
AKELI: Very driven. As I mentioned, his studio was stacked with boards, paper, he had a photocopier in there. One really amazing tool he had to make the curve was... I don't know how to describe it. It was a flat tool and it just was circular. And it had been sellotaped so many times 'cause you could tell he just used this every time. And he said that was his little secret tool that he had to make those really important curves. So I don't recall seeing a computer, but a small TV, I saw a small television in there. (Laughs)
HUSBAND: And just in terms of the younger generation of typeface designers, would you say that he's a role model to them? Is there still a place for the sort of work that he produced?
AKELI: I think Joseph has demonstrated that there is a place. His recognition now - top honours, awards in New Zealand and nationally - Joseph has shown that you can create things by hand. And it's meaningful. I think that's the other thing that was important for him, it was meaningful. And it makes an impact.
HUSBAND: He'll be very missed, won't he?
AKELI: Sadly missed. He had a great sense of humour. Some of his jokes were outrageous.
HUSBAND: What's an example?
AKELI: (Laughs) I won't say. But he was quite eccentric. Just such a character. A quiet man, but he had a really good sense of humour, and at the same time just a really strong work ethic.
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