For the first in his monthly column, Ben Mclaughlin of Mass Observation interviews the people behind Spike Island’s current exhibition, ‘Desmond Jeffrey – Type and Space’.
The work of Desmond Jeffery (1926–1974) exemplifies how the use of hand-set type and a keen eye can produce ‘designed’ ephemera that are at once striking and playful. His instinctive skill in composing type on the page made him one of the most outstanding Modernist printers and typographers in England.'
Through his work, Jeffery formulated a praxis in which anarchist beliefs regarded personal politics and social organisation were realised through visual and textual communication. In his mind, printing ought not to have been out of reach to anyone with a message to share. Jeffery sought out the newest typefaces, exemplifying his interest in new ideas and challenging the established ways of working and thinking. His approach to setting type was thrilling, the layout coming sometimes from his head straight onto the press; this was about doing, not talking. As such he stripped the work back to the very soul of the idea without any excess.
Jeffery’s ideals are ever-present in the work, from the stark but deft arrangements of his everyday work to the polemical message of Red Paper and everything in between. These demonstrate a dexterity of practice, not just with the solid letterforms with which he printed, but with the relationships between object and space and, more importantly, people and ideas.
- Charlotte Hetherington and Jono Lewarne
Type and Space was curated by Sally Jeffery, Charlotte Hetherington and Jono Lewarne. The exhibition featured a collection of posters, prints and cards produced for a selection of clients between 1955 and 1970, selected by Charlotte Hetherington and Jono Lewarne. The works were generously loaned by Sally Jeffery and St Bride Foundation Library and Archives.
The following Interview was conducted by Ben Mclaughlin with Sally Jeffery, Jono Lewarne and Charlotte Hetherington on 20th October 2012, Spike Island, Bristol.
BM Could you explain what led to the exhibition and how the process began?
CH Yes, it started with Helen Legg, Spike Island's director noticing a piece of work in Jono’s studio (contemporary British printmakers, 1960). She had asked about it assuming it was one of his own to which Jono went on to explain his interest in Desmond Jeffery.
JL I had attended the Late Letterpress talk and exhibition at St Bride's Library in 2009 and was amazed by the quality of the work. Shortly after I posted an article online about the event and then a few days after that, Libertad, Desmond’s first wife got in touch with me to say she was glad I enjoyed it and how delighted she was people were writing about the work. We entered into an exchange of emails over the next few weeks. Coincidently at that time I was researching letterpress printing as part of my dissertation and she kindly offered to send me some printed examples from her collection, these have since become some of my most treasured possessions.
BM? What was it about Desmond’s work that really interested you?
JL I suppose it was the strength of the typography and his use of space which seemed very brave to me. I was always very conscious looking at the work of the time in which it was produced, when compared to that of his contemporaries, it’s clear it must have appeared extremely progressive for that period. I always try to look at the work from this perspective.
BM I think what’s fascinating for me is the amount of exhibitions relating to graphic design or the individual careers of graphic designers currently being shown. I’m referring here to the Wim Crouwel retrospective at the Design Museum last year, Richard Hollis at Gallery Libby Sellers and more recently, Tony Arefin at Ikon. I suppose this is a question for you all but more specifically Charlotte as a curator, what are your views on graphic design in the context of a gallery?
CH It’s very exciting for me as I’m not a designer but my interest is in graphic design. It’s very clear there is a demand for it. With regard to this exhibition we are discussing, because Spike Island as an institution aims to support both art and design it feels like the perfect platform for this type of show to take place.
BM Was there anything particular you were aiming to focus on or highlight with the examples of Desmond’s work you have chosen? How were these decisions informed?
JL It was over a conversation with Sally - looking at the work, asking what a piece was, hearing Sally talk about it. Certain things had an interesting story, others were chosen purely for their visual merit. Sally’s instant knowledge of the archive was very helpful, especially how some works related to one another. For me it was also exciting to look at it alongside Charlotte who’s perspective and background is slightly different to mine. I was more focusing on the typography but also my knowledge of the production and how the work had been produced.
CH For me, it was the visual side to the work but equally the stories behind it which I found most interesting. It was great to read Sally’s essay in Typography Papers beforehand, which gives detailed accounts of both his life and work, and the relationship between the two.
SJ I had already curated a much more extensive exhibition at St Bride’s, which was virtually the first ever, although Paul Stiff – just after Desmond died – had done a small exhibition in the Department of Typography at Reading, which very few people saw ... so technically the second exhibition of his work. A new show curated by other people was an interesting idea – and the material was already archived and catalogued. Most of Desmond’s material was originally just knocking around in drawers and plan chests, and was actually filed mostly by typeface, or type family, so if you were to track my catalogue numbers they would just show the order in which I worked my way through the old folders.
