Thursday, 23 September 2010

London Biblio-Geography: A Personal A-Z by Rachel Hazell, ‘The Travelling Bookbinder' (Few and Far, 242 Brompton Road, London SW3 2BB)

On your next visit to the V&A during the London Design Festival (LDF), be sure to build into your day a visit to Few and Far, for two very good reasons.

The first is the shop itself – an eclectic mix of fashion, furniture and fair. Few and Far was set up by the buying force behind Habitat and the Conran Shop, Priscilla Carluccio. Priscilla is the sister of Sir Terence Conran, a passionate supporter of UK craft and a photographer in her own right. Part of the shop is given over to exhibitions, and this brings us to the second reason to visit.

For the duration of the LDF, Few and Far’s exhibition space is taken over by Rachel Hazell, known as the ‘Travelling Bookbinder’. Her artworks are both cartographic and typographic. Using both the current and found maps Rachel creates exquisite artworks that are steadily being sold off the wall.

Over a coffee we talked about how she got here. The answer was as far from what I expected as was possible.

Rachel studied English at Edinburgh University, followed by a HND in Bookbinding at London College of Printing and then went onto an MA in Book Art at Camberwell College. So far, straightforward enough, but it is what happens next that beggars belief.

Rachel was artist in residence on an Antarctic-bound cruise ship in 2004. She then set sail South with the Royal Navy on HMS Endurance – observing the surveyor’s as they redrew the map of Antarctica in 2006. This was followed by five months as Assistant Postmistress and Penguin Monitor at Port Lockroy, Britain’s Southernmost public post office in 2007/08, her ‘favourite job title so far’.

But it was a reading of Mrs Ps Journey (by Sarah Hartley) that inspired Rachel onto existing ground. ‘Mrs P’ was Phyllis Pearsall, a true English design hero. Pearsall, so the story goes, using the 1919 ordinance survey map to get to a party, got lost and through this experience conceived the idea of mapping London. She walked 3000 miles, including 23,000 London streets, wrting and drawing as she went.

The result was the first London A-Z. On the insistence of her father, an accomplished cartographer himself, Pearsall set up her own company, the Geographers’ A to Z Map Company. The A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs was published in 1936.

Talking to Rachel it is easy to see how important this story is to her and her work. She talks passionately and knowledgably about Pearsall and about maps and mapping in general. Her artworks also show the depth of this passion from the hand at work with fine stitching, cut out letterforms to an adherence to strict structures and grids. The works are mounted in box frames giving them a feeling of historic paramountcy.

While the art itself is important, for me so is the idea behind it: the celebration of a figure we should ensure is part of the design cannon. Phyllis Pearsall should take her place alongside some of her contemporaries like Henry Beck and his revolutionary London Underground Map (1933) and Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells (1952).

As Pearsall often said, ‘on we go’.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Anti Design Festival

From the point of view of graphic design and communication, the printed matter of the Anti Design Festival – ‘default’, ‘punk’, ‘hand-made’ – are signifiers of another time: a time of few resources and even less money. A problem that ADF hardly suffers. At first this was surprising, later turning to a feeling of an opportunity missed.

In its first year and based in Redchurch Street in East London’s uber-hip Shoreditch, ADF was launched on the back of what its founder, Neville Brody says is, ‘25 years of cultural deep freeze in the UK’. Unfortunately it appears that the same can be said of the ADF publicity, with its stark use of black, yellow and red colours and the ‘default’ typeface ‘OCR A’ by Adrian Frutiger.

The use of the outsized ‘X’ or ‘cross’ along with white out of black, yellow out of black and yellow out of red set text, all off-grid, adds to the ‘not sure that I care you read this’ aesthetic. It looks more like the work that a designer thinks Brody would like than something Brody himself would have produced now or even in the 80s.

Before Desktop Publishing (DTP) a fairly significant level of capital was required to produce printed matter of a certain ‘standard’. Political journals, newspapers and magazines of anti-establishment leftists looked the way they did because of a lack of resources rather than any intended design aesthetic.

In this respect, the DTP revolution was to a degree a great leveller. It was only redundant, ‘workerist’ politics that demanded that the reading matter of left-wing organisations should look like the ink would still come off on the readers’ hands, long after it was ever necessary.

In the 1990s the first magazine I designed, Living Marxism, was criticised for looking ‘too commercial’ and ‘middle class’. The idea being that left-wing politics should be ‘packaged’ to look like it was from the poor and struggling.

Of course, this was nonsense then just as it is now. Implicit in this attitude is the problem of style over substance, the reversal of the priorities of the graphic designer. The idea that ‘left-wing’ or ‘anti-establishment’ publications should look cheap or even hand-made today only exposes this further.

The substantial questions of design and culture laid out by ADF printed matter deserve and perhaps demand a graphic language to suit, one that is of the moment as opposed to the past. It wasn’t good enough then. That it is seen as relevant today is ironically – anti-design!

Originally posted on the London Design Festival blog