Catherine Griffiths on Joseph Churchward


We checked in with award-winning New Zealand typographer and designer Catherine Griffiths and asked her a couple of questions about legendary typographer Joseph Churchward, whose life and work is explored in our exhibition Churchward Samoa.

Olivia Lacey: Can you touch on any experiences with Churchward and/or his work that’s been significant to your career?

I recall in the mid-80s as a student of Wellington Polytechnic’s School of Design running down the hill to Churchward International Typesetters on Willis Street in Wellington to collect my typesetting from the front desk where one of the daughters or a son, would appear, their good-looks always beaming, as they handed over the paper-bag of bromide sheets (a luxury step-up from the school photocopier) — and only ever galleys of Futura or Gill Sans! 

Then I set up a small studio with two fellow graduates, and instead skipped across the way to Willis Street, ordering still more Futura, Gill Sans, Perpetua (dare I mention the ghastly Eras, forced upon me by a real estate client), and the occasional Grotesque. As nascent graphic designers, we were so set on “international”! You could say then, this deliberate non-engagement with what was right here on our typography doorstep, did affect my path, my direction. I wanted to go a particular way, not another. Right or wrong.

The timeliness of Bennewith’s “revision”, in a sense has fitted — in typography terms — with more of an open-ness towards other ways, and a new appreciation for what goes on in our own backyard. I remember the extended interview published in issues #3 and #4 of The National Grid was the first hint, and a time-warp back to the 80s. Then it was TypeSHED11 that provided a local and international platform. Partly because of this, we, and I personally, have got to know the Churchward family — and family of typefaces — and David Bennewith. If it hadn’t been for Bennewith, I doubt Churchward would have been seen so easily — nor so accurately.

Olivia Lacey: What do you believe Churchward’s contribution to typography has been both nationally and internationally?

Churchward’s contribution has been highlighted in recent years — in fact, belatedly recognised beyond the cut and paste desks of advertising agencies and design houses in the 60s, 70s, 80s ... all thanks to David Bennewith’s curious mind.

Here is a copy of a letter of support I wrote for David, towards his application for Jan van Eyck funding to appear at TypeSHED11. It covers some of the things in question.

July 2008

I write in support of David Bennewith’s mission to complete his research on Samoan New Zealander, type designer, Joseph Churchward,  culminating in the form of a published book and exhibition, to be launched in conjunction with TypeSHED11, an international typography symposium, set for Wellington, New Zealand in February 2009.

Late last year TypeSHED11 put out an international Call for Papers inviting proposals for presentations, workshops and exhibitions. The selection jury was unanimous in its vote for David’s proposal to present his research associated with the work and working-life of Joseph Churchward as an ideal fit for TypeSHED11 which aims to “explore the notions and voices of typography across the disciplines . . . ”. This, from David’s proposal —

“. . . to translate it as an impetus for new work Ð to re-look at his designs and the possibilities in using them today. In doing so, one of my aims is to question biographical conventions; thus, for example, I ask: “Is a typeface biographical?” Another objective is to widen the scope of this material into a larger context of (New Zealand) graphic design — its histories and dialogue. I will also look at how the process of practicing design cannot only ‘give form’ to content, but how it can serve as a reflection on itself to present a position or a context.”

Additionally, and hand in hand with the presentation, David Bennewith will exhibit Churchward’s work — The Churchward International Typefaces Stand — while working with Joseph Churchward, and fellow artist and graphic designer, Warren Olds, to create a limited edition publication as part of the exhibit. As serendipity would have it, the publishing of David Bennewith’s book works in very nicely with the dates of TypeSHED11, and we have agreed upon a New Zealand launch for the book to which this application refers.

The publication of this work is vital to the growing and maturing of New Zealand’s typography and graphic design. David Bennewith is giving us not only a rare insight into the life and work of someone passionate about type and design, but will take us further into the layers of meaning and experimentation that is synonymous with the creative mind. This book will be of cultural and historical significance for New Zealand typeface design and typography.

We are delighted to have David Bennewith as one of our international speakers at TypeSHED11, and view his contribution as quite special for New Zealand, where from afar, David Bennewith has eked out a prolific yet little-known (within New Zealand) typeface designer (one of the few we have), and given a voice to the many layers that spin out from the heart of Churchward’s type.

The circle will be completed.

Catherine Griffiths


image taken from