Archived posts: September 2011

Conversations on the Coast

Now this is just lovely. We’ve just taken delivery of a fantastic little book, Conversations on the Coast, which brings together a series of short interviews with artists and craftspeople from around the British Isles.

The book is the work of designer and photographer Nick Hand, who set off in 2009 to travel the coast of the British Isles by bike. Along the way he interviewed and photographed a wealth of local artisans – from flute makers to stone letter carvers, from stickmakers to boat builders. He put the photos and interviews together as soundslides on his site Slowcoast, and this book is a beautifully edited version of those soundslides.

The book arrived wrapped in hand-illustrated tissue paper, with a lovely postcard.

The photography throughout is beautiful, and each of the short interviews is illuminating and touching. As a whole, the book is a wonderful portrait of people doing things they love – not for money, not for fame – but because it makes them happy.


End to end, ended

A thousand or so miles. Twenty one days. Just one puncture. A bit of rain, but far more sun. Two slightly sore knees. A lot of Snickers bars. Sheep, sheep, and more sheep.

Yesterday afternoon we finally made it to John o’ Groats, the final destination for our ride from one end of Great Britain to the other.

It’s been an incredible journey. If you haven’t already, do jump over to our Gentlemen Cyclists blog to read all about it.

We’d just like to say an immense thank you to all the guest posters who have filled in in here during the trip. Brilliant work all round.

Our normal ramshackle service will resume next week.

Laura Dockrill: Over I

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. To end the series, today’s post is a poem from the particularly fabulous Laura Dockrill. ~

Over I Over I
The hole in the ceiling
Gasping at me
Gazing at me
Crazy for me
A spy in the sky
When I look up high
Over I Over I
Like an eye into my mind
What do you see in my mind?
When you look into my mind
As nimble as the head of a pin
Or a binocular lens
Lazy eyes on me
Gone goggling at me
Gone goggling at me
Now laughing at me
There’s a needle in the ceiling
What you seeing?
There’s a needle in the ceiling
What you seeing?
Through that needle in the ceiling what you seeing
And the clanging of noises
Makes me hear all these voices
Over I Over
I hear all these noises
Gone cut my lights out
Go on cut my lights out
Start making me do things
Start making my choices
Now that tiny black hole does rot
In my eye a knot
In my mind a knot
Cannot follow a jot
I’m not following you but
That peeping tom
Gone voyaging on me
Follow me follow me
Now clamp down on me
Harness me harness me
Judder my
Vice but don’t give me advice
And ignite me
Don’t blind me
Over I Over I
Over I Over I
There’s a needle in my ceiling
What you seeing?
There’s a needle in my ceiling
And it’s breathing.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

Eleanor Crow on variations on a theme

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the quite marvellous book designer Eleanor Crow. ~

It might indicate borderline stamp collecting syndrome, but an ephemera spotter can find a good visual multiple to be irresistible. This True-Fit Seat Covers postcard (©1987 Quantity Postcards, San Francisco), sent by a friend (thanks Clare), is one such example. The variations in weave pattern and colour of the textiles are a delight.

And another card Outils de Jardinage (©1995 Editions du Désastre, France) is of interest not only because I’ve recently been allotted an allotment, but for the charming comparison of prong, spike and blade on the humble garden tool.

My battered copy of Dictionnaire Usuel par le texte et par l’image (Librairies Quillet-Flammarion, Paris 1956) relies heavily on visual multiples. I cannot think that I might urgently need to compare timber grains from European trees in the immediate future, but this mis-registered depiction of their subtle variations in pattern and colour is enough to merit more than a glance. The stuttering speckled lines of the Platane, or plane tree, is particularly lovely.

Similarly, the Dictionnaire Usuel’s colour plate of horse types is deeply appealing to even the equine ignoramus. The horses face in rows alternately to the left and the right, in uniform threes, until the last line where the tiny Shetland pony has snuck in as a rebellious fourth, and persuaded its tall friends to break with the rhythm and face to the left.

This colour plate from one of my favourite costume reference books, A Pictorial History of Costume (©1955 Zwemmer, Germany) provides a colourful display of historic oriental footwear in all its embroidered and sculpted glory – a museum display at a glance.

It’s precisely this idea of comparison at a glance that makes such multiples both informative and a visual delight. Information designers rely on such techniques – creating ‘small multiples’, a term popularised and described with characteristic elegance by Edward R. Tufte in Envisioning Information(©1990 Graphics Press, Connecticut). He writes of ‘small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful’ that enforce visual comparisons and ‘demonstrate the scope of alternatives’.

