The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography

New Zealand typography signage design, Robin White
Robin White, Fish and chips, Maketu (1975). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Robin White.

I’m reminded of an American friend who visited me in New Zealand. We took a road trip down the West Coast, from Wellington to Queenstown, and after a few days of driving through small towns, my friend said something along the lines of: “Typography and signage in this country are fascinating. Everything is so clear, direct and uncluttered.”

Peter was talking specifically about shop signs and billboards—the Tip Top dairy and Fish&Chip shop kind of signs. But his comments stuck with me for some time afterwards.

Comparing some twentieth century NZ and British printing for instance, New Zealand’s is refreshing in its simplicity. Yet it’s a simplicity with strength and directness; it’s not watered-down “minimalism” or any kind of Instagram-age aesthetic (it has obviously existed long before any of that, as Robin White’s painting shows). I almost want to say that printing work like the Caxton Press’ has a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. I’ll stop just short, but it’s nice to think about the signage of your local fish-and-chip shop in the same way as Winckelmann once pondered the Apollo Belvedere.

Maybe, perhaps, possibly the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light” is expressed somehow in our typography, and maybe our book printing? Perhaps the peculiar quality of our direct and un-ozone-mediated light influenced our typographers as it was said to influence the likes of Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins and Colin Mccahon?

I joke. I read Francis Pound’s art history before I read Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown’s, and, after that, any talk of “harsh clarity” reads like a very particular kind of greenness.

I’m not as interested in causes as I am effects. Our signage and our typography is as it is (is as great as it is)—what now? Kris Sowersby’s National typeface is now in use all around the world, from the Huffington Post’s website to a new biography about Mies van der Rohe. (Of all accolades for a modernist-tradition designer, being called upon to help sell Mies’ design must surely be among the highest.) My personal favourites are Sowersby’s “Untitled” typefaces, a kind of distillation of type design to a level where our subconscious barely recognises them as design at all. They have a kind of simplicity to them, even a noble one, but that’s coupled with a—well, screw it, a quiet grandeur. They aspire.

Kris Sowersby Klim Type Foundry New Zealand Typeface
Kris Sowersby and Klim Type Foundry’s Untitled Serif. The choice of sample text is his not mine.

Sowersby is drawing on the “Super Normal” philosophy of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, where design is so subtle as to be invisible. He didn’t invent the idea. But again, a New Zealander is at the cutting edge in typography, as, supposedly, one was at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s it was said by a “leading English typefounder” that “‘For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand”—this being a reference to the work of Robert Coupland Harding and his Typo journal.

To belabour the point about Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry: what I am most enamoured with is the insistence that (as he titled an exhibition last year at Objectspace) “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” That’s right! This is not a New Zealand typeface. It’s just a typeface, a really good one. One that happens to have been made by a New Zealander. Whether you’re talking about his “National” or his “Untitled”, or even his “Newzald“, they’re just typefaces. They also just happen to be some of the best that designers around the world can get their hands on.

In an interview in 1944 Jackson Pollock said:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problem of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.”

I think that’s what Sowersby and Objectspace were getting at with “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” It’s also why I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem “solves itself”, because a New Zealander is a New Zealander and his or her work will inevitably be shadowed by that fact.

Peter Robinson was then half right with his 1998 work Strategic Plan, where the challenge was laid down: “Mission statement: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.” Well, they’re being taken—but not quite with Robinson’s instructions, like “Always attempt to speak the native’s language”, and “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity, marginalisation and globalism.” Robinson’s work is still in Auckland, but the typographers are well and truly in Manhattan and Berlin.

I’m being unfair to Robinson. His work is much more nuanced than that, and points out the hollowness of those “instructions” as much as it implies we should follow them. But I raise it because really, the New Zealanders doing some of the most groundbreaking work, in art, writing and typography are doing it in the most New Zealand way possible: so damn modestly that it’s sometimes hard to even see. No emphasising idigeneity, no American-style self-promotion. Just fantastic work. The best seem to have absorbed the lesson of Allen Curnow that somehow or other was forgotten along the postmodern way: “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular that any of these songs are news: if they are good they cannot but be news of the human condition.”

One more quotation, this one Donald Judd’s: “The importance of art done in the United States since World War II… is most easily explained by saying that a few artists simply decided to do first-rate work.” Granted, it was maybe a little more complex than that; but unless artists know they’re doing first-rate work, what can dealers, curators, publishers and politicians ultimately do? I end with this quotation because people who happen to have passports issued by New Zealand are doing first-rate work.

Can you tell I’m excited?

Peter Robinson New Zealand art
Peter Robinson, Strategic Plan (1997). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Peter Robinson.

Printing and Typography in New Zealand: A Short Bibliography

History of Printing in New Zealand
Endpaper of R A McKay’s “A History of printing in New Zealand 1830-1940”, created by the Wellington Club of Printing House Craftsmen in 1940. “The most beautiful book ever produced in this country?”

My latest obsession, as some of my recent essays here might attest. But I’m currently in the wrong country to be learning about New Zealand printing—and I would have found a short bibliography most helpful as I began to learn. Below are some of the sources I found particularly useful and interesting, in the rough order that I think it would have been most effective to have read them in.

But first, some background. Printing in New Zealand began as it did in Europe, out of theological necessity. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) operated the first presses out of Northland, and as Don McKenzie points out in his Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, the NZ case provides a fascinating look at a society moving from a primarily oral culture to a print-based one almost four hundred years after Europe went through the same shift. The first item ever printed in New Zealand was a pamphlet of catechisms in Maori, printed by Reverend William Butler Yate at Kerikeri in 1830. But as surviving copies show, Yate didn’t really know what he was doing with the printing press, and he soon went back to Sydney to have a professional print 1,800 (shoddy) copies of the Bible in Maori.