BM So all of the work which he archived was done in this way?
SJ Well, you wouldn’t call it an archive! It was just stored in a filing cabinet in the workshop until I organised it all for the exhibition at St Bride’s. Suddenly all of this material and my knowledge of Desmond’s life was becoming known to more than three people in the world and, in a sense, you end up being the proprietor of all that. So when Jono and Charlotte showed up to do a selection, my first instinct was to look at these two people I hadn’t met before and think well ... I’m going to have to explain what are the most important pieces of work and what isn’t, but after about ten minutes, it was very clear that their responses were just right. They had the right instincts and so I just left them to explore. I had assumed I would have to make the selection myself but it was all very much theirs. It was really interesting because they picked things that I wouldn't have picked, from my point of view that means that the bird has flown and that’s what I always wanted it to do.
BM There is a line in Late Letterpress that struck a chord with me, where you’re talking about printers being the disseminators of ideas. Do you think for Desmond it was important that his personal beliefs and work were related?
SJ Well, that is the point in printing! He did have an idea when he was very young that he wanted to be a painter, which he has written about somewhere, but he decided in the end that he ought to do something more useful or something with more utility. He looked at the printed matter around him at the time and found it all really quite depressing, that is until he saw the work of Anthony Froshaug.
BM Yes, I think you can see these principles reflected in the work, especially that idea of utility. I know Anthony was very influential for Desmond, perhaps you could explain a little more about this?
SJ Desmond and Anthony became very close friends in the 1950s and I guess influenced each other to some extent. Anthony had a succession of Adana presses and he printed things at his house in Cornwall until around 1957 when he went to teach at HfG Ulm in Germany. Anthony I think used setting and printing as a means of developing his ideas on typography and also about education, he was less concerned with the choice of typefaces or the process of printing. In fact most things were set in Gill Sans. For Desmond however, the two things were indivisible, the process was the point of it ... it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.
CH I remember discussing previously the pair's on-going working relationship and recall an extract from a letter you showed me which Desmond had sent to Anthony...
SJ Yes, after Anthony came back from Ulm he taught for a short while at the Royal College of Art before deciding on a career change and went on to study Architecture at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square. The letter begins: 'If you are going to do architecture you realise I shall have to become a builder …'
BM You have written in Typography Papers that Desmond was very selective about which designers he would print for.
SJ Yes, there is actually one example in the exhibition, ‘Openings’ that in a sense is not his design, I think it may have been based on a layout by John Furnival or Edward Wright. It is a rare case of Desmond printing for other designers which may seem like a slightly contentious choice for the exhibition.
BM For me I feel it’s an insightful inclusion as it clearly demonstrates Desmond’s difference of working to his peers.
It was interesting to hear Robin Kinross talking earlier about Norman Potter and that generation of post-war designers, the likes of Anthony Froshaug, and Edward Wright amongst others who were heavily influenced by what was happening in Switzerland and other areas of mainland Europe at that time. Apart from Desmond’s friendship with Anthony, where did he draw upon influence and discover the developments of new typefaces?
SJ If you’re thinking about direct influences, I’m not sure if I can pin any down specifically. I suggested in my essay in Typography Papers a couple but they are just possibilities, books that were on the shelves in the workshop. For instance, one by the Dutch typographer Willem Sandberg, as well as the Swiss typographers Max Bill, Karl Gerstner and Josef Müller-Brockmann. Rudolf Hostettler’s specimen book Type is where he would have found the majority of the typefaces he bought. And he subscribed to Typographische Monatsblätter. These would all have come from Alec Tiranti’s shop in Bloomsbury - they were importers of many foreign books and journals at the time. There was also an exhibition of international graphic design at Lund Humphries in 1952, which was organised by Herbert Spencer. There was a full catalogue of that exhibition in an issue of Typographica, of which Spencer was the editor. I don’t remember Desmond ever talking about the exhibition specifically, but I’m sure he would have seen it as he was in London at the time. He wasn’t a naive innocent who simply produced wonderful work, it was all very much informed.
CH You said previously he never referred to himself as a graphic designer...
SJ Yes, he refused the word 'designer', although he clearly was designing and he knew this. It was the association with the particular term ‘graphic design’ which covered a lot of evils and I suppose still does. He wanted to be clear that it was to do with the way in which he worked, directly with type ... not drawing a layout for someone else to execute. It was always for customers, never clients, this was another clear distinction. If you look at Red Paper it was all set directly into the bed of the press. It’s actually a very good illustration of what you can do with type, this extremely rectilinear thing, but it doesn’t always have to go from top to bottom, left to right.
I think what Desmond had is what I can only describe as a good eye, I mean a very sure eye. When you watched him design something he would set it, do a couple of pulls from the press, cigarette on the lip, look at it and move things slightly. This would be done two or three times until it was just right – there is a sort of inevitability about the end result.