Here’s a page from the legendary Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder (©1983 PBC International, New York), demonstrating the special ‘earmarks’ or distinctive identifying features of typefaces. Technically useful, it’s also visually arresting in an abstract way with its array of Vs and Ws pinned to the page like butterfly wings.

But it’s not just the small multiple that appeals when enjoying a good visual comparison – spotting a difference-spotter spotting the difference can be fun too. Here’s a 1950s Du Pont employee investigating weather wear across varying paint samples (from the March 1956 edition of Fortune magazine). It’s the contrast of his sombre figure angled across the serried ranks of colour hues that gives this image its charm.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

Max Fraser on Freedom

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the mighty fine Max Fraser: design author, journalist and curator. ~

I’m writing this post only a few days after completing a new book and sending it to the printer. Without going into too much detail, the publication is most certainly a celebration of visual culture with a particular focus on contemporary product, interiors and architecture. [Max is being very coy here – it’s the 2012 edition of the brilliant London Design Guide – an essential guide to the London design scene – Alistair]

Assessing manmade environments is at the very core of what I do professionally and is inevitably part of my life when I’m ‘off-duty’ too.

Sitting here, enjoying my first day off for as long as I can remember, my desire to write about even more visual culture is rather unappealing. I hope you understand. Instead, I’d prefer to turn my attentions to the great cycling feat that Alistair is enduring and which he is only days away from completing.

Looking at the map of his route, I feel envious as to the wonderful freedom he must be enjoying. And it is freedom on many different levels: freedom of the open road; freedom from familiar daily routine; freedom to become lost in thought; and, yes, freedom from visual culture.

The latter, of course, is not strictly true. Alistair will have experienced an eye-opening snapshot of British life, in itself a maelstrom of visual culture which he is not purposefully seeking out but is experiencing as part of his route through the everyday fabric of this country. Along his journey from A to B, he cannot avoid signs of progression as well as neglect – everything from the traditional to the modern, the quaint and the brash, the beautiful and the ugly. The excitement is derived from not knowing which order they will come in.

Indeed, this visual stimuli is exactly the refreshing influence that everyone needs from time to time. Removing yourself from the world of ‘considered’ culture to one of ‘real’ life is the most valuable collateral for anyone contributing to our complex layering of society. Such a journey as Alistair’s provides a healthy dose of relevance and context which he can use, consciously or not, in his ongoing contribution to our visual culture.

The best inspiration can be found when you’re not looking for it, a belief close to the practice of the late graphic designer Alan Fletcher. As Alistair is tearing through the British countryside, Fletcher’s exhibition is on show at the cultural hotspot of Kemistry Gallery in London, titled The Art of Looking Sideways.

I am quite sure that the legendary Fletcher would approve of Alistair’s bicycle adventure although, for your own safety Alistair, keep at least one eye on the road!


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

Caroline Roberts on The Elephant and Castle

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from one of our neighbours, the wonderful Caroline Roberts, co-editor of Grafik Magazine, and partner at the rather fine Woodbridge & Rees. ~

In an attempt to avoid the sweltering experience of traveling on the Underground I recently changed my journey to work, catching the Thameslink overground train from Elephant and Castle station.

The Elephant and Castle is an area I’ve actively dodged over the years, only stopping off for the odd vist to the now defunct Pizzeria Castello, the Ministry of Sound and LCC. Despite being a mere hop and a skip away from the City and the West End, it’s an area that has steadfastly resisted attempts at gentrification. The fumed filled-dual carriageway that rips through its centre, the confusing dual-roundabouts and dingy, disorientating (not to mention dangerous) walkways that pedestrians are forced down make for a totally depressing urban experience, of which no amount of jaunty murals or garish rebranding can alter.

Going to the station involves walking through the middle of the much maligned shopping centre, something I haven’t done for years. At 9am it’s a decidedly strange experience — there’s weird tinkly piped music and an even weirder collection of very multicultural shops including a Polish restaurant, a South American café, a discount shoe store, a shop selling cheap handbags, a pawn brokers and a very forlorn looking estate agent.

It wasn’t always like this — in the 1930s the area was known as “the Piccadilly of South London”, home to a department store, a shoe factory and several huge cinemas. The area was badly hit during the war and rebuilt in the 1960s to include a ground-breaking new shopping centre. The first ever covered shopping mall in Europe, it had 120 shops and an underground car park, but in true E&C style, due to some wildly inaccurate financial forecasting, the original plans had to be reduced, budgets were slashed, corners were cut and only twenty-nine shops actually opened.

Things have gone steadily downhill ever since. The large swathes of badly designed social housing that surround it and the problems that brought, coupled with lack of investment over the years meant that the shopping centre has been in a slow but pretty much continual decline. It’s hardly a surprise — creating a scheme where traffic is treated with more respect than pedestrians doesn’t encourage people to visit an area, and it seems blindingly obvious now (although not at the time apparently) that no-one would want to shop at the Elephant when they can get into the West End in ten minutes.

On his site Post War Buildings, Mike Althorpe describes the experience of walking through the shopping centre: “The odd combination of people, languages, noise, smells, bustle, subways, traffic and 1960s architecture is almost Blade Runner-esque. This is not entirely inappropriate. The Elephant and Castle is dystopian. It is an alternative future.”

It’s been decided that the only solution for the shopping centre is to knock it down and start again from scratch. You can understand why, although I have to say that I’ve developed a weird fondness for the place. It has a look, sound and smell (of fried food and desperation probably) that’s almost otherwordly, and it’s about as far from the slick, characterless retail environment of the likes of Westfield as you can get.

It’s not clear yet what exactly is in store for the new shopping centre — chances are it’ll be pretty bland though. Let’s just hope they don’t make the same mistakes again. Sad as the shopping centre has become, it seems a shame to demolish it completely, as most of its problems stem from the wider planning choices that were made for the area. It has a sort of crappy charm and an authenticity to it that will be stamped out in the name of ‘regeneration’. Like it or loathe it, The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is a London landmark. Maybe not as attractive as Trafalgar Square or Big Ben, but still very much part of the fabric of the city and a timely reminder of what can happen when things go wrong. I wonder what’s going to happen to the elephant? Let’s hope he’s returned to a more dignified greyish colour…

Further reading: The Car and The Elephant


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~





Alistair Hall on the road, still

Hey there folks, hope you’re digging the guest posts. I’m still heading north on our little cycle ride. I’m currently sitting in a lovely little café in Braemar, having yesterday cycled across the Cairnwell Pass, the UK’s highest main road.

All being well, we should pitch up in John o’ Groats next Thursday. And I’ll be back with you from the following Monday.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the guest posters. There’s more great stuff on the way.

Phil Baines on remembering, the French way

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the redoubtable Phil Baines: designer, writer, teacher, and cyclist. ~

I’ve long had a fondness for wandering old cemeteries, seeing the variety of lettering and types of memorial, but in all my trips to France had given their graveyards little thought.

This summer however we spent two weeks in Azerables, a small village near the Creuse valley in northern Limousin, pretty close to the centre of the country. During the first (dull) day we explored the village on foot, and on one of the quieter roads out came across the sight of old greenhouses peeping over a low wall. This turned out to be the cemetery, detached from the church, and so very different to the British kind.

Very few of the graves had the upright carved stone, preferring instead a flat slab with lettering glazed onto ceramic, and occasionally steel, disks or rectangular plates, hung, screwed or inset. The variety of lettering, like our carved versions from the 18th and 19th centuries, was quite astonishing too, with many looking like pages from an old typesetting book or Nicolete Gray’s book Nineteenth century ornamented typefaces.

And then the greenhouses, an optional extra, a poor man’s version of the Grecian temple (some of which were also present), generally open-fronted and acting as protection to ornaments, beautiful ceramic flowers, occasional real ones, and additional plaques or photographs.

Its always a treat to see something familiar treated differently, and this cemetery was a pleasure to explore. It was lovely to see the care lavished on all aspects of the markers, the variety of slabs, the profusion of lettering styles, and the introduction of these iron and glass mini-cathedrals to contain the flowers, other tablets and carriers of memory. A pleasure too to see how remarkably well cared for everything was. Azerables spoiled me though: elsewhere the double-glazing salesmen have been round, modern alternatives now exist, factory-made industrial units, without the individual touches which make the originals such a treat. They serve the same purpose, but don’t fit in at all.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

Ace Jet 170 on pigeons, planes, and asterisks in the sky

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the inimitable Richard Weston, the man behind the brilliant Ace Jet 170 blog. ~

207. That’s how many people know I am crazy about Instagram at the moment. Naturally nosey, it fits me like the proverbial hand attire. Spare moments, and some that aren’t actually spare, are spent peering into places I should probably not peer for potential Insta-fodder. Down darkened allies, over rooftops, into murky rivers. So far, it hasn’t got me into trouble.

On the surface Instagram looks like a gimmicky, fake retro photo filtering application. Masking, as it does, bloody awful photos in old-style falseness. You probably know of it, even if you don’t use it. Because I use it frequently, every day, I find it hard to imagine you aren’t at least aware of it and its auto-counterfeitery.

Perhaps you’re like I used to be. At first, I was repelled by Instagram’s faux photo styling. There’s no craft in it. You point, you click, you pick a filter. But hang on. Your crap photo, surprisingly, looks better. It really does. Often, not just better; more than better.

But the reality is, Instagram is much more than a tricksy little app for polishing your photographic turds. Photo sharing is ace. Arguably way more fun, certainly more intimate, than Twitter; it is the natural successor to moment-sharing-as-text. Especially for snoopers.

So we can show people what we’re seeing. We can show off a bit (hey, look where I am! / look what I’ve got!). And we can collect instances because we can feed them, effortlessly, straight into Flickr or Facebook. Or even into more purpose-built diarising apps like Momento.

And like the way Twitter can make you think more about the words you use and can act as a channel for those thoughts you have that are of no real value to anyone, Instagram can encourage you to look around more and snap the things you would ordinarily smile at and forget. Like the flock of pigeons that circle overhead, the planes that fly over our studio, and the asterisks in the sky.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

Paul Finn on Georges Perec

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the very wonderful graphic designer and design teacher Paul Finn. ~

I am fascinated by the French writer Georges Perec (1936—1982). I first read Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974) and was hooked. It instantly appealed to my typographic sensibilities; the opening pages are striking, the homage to Lewis Carroll’s Hunting Of The Snark empty ‘Map of the Ocean’ to the exploratory ‘Space’ poem (above) are inspiring.

The first chapter ‘The Page’ is an enquiry into the physicality, function, form, design and legacy of the printed page. The layout is playful, experimenting with the formalities and conventions of the page, from the word to the sentence to the margin to the footnote, akin to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1897).

The aesthetic and structure of Perec’s 1968 experimental radio play The Machine suggest this interest in typography, layout and function of the page has always been a part of Perec’s practice.

Reading his magnum opus Life, A User’s Manual (1978) is enchanting through its uniqueness and magnitude. It is an exhaustive investigation into the life and times of the inhabitants, past and present, of 11 Rue Simon–Crubellier, a Parisian apartment block: A rich and dense tapestry of multiple narratives, tales, adventures, puzzles, names, dates, seemly blurring fact and fiction… One source of inspiration for Perec was this illustration by Saul Steinberg, which appeared in his book The Art Of Living (1949), it depicts the multiverse accommodated in an New York apartment block.

Whilst reading you become aware of certain elements and devices which suggest  something hiding underneath, a structure, puzzle or game that the reader has unknowingly entered in with the author. It is a fascinating and alluring read.

One intriguing chapter is ominously titled ‘The Fifty-First Chapter’. It is the middle chapter. Perec lists 179 peculiar sentences; some refer to earlier events, some to the future. On closer examination I realised that each sentence contains 60 characters (including spaces), and the pages incorporate two diagonals of aligned ‘g’s, though they are not specifically referred to:

Here I’ve used a red diagonal rule to highlight the aligned ‘g’s:

A friend of mine bought me a copy of David Bellos’ comprehensive Perec biography Georges Perec: A Life in Words(1993), which details in depth the writing process, constraints and methods that Perec employed to write ‘Life, A Users Manual’. The layers of construction further add to the mind blowing achievement of writing such a book. This website exposes all the mind bending constraints Perec used.

One constraint was Perec constructed the novel based on the Knight’s Tour within a chessboard: “The knight is placed on the empty board and, moving according to the rules of chess, must visit each square exactly once”. He divided the apartment block into a 10 X 10 grid and followed the Knights Tours from character to character, room to room, chapter to chapter.

With every novel or piece of writing produced by Perec I cannot help but revere the mind behind it. A Void is a 300 page novel written without the letter ‘e’, working in both it’s native French, and the English translation by Gilbert Adair.

Through Perec’s writing I have discovered the wonders of the Oulipo, the creative processes of imposed parameters, and it has ignited a desire to live in the 17th arrondissement in Paris


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~