The first item ever printed in New Zealand — William Yate’s flawed pamphlet.

Four years after Yate’s botched attempt, William Colenso arrived at Paihia with a better printing press—and, more importantly, the knowledge of how to use it. (Don McKenzie mused on this: “Technology itself is nothing without a human mind…”) Within weeks of his arrival, after having some missing parts of his press re-made, he too had printed sheets of Maori catechisms, plus the first item in English: an announcement, with hindsight ironic, of the New Zealand Temperance Society. And two years later, in 1936, Colenso would start printing his run of 5,000 copies of sections of the Bible, the first full “book” printed in New Zealand. Colenso is today probably best remembered for being the printer of the Treaty of Waitangi, and for his record of the days and ceremonies surrounding the Treaty itself.

Robert Coupland Harding has been called (by McKenzie) “New Zealand’s first and most eminent typographer” (here’s a more recent summary of his life and work). Printing properly from the 1860s through the end of the century, Harding worked in the craft tradition of typography, culminating in his journal Typo. His international reputation in printing and typography was apparently significant, maybe presaging New Zealanders’ twenty-first century influence in global typography (I’m thinking of Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry, whose work I love and which I come across on more and more websites, among others).

Then there are the twentieth-century big names: Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann at The Caxton Press, and Robert “Bob” Lowry, first with the Auckland University College Students’ Association Press, and then later both Pelorus and Pilgrim presses. Numerous other private presses operated in the twentieth century (including McKenzie’s own Wai-te-Ata Press at Victoria University), but for sheer influence, Glover and Lowry get the credit.

With that too-brief summary, here’s the reading list I wish I’d had when I became interested in the topic:

  1. A History of Printing in New Zealand, by R A McKay & Wellington Club of Printing House Craftsmen, 1940. First printed in a limited edition of 600 copies, this has been described as “the most beautiful book ever produced in this country.” It is interesting both for its content and for its quality. Includes various essays on aspects of early and contemporary printing in NZ, plus illustrations throughout.
  2. A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand, edited by Penelope Griffith, Peter Hughes and Alan Loney, Auckland University Press, 2000. A fantastic set of essays on printing in NZ. I particularly enjoyed Donald Kerr on “Sir George Grey and his book collecting activities in NZ” (this was really great), Peter Hughes on Bob Lowry, and Alan Loney’s essay on typography.
  3. Book and Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa, edited by Penny Griffith, Keith Maslen and Ross Harvey, 1997. Essays on all aspects of printing and publishing in New Zealand. Probably one of the most thorough books I’m including here, but it doesn’t capture the lives of those involved as well as the others here—it seems more aimed at those interested in printing from an industry point of view, so if that’s you, start here.
  4. Printing, bookselling & their allied trades in New Zealand circa 1900: extracts from the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand compiled as materials towards a history, compiled by D.F. McKenzie and K.A. Coleridge. The Wai-te-Ata Press, 1980. This is a “brain dump” of materials, itself cheaply printed; not so much a history as a way to find things to look up that you might not come across elsewhere. Research has gone further than this since, but I was still interested in this pamphlet as an example of McKenzie’s bibliographic research in NZ.
  5. The National Library of New Zealand’s “Book History at the Turnbull” guide. An online resource with a huge number of links and sources, not all solely related to NZ. This is a great bibliography, but the reason I’m writing my own rather than directing readers to it is that I didn’t really know where to start with their list—not all their sources are equally useful.
  6. Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945, by Lawrence Jones. Victoria University Press, 2003. This is a great book, but isn’t focussed just on printing. The printing history is incidental to the thrust of the book, but this gives a much better idea of the role printing and typography played in the years of literary nationalism.
  7. Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, by D F McKenzie. Victoria University Press, 1985. This really should be a classic in NZ, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t heard of it before this reading. It’s based on a speech McKenzie gave at the British Library, where he took up the NZ case of the Treaty of Waitangi to make a broader point about the meaning and nature of texts. The only reason it’s not higher in this list here is because it is primarily focussed on the text of the Treaty; but the early sections about Yate’s and Colenso’s printing efforts are brilliant.
  8. PRINTING TYPES: New Zealand Type Design Since 1870, by Jonty Valentine. This is the brochure accompanying a 2009 exhibition at Auckland’s Objectspace. From Harding to Jack Yan, Warren Olds and Kris Sowersby, this is an inspiring look at typography in this country.
  9. A Bibliography of the Literature Relating to New Zealand, by Thomas Hocken. Printed by J Mackay, Government Printer, Wellington, 1909. What it says on the tin. This was reprinted in 1979 so copies can be found quite easily.
  10. Early New Zealand Books, online database by Auckland University. This is a great chronological list of materials published about and in New Zealand, with many digitised books.
  11. The Lure of New Zealand Book Collecting, by Johannes Carl Andersen. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1936. Printing from a collector’s standpoint: covers books earlier than printing began in NZ, but includes a number of good sections on early books produced in/about NZ. I didn’t bother reading this right through, though—and it looks like no one else here in Oxford has either, because some of the pages were still uncut in the Bodleian’s copy.
  12. The William Colenso Bibliography, 2013. This is a huge scholarly undertaking, but allows one to easily find further Colenso sources. I used it to find materials in the library here, including some of Colenso’s early printing.

Thanks to everyone who pointed me in the direction of some of these sources. I hope it proves useful to others.