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Phil Baines


[December 2006]
“There are things to see and talk about everywhere.”
Phil Baines

Public Lettering
Public Lettering

Can you introduce the concept of Public Lettering ?

By ‘public lettering’ I simply mean lettering outside and in public places. And I use the term ‘lettering’ very deliberately: most of it is not type. I started photographing examples around about 1992 as background for a project that I was leading at Cal Arts. Later, I bought a camera of my own and started photographing things more regularly. Not systematically like a research project, it was just a good way of filling in time when I was in different towns or different countries and it grew from there.
A few years later when Catherine [Dixon] was working towards a PhD at college (Central Saint Martins) she began photographing similar things. As we each shot and discussed more we realised it made sense to combine our efforts and treat each other’s collections as our own.
The British Library, Public LetteringThe walk itself was first evolved in the mid 1990s - to frame a project similar to one I’d set in CalArts - but as a way of making sure that they saw these things in situ.
As a walk for students it ran from the Sainsbury Wing to college, and later to add variety, from the British Library to college. In 1997 they were merged and written up as a 4pp leaflet for delegates to the ATypI conference which was held that year in England.
Feedback from that was positive and my thinking about the subject was sharpened through ongoing discussions with Catherine, and after I started writing about aspects of the subject, first in Eye 34 (about the British 1957-64 motorway and road signs). Shortly after that, three students, Jack Schulze, George Agnelli and Matt Hyde asked if they could turn the walk into a website. For various reasons they couldn’t do the website when they were at college, so we put it together after they’d left.

Where does this idea come from ?

In many ways most of our ideas depend, academically at least, on the thoughts of the first people to write about it, Alan Bartram, Nicolete Gray and James Mosley. They plotted the histories of it and looked at the evolution of the English Letterforms. I think we were conscious of recording and extending what they’d already classified, but I’d describe our interests as broader and perhaps more eclectic.

The Coliseum, Public LetteringHow have you selected the landmarks presented in the site ?

When planning the original walks, certain keys ones leap out - the Coliseum, National Gallery Sainsbury Wing and British Library Gates - from that it was a matter of joining them up. The route is circuitous to ensure an interesting balance of things to see, the kinds of streets are also important as they show different aspects of London’s history and development, that helps when leading the walk in person.

What are your favourite ones ?

St Martin’s Schools, the staircase of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing and the gates to the British Library.

Do you think this kind of project can only be done in London ? Do you have any plan to replicate the idea in another city?

Image by Richard KeglerIt could be done in many cities. Perhaps the most obvious would be Rome where Michael Tyman, Paul Stiff and others from University of Reading have led guided trips for their students for many years. But there are many cities which would be good candidates of a different nature: Bath in England; Edinburgh in Scotland; Barcelona in Spain; Porto in Portugal are four which come to mind immediately, but there are things to see and talk about everywhere.  
This year’s ATypI conference was held in Lisbon, and because Catherine and I have made a number of trips to Lisbon in the last three years documenting sites photographed by Nicolette Gray in the 1960s, we were asked to lead a walk there. Around 80 delegates came with us and we were able to discuss changes over a 40 year period, as well as some of the circumstances contributing to the survival of so much older lettering there.