I started the day with the sad news that Joseph Churchward, QSM, has passed away.
Joe was a great typeface designer, but, more importantly, a pioneer. He wasn’t the first type designer in New Zealand, but he was certainly the most prolific, and, in the modern era, a trail-blazer.
It’s all the more impressive when you realize that Joe did his type design without the aid of computers—he remained sceptical of technology right to the end—using his hand, with pencil to create the outline, then inking them, and whiting out any areas where the ink had gone too far. He left the digitalization of his work to others, including the companies that sought out his designs, most notably Berthold of Germany, through which he had had numerous releases.
Joe’s work was marketable right to the end. New typefoundries approached Joe to license his designs, authors still sought him out to write books about him, and even Te Papa held an exhibition of his work a few years ago as it realized Wellington had a living legend right under our noses. Massey University inducted him into its Hall of Fame, although when he was honoured, he was already too ill to attend.
My own contact with Joe didn’t begin well. I had made the decision in the 1980s to go into typeface design professionally, and, of course, Churchward International Typefaces was the best known name. And it was right here in Wellington. Making my way up to Wang House on Willis Street, I was confronted with a notice: that the company had been wound up the week before. Later, I discovered that Joe had packed up for Samoa, where he was from.
Joe was very proud of his forebears, and the English origin of his name—but he was equally proud of his Samoan and Chinese ancestry. Despite being born in Samoa, he embraced Wellington wholeheartedly, living in Kilbirnie in his youth—I seem to recall him telling me of a residence in Tacy Street—and hanging out with ‘the Māori boys’. He enrolled at what was then Wellington Technical College and some of his early hand-lettering work was created there. However, an incident there also meant that Joe could not get back into hand-lettering in his final years: a fight at the college saw a glass door smash on to his hand, a serious injury that had the principal order him to go to hospital, where surgery was performed.
Joe was arguably the pioneer in typeface design in New Zealand as far as photo-lettering was concerned, and was, to my knowledge, the designer who had the greatest number of designs turned in to typefaces for phototypesetting. I still have, somewhere among my files, a photograph from the late 1960s taken at Churchward International Typefaces, which featured Mark Geard and Paul Clarke, two well respected names in the industry. But Joe’s scepticism toward the computer age saw the company suffer, and I would not meet Joe till 2000 after he returned from Samoa.
That first meeting was a lengthy one but, strangely, we never discussed our methods. We only discussed our finished designs, and Joe actually asked me to collaborate with him a few years later. Nothing came of that, as I was gearing up to do Lucire in print at that point, and it was an opportunity missed. My own interest in typeface design was probably less strong come the mid-2000s—Joe was easily the more passionate—but we stayed in touch, usually by telephone.
On hearing of how ill he was, I visited him last year, and it was only then that we discovered that we actually adopted the same approach to design. The scale we drew at, the pencil-and-ink-and-whitening method—perhaps those were borne out of the limits we had. We had both started before desktop typeface design became the norm, and we both settled on the same method of drawing our creations. And we both did this in isolation, not knowing of peers—we just knew we had a love of drawing type forms by hand.
Joe lamented that he could no longer draw because that College injury meant that he could not hold a pen properly. While in very good spirits, I could sense that Joe was pained by this. He had had a lifetime of creating, but now he was forced to sit back, watch a bit of telly, and reminisce. But the visit was a fantastic one, and the sparkle came back every now and then: Joe remained genuinely excited about type design, even to the last days. My colleague and I were gifted posters and business cards from the heyday of Churchward International Typefaces, items which we will cherish even more deeply knowing it was one of Joe’s last gestures to his peers.
I might go on about how I began designing type digitally, but that’s not that pioneering. At least by then I had copies of U&lc and the knowledge of others who were designing type offshore. Joe began his career postwar, at a time when international communications were not as good and there was less inspiration around. Instead, he found that within himself, found the way forward himself, and just went for it. Joe was the embodiment of the Kiwi can-do attitude, and a focused Samoan work ethic. The typeface design industry is weaker today with this loss.