Typography is so often about the ‘what’ or the ‘how’, rather than the ‘why’.
Throughout the 20th century experimental typefaces like