BM In all of Desmond’s layouts there is this very rigorous grid system in place, do you think that came from the European influence or the discipline of working with the restrictions of letterpress?
SJ Well, I think you need to bear in mind that Max Bill for instance, was working under the same restrictions, such as the use of justified or un-justified setting. If you set justified type by hand it’s actually very laborious, it can be achieved, but it’s done automatically by a Linotype or Monotype machine. So there are practical reasons for this as well as the intellectually rational ones, for example that it’s uncomfortable to read variably spaced lines. Max Bill’s all-lowercase typography is also something that appears in Desmond’s work. This approach comes out of the constructivist idea that you start with a blank page – the least that you can have – and build from there.
BM How important were the material qualities of the work to Desmond? I see in the display of the exhibition there is clearly indicated not only the typefaces used, but also the paper stock onto which they were printed...
SJ If you think about the time, jobbing printing work was always going to be letterpress, it wasn't offset printed so you didn’t have the option of big flat areas of colour. Most printing at the time was fairly monochrome other than a second colour for titling or emphasis. Desmond was looking for ways to put colour in – one way he did this was by using cheap brightly coloured poster paper. Another was to do linocuts in a variety of colours, sometimes up to five or six passes through the press.
SJ One of the things that I think is significant about the way in which Desmond worked was in his sense of scale. Always using the minimum number of different type sizes, usually only one display size alongside a text size – you might add another if it was really necessary, but this goes back to the idea of starting with an empty page and only adding to it as you need it. So if you want emphasis you don’t have to put it in 24-point bold and print it in a second colour, you probably only need to do one of these things.
BM I wanted to talk about some examples from the exhibition. I noticed a business card for Orwell Books where the initials are set in printer’s rules reminiscent of Josef Albers combination alphabet, could you tell me more about this?
SJ It is made up from printer’s rule and geometric casts. Desmond had a fount of these geometric shapes which came from the Weber type foundry in Germany and you will see them showing up all over the place in his work. There was also a set of printer’s ornaments from the Stevens Shanks Foundry which he would use, for example in the Wapping to Windsor gallery card.
BM Im fascinated with how he uses these almost as a toolkit or set of readymades for his work but without them feeling monotonous, they never feel like purely ornamentation but rather part of the concept for the design.
CH Another piece which stands out for me and illustrates your point perfectly is the Contemporary Printmakers card which uses these to a very simple but visually striking effect.
SJ Yes. It’s about doing what you can with the means you have, which is actually the essence of any work at all when you think about it. If we go back to Orwell Books, which was an anarchist bookshop in Ipswich run by a man called Tony Reeder, the card itself is a bit of a wind-up. If you give first-year typography students an exercise to design a logo, it’s usually based on letterforms, a monogram in a sense. They discover there are various pitfalls in making shapes out of ball and stick letters which designers learn to avoid, but in this case it was done on purpose to tease Tony.
BM As a final question what influence do you think Desmond’s work has had?
SJ I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’m no longer teaching and I don’t actively watch new developments ...
JL Personally to go back and look at Desmond’s work they are probably some of the best examples of that kind of printing in the UK for the time and something which resonates with me, I find myself often coming back to this work for reference. There is a lasting quality to it. I think his influence would be very hard to trace in some respects though.
SJ From about 1958 onwards Desmond always taught typography, at the the London School of Printing first in Clerkenwell and later at the Elephant and Castle. He liked working with students. I think his influence can be traced in the successive generations of designers who were in his classes. This is perhaps more important in some ways than the influence of the work itself, and teaching was always important to Desmond.
Charlotte Hetherington joined Spike Island in 2008 as assistant curator. She is responsible for the planning and coordination of the exhibitions and events programme.
Sally Jeffery lived and worked with Desmond Jeffery from the mid 1960s until his death in 1974. From the late 1970s she taught typography and ran a design studio, first in Suffolk and then in London, where she still lives.
Jono Lewarne is a typographer from Bristol. In 2010 he set up City Edition Studio, a graphic design studio based at Spike Island.
Late letterpress: the work of Desmond Jeffery, Sally Jeffery / St Bride Library
Typography Papers 8: Modern Typography in Britain, Graphic Design, Politics and Society, Hyphen Press
Edward Wright: Readings, Writings, Hyphen Press
Anthony Froshaug: Typography & Texts / Documents of a Life, Hyphen Press
Willem Sandberg: Designer and Director of the Stedelijk, Ad Petersen / 010
Max Bill: Typography, Advertising, Book Design, Ram Publications
Typographica, Rick Poynor / Princeton Architectural Press
Ben Mclaughlin, Mass Observation