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"Wouldn't it be nice for a wave to come and get rid of the pencil marks?"
Conversations
1 January 2011

Joseph Churchward is the font master

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Amelia Handscomb

Kate Bezar on Joseph Churchward

At age 78, most folk would be well in to their retirement; Joseph Churchward however has no plans to slow down. The Samoan-born Churchward is New Zealand’s (if not the world’s) most prolific typographer. Though he lost his thriving business following the sharemarket crash of the ‘80s, he stuck with his craft and is still going strong in his home studio in Wellington. His collection of typefaces has been acquired by the National Museum, Te Papa, and was the subject of a recent exhibition there.

Joseph’s designs have been used as newspaper mastheads, the opening titles of movies and numerous logos. Being a man of a certain generation, Joseph doesn’t have a website or the like, but lo and behold, there were two J. Churchward’s in the phone book and the first one we tried turned out to be the one we were after. We gave him a call shortly after he’d been named in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. We’d barely introduced ourselves before Joseph had launched into his great story.

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

JOSEPH CHURCHWARD: I’m an old man now, I just turned 78 last week. My mother was 17 and my father was 24 when they had me. My father was George Churchward and my mother was Mary Coe. Her grandfather, my great grandfather Coe, that’s C-o-e, was born in New York. That’s my Scottish side. He went to Samoa on a sailing ship, as a cabin boy. When he was 23, he remembered that all the girls in Samoa wore nothing on top, so he rushed back to Samoa and he ended up with six wives and over 40 kids! So today, I’m related to most Samoan half-castes [laughs]. His name was Jonas Coe. You’ll probably find it on the computer. His daughter was Queen Emma of the South Pacific.

KATE BEZAR: She was your grandmother?

She was my mother’s aunty. Her brother was my grandfather … from two different wives [laughs]. My great grandfather’s first wife was Malietoa’s daughter. You know Malietoa of Samoa [the dynasty of Samoan chiefs]?

No … so that’s your Scottish and Samoan ancestry. You also have Chinese blood, is that right?

Yes, my grandmother was half Chinese. Her name was Ellen Ahsue, A-h-s-u-e. You know, only Chinese from Samoa have A-h before their name. A-h means slavery. Apparently the Germans used to send slaves to Samoa, eh, for plantations, usually Solomon islanders. But they made a mistake and sent three loads of Chinese, and they changed all their names by adding A-h to them. I remember my father always used to laugh and say A-h means ‘Sir’ in China. I had a big business and I employed a Chinese girl. She laughed every time I’d say that and go, “Joe, come and sit down and I’ll explain to you. A-h means slave in China.” You know, going back in history, Samoans came from Taiwan – they’re part Chinese, and part African. All Polynesians are part Chinese and part African, and of course all Polynesians come from Samoa, even the Maoris. So I’m part Tongan, part Samoan, part Chinese, part Scottish and Churchward is English. He was the English Consul in Samoa for five years.

Do you think that being such a blend of different bloods has made you a certain type of person?

It made me a genius [laughs] and a flirt [laughs more]! The way I see it, it’s not only my side, it’s everyone in the world. They’re all the same. We’re all flirts. That’s what I discovered as I grew up. I call it ‘generosity’.

I think that’s the islander coming out in you.

The English are no better, and the Scottish. Well, my great grandfather had six wives and over 40 kids in Samoa!

Where does your wicked sense of humour come from?

Probably from all the bloods I’ve got. They’re probably all chucking off about one another inside of me, and that’s where my humour comes from. I keep on thinking my Chinese blood is what’s forcing me to work hard, but then, on the other hand, I think that all my different bloods are fighting inside of me and forcing me to work hard too.

Of course. So, going back, you were born in Samoa, but went to New Zealand when you were 13, right?

Yeah, I arrived here on February 18th, I think, in 1946.

Why did you go to New Zealand?

Because of school. Actually, my grandmother had enrolled me in Grammar School in Auckland because my dad went there. Then I discovered she was coming to Wellington and I cried and cried, and so she brought me to Wellington too. I’ve loved Wellington ever since I arrived.

Were you very close to your grandmother?

Oh yes. I’m the eldest grandchild. They had 40 grandchildren. My parents never got married, so my grandparents took me over and I started to call my father my ‘brother’. I never met my mother, until I was 17, when I went back to Samoa.

Oh gosh … It must have cost a lot to send a Samoan grandson to New Zealand for schooling? Was that unusual?

Well, the fares on the banana boats were 18 pounds, very cheap. And kids were less than 18 pounds …

So your grandmother just wanted you to have a great education?

Yes, yes, so I grew up with some Maori cousins in Ross Street, in Kilbirnie [in Wellington].

What did you love at school? How did you get into doing what you do?

Well, the reason I became an artist is because in Samoa we talk a lot of rubbish when we get together, eh. When I say ‘rubbish’, I mean meaningless words, joking all the time … otherwise you haven’t got anything to talk about. If you can talk rubbish, you can talk about anything. It makes talking fun. When I was a little boy, you know, we talked a lot of rubbish, just to be funny. When I came here, I met a few artists and they talked the same, so then I decided to become an artist.

That’s as good a reason as any, I guess.

Yeah, yeah. The Samoan style is just like artists. They talk a lot of rubbish – absolutely nothing – just to have a conversation. I loved that, so I became an artist.

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #26 of Dumbo Feather

How did you know what kind of artist you wanted to be?

Well, you don’t have to pick anything what you want to be. You just become an artist, eh. As you go along, you start to realise what you’re good at. In my first year at Wellington Technical College, I got a Certificate for lettering. I got a Distinction for lettering. Although, in the very beginning, when I was a little boy in Samoa, there were what we called ‘house girls’, and they used to look after me. They always used to take me down to the beach and they would scribble the ABC on the sand, and they told me to copy them. I always used to admire it when the waves came onto the beach and cleaned the letters off. Even today, when I rub the pencil off my artwork, I always think of that – I think, wouldn’t it be nice for a wave to come and get rid of the pencil marks?

So I always thank the Samoan house girls for teaching me the ABC on sand. Perhaps that was the beginning of my interest in letters. Anyway, after college I became a commercial artist at Charles Haines Advertising on the fourth floor of the Dominion Building. When I joined them I was only 17, eh. A lot of the other artists were too lazy to do hand lettering, so I started doing it all for the advertising agency. Working seven days and seven nights. Then, all of a sudden, when I became good at it, the other artists didn’t like it. I said, “Serves you right for being lazy.” So then I started a little business and I brought all my machinery from Berthold in Germany.

What kind of machinery?

Headlining machines, typesetting machines … I had a big, big business [Churchward International Typefaces, which became New Zealand’s largest typesetting firm]. I had 25 in my staff, but I lost everything in 1988, with the depression.

Was that after the 1987 share market crash?

Yeah. I lost everything then.

How did you lose everything? Was a lot of your work dependent on companies …

Well, I changed my bank and my bank cut me down, eh, and declared me bankrupt. I had a beautiful home in Courtenay Place, behind the Embassy Theatre, and they sold it for me. So after, I went to Samoa. My lawyer advised me to go to Samoa because a lot of other business people were committing suicide in Upper Willis Street, jumping through windows … I went to Samoa in November, 1988 and then I came back in 1995. I was starting to concentrate on designing typefaces then.

So prior to that, your business wasn’t designing typefaces, it was much more about graphic design and typesetting?

Yeah, all my clients were advertising agencies and they gave me a lot of work. Actually, I did all of the work for Four Square and Woolworths. In fact, it was Woolworths that started me designing typefaces. They used to send roughs of their ads through, for me to do their finished art. The word ‘Woolworths’ was always attracting me, so I designed a typeface that looked like it, and that was my very first typeface!

Were computers around back then?

Well, I was actually the first person in Wellington to look at the Apple Mac. They probably thought I was going to be the first buyer in the country. They fed in one of my symbols and the Apple Mac produced six different versions of it. I got suspicious, eh. I thought it was a cartoon machine. Then I discovered that the biggest shareholder was Walt Disney, so I thought, it’s a cartoonist’s machine, and I rejected it. A few months later, I lost my business because of that machine.

It took all the work away from me, the computer.

Do you regret not buying one at the time?

When I lost my business, I did regret it, but I already had a big machine from Berthold in Germany, which took ten typists to work on it … but it wasn’t as good as the Apple Mac. Although I had that big machine that took ten typists, I still lost my business.

Did you ever learn how to use a computer?

No, I turned against it then.

Well, it hasn’t stopped you designing almost 666 typefaces!

I design with the hand and my brain. I’m still doing it by hand.

Did you enjoy running a business and being a business man, or did that take you away from being an artist and ‘talking rubbish all day’?

Yes, yes, but I was still flat out, making name plates and all sorts of different things, eh. All hand drawn. I had a lot of typesetters, including some of my daughters.

You named one of your fonts after one of your daughters didn’t you?

Yes, after one of my daughters. Marianna [Churchward Marianna and Churchward Marianna Shadow fonts]. She works at the University.

So, after you lost the business and went back to Samoa, what did you do during those years away?

I did artwork in Samoa too. I did very well there as well. When I came back [to New Zealand], I was too old to start a business again, so I started making typefaces. You know, people say I’ve done more than any other person in the history of typesetting, and I’m quite proud of that. Actually, I’m absolutely thrilled I’ve completed them. When I die, it’s up to me to leave them for human beings to use. It’s my gift to the human beings.

How many typefaces have you created?

Well, right now I’ve completed 654.

Wow!

And I’m working on 12 more, so that will give me 666.

When you came back and started creating typefaces, was it just you pretty much working on your own?

Yes, I even lived on my own. My wife and I separated in 1987 and then I lost everything in 1988.

What kept you going during that time? That must have been extraordinarily hard. You lost your wife, you lost your business … What made you want to keep going?

I think my interest in the typefaces was too strong for me to lose my mind. Today, when I see two or three or four letters I like, I make up what’s missing. I’ve got to that stage.

How long does it take you to design a typeface?

Well, one typeface takes me 150 to 300 hours, so it’s taken three-quarters of my life … Mind you, there are some typefaces where I can see a short-cut, and it takes a lot less hours.

What takes the time? For those of us who don’t know how to go about designing a typeface, where do you start?

Well, I start by scribbling with pencil, and once I start liking a few letters, I start thinking of what’s missing …

Are your typefaces recognisable? Is there a style there?

Yeah. I‘ve done eight Maori typefaces. The Maoris tell me I shouldn’t fiddle around with their typefaces, but they haven’t got one. I’m doing them a favour, eh. When I’m dead, it becomes theirs. I called one of them Churchward Maori, one Churchward Te Papa and one Churchward Ta Tiki. They’re all in the museum [The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, in Wellington] and they’re very, very proud of them. I’ve also got some Samoan ones.

Any Chinese-inspired ones?

I’ve done 48 Chinese typefaces, 48 different weights … like italic.

How do you come up with an idea for a new typeface?

Like I said, if I like some letters, I start making up what’s missing.

But how do you keep coming up with new shapes for the letters?

Well, I don’t know … It happens in my head: from my head to my hand, and my hand to my paper. A lot of people are designing their typefaces with a computer and I keep telling them it’s better to design it from your head. Slowly they are telling me that I am right and they’re not so keen on using the computer for doing typefaces any more.

What is it about doing it by hand that makes it that much better?

I don’t know, I really don’t know. Well,

it’s straight down from my head,down to my hand, down to the paper.

I don’t know how to explain it.

I heard that you almost lost your hand at some point.

Yes, I was chasing someone down at Wellington Technical College and he released a swinging glass door at me and my hand went through it. When I pulled it out, my whole hand was hanging by the skin and there was blood everywhere! The headmaster took me to the hospital immediately and all the students and teachers visited me every day …

That was your right hand?

That’s the hand I’m using now.

So you’re pretty lucky?

I can’t … You know when you stretch your hand out? I can’t flatten it out, but I can hold a pen, a pencil, and a brush so. I’m very lucky …

I wonder if it’s because you nearly lost it that you became so intent on using it … to gain your livelihood from it?

Yes, yes, but I think mostly it’s from my mind. I think my mind is controlling the whole thing. On the other hand, I’ve got those five different bloods in my body and perhaps they’re all helping me.

Sometimes I get fed up and I go for a walk, and all of a sudden I feel somebody pushing me to get back to my work.

You’re also very lucky that you love what you do. Are you going to keep creating typefaces ‘til the very end?

Well, I don’t know whether I should go to 1,000, or give it up at 666. I keep joking to people that 666 is ‘Sex, sex, sex’ and they all laugh. French letters!

Sounds like you’ve almost got there. You can’t give up now. Are you slowing down?

Well, I’m working on 12 more. I’m flat-out, pencilling them out now and outlining them. The next stage is to fill them out with black ink and after that, the next stage is to retouch every letter with white paint.

What happens to them then? Do they get transferred into a computer?

Yeah, if anybody’s interested they can let me know. I send them copies and then away they go. They use the computer to turn it into a font. Now, I had a lot of companies in Germany and Europe that had my first typefaces. Berthold was the first one, but Berthold collapsed a few months before I did.

Did they not pay you for those typefaces then?

They only paid me a commission. The fellow who sells the fonts [www.myfonts.com], pays the fellow who makes the font 75% of the price. They keep 25% and the fellow who made the font sends me 50% of what he gets. I think he’s cheating me a little [laughs], but what’s more important to me is people using it. I think that’s a bigger thing than money.

Is that the kind of advice you’ve given your children?

Well, I’ve never wanted to teach them typefacing. I never wanted them to sit at the table for so many hours like I do, but they learned from my business when they worked for me. My eldest son is 53. He’s a director of Saatchi & Saatchi in Sydney. I’ve got another son and he’s the manager of New Zealand Print Basin Reserve.

You must be very proud of them. I imagine they saw you work extremely hard when they were young and saw what a good work ethic does.

Yes, they probably learned it from me, but I never taught them. They were working in my business when it collapsed.

You’ve obviously had highs and lows. What do you think is the most important thing to get out of what you do?

The most important thing in my thoughts is designing more typefaces. I’m doing man, or human beings, a favour. I just leave an alphabet for them to use.

That’s my gift to humans. That is the reason I was born, from my point of view.

I’ve seen the first alphabet in the world. It’s in a museum in Damascus, Syria.

Yes, it’s the Roman one, isn’t it? I think they did eight [characters] and the whole population did it, eh. And here I am, I’ve done more than 600 with my broken arm … You know the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4? Well, the English pinched them off the Indians and included them in the Roman alphabet. Because the Roman numbers are X, V, III, when you write down a million, it’s about a yard long. So, the Indian numbers are terrific. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. You know? Look, look, they are using it for everything now, eh. Do you have any other interests, or do you really just design typefaces, even at the age of 78? I sit down to do my work, I’ve got my TV, my radio, what more would I want? And my meals. I make all of my own meals … What more do I want?

Are your children nearby?

They go up to their mother. They’re too scared to come down, because I keep on telling them to stop interrupting with my work … so they leave me alone. Why don’t you come and look at my studio?

Well, I’m in Auckland.

Oh, good heavens. I’ve got a daughter there and her husband. Her husband’s a builder.

How many children do you have?

Well we had four boys and four girls. We lost one boy. We’ve got three boys and four girls. We’ve got nine granddaughters and nine grandsons, so we have contributed to that side of life!

Have you got all your notebooks and fonts stored somewhere safely?

No, when it [the business] collapsed, I gave them all away.

But somewhere, is there a record of all 644 typefaces that you have done?

The fellow who makes them into fonts, his company is BluHead Studio in America [the Studio’s goal is to make Joseph Churchward’s entire library of fonts available in OpenType format]. He has 557, I think.

You post him your drawings on paper?

Yeah. He doesn’t make fonts out of the whole 48 or 24. He’s just making a font out of one, one weight.

When was the last time you went back to Samoa?

I went a couple of times after 1995, when I returned. I got a nephew down there with a car business and he’s shouted [paid for] me three times since I got back. He keeps nagging me, asking when I want to come back. I’m thinking of making a proposition to the Samoan government, to see if I can go back to Samoa and live in Robert Louis Stevenson’s house [in Apia] for nothing, and display all my typefaces there … and when I die, for them to bury me next door to Robert Louis Stevenson.

After all, without typefaces, Robert Louis Stevenson wouldn’t be famous for his books.

I visited Robert Louis Stevenson’s house and there are a lot of workers there and they all said, “Welcome, are you Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandson?” I looked at his photos up on the wall, and boy, he looks similar to me! Or I look similar to him … He’s Scottish, eh, and of course I’m part Scottish myself. That’s how I got the idea.

There was a big exhibition of your work in Wellington recently, wasn’t there? At Te Papa.

Yes, it was wonderful. They just published a, I don’t know what to call it … it’s nine pages and it’s called Letter Man: Joseph Churchward’s world of type. It’s got photos of me doing my lettering. It’s got photos of me with my Maori alphabets, and a photograph of me in front of my grandfather and mother … It’s a lot of writing about me on it.

I’ll try to get a copy, I’d love to read more.

I think they’re giving them away … Sorry for all my rubbish talk, as I said, that’s why I became an artist!

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Amelia Handscomb

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