Back to life

The St Bride Library is home to many precious relics of our printing past. Hannah Booth meets up with a designer determined to save this heritage by digitising forgotten typefaces, says Hannah Booth.

The St Bride Library is home to many precious relics of our printing past. Hannah Booth meets up with a designer determined to save this heritage by digitising forgotten typefaces, says Hannah Booth

ST BRIDE INSTITUTE is found by darting off London’s Fleet Street down Bride Lane, a narrow side street that squeezes past St Bride’s wedding cake church. It was once a friendly, open door for poor workers learning the printing trade, offering food and even a place to swim. Now it’s entered the modern age, hiring out its grand, empty rooms for conferences, offering coffee, tea and cling-wrapped sandwiches.

St Bride Library, upstairs, has barely entered the 20th century. Originally the technical school part of the institute, it is now a labyrinth of rooms stuffed to overflowing with books, journals, archaic printing equipment, type specimens and photographs – all related directly, or, in many cases, extremely remotely to the printing and letter-press industry. But one young designer is trying to drag it into the 21st century and save it from extinction.

Paul Barnes, a 35-year-old, passionate, intelligent and impressively well-connected graphic designer, shouldn’t really have time for all this. He’s in demand as a graphic and type designer on both sides of the Atlantic – he designed The Guardian’s new typeface, Guardian Egyptian, with Christian Schwarz and has just redesigned Frieze magazine – and is mates with some of the biggest names in graphics: Peter Saville, Simon Esterson, Matthew Carter to name a few.

But, for the past two years, Barnes has spent a day a week buried in the library, leafing through dusty books of type specimens. There are thousands of them, many dating back to the 18th century. He has been photographing and cataloguing the ones he likes with a view to making them available, digitally, to graphic designers – and raising money for the library. All he needs now is a financial backer.

‘This is the world’s greatest collection of type specimens,’ he says. ‘But no one knows about it. Students should be forced to come to look at it. It’s inspiring. There was an explosion of type design in the early 19th century. It became experimental and hugely decorative.’

Barnes is particularly drawn to specimens from the great British type foundries: Figgins, Caslon, Miller & Richard, Thorowgood, and Stephenson, Blake & Co (the last one to close, in the early 1990s). ‘I want to bring them back into circulation, or they’ll disappear,’ he says. ‘They were so inventive and many are so contemporary, it’s astonishing. Looking at them and learning from them is a way of connecting with people – we’re standing on their shoulders.’

Barnes appears to be particularly ‘on trend’, if inadvertently. Reviving ‘obscure historic [type]faces’ is the next big thing, according to former Design Museum head, Alice Rawsthorn, writing in the New York Times last month. ‘Typefaces are becoming fashionable,’ she writes. ‘Just as [fashion designers] are… combining modern materials and finishes with old techniques, type designers are using their computers to modernise classic typefaces likes Bodoni and Bembo.’

As well as specimens, the library houses valuable archive material. Jock Kinnear donated his mock-ups for Britain’s first motorway road signs, from his original presentation to the board. The Oxford University Press donated several cases of type when it stopped printing in 1986. There are issues of influential Swiss graphic design magazine Graphis dating back to the 1940s, early Canadian Printer and Publisher journals, and niche-interest books, such as Humour in Advertising or the Packaging and Display Encyclopaedia.

A nose around the Dickensian back room housing the printing equipment leaves you awestruck at what was involved. There are hundreds of cases of steel punches, copper matrices, spring-loaded type moulds and wooden drawers with enigmatic labels, such as ‘2-nk. English Black Lower.’ There are vintage, letter-pressed posters from the 1940s and even a giant locomotive name plate. Barnes is like a kid in a sweet shop. ‘In the next two years, we want to make all this visible to the public, explaining what everything is,’ he says.

Meanwhile, he is setting up his digital homage to the early foundry masters – the St Bride Type Foundry (www.stbridetype.com) – which he hopes will be operational and selling type by the end of the year. With his influential friends and passionate articulation of the importance of preserving the past, it should flourish.

‘I want to be faithful to the original typefaces, but update them, too. They have to be “living”. People have a fear of the past, but it’s so important they are aware of it,’ he says. l

Latest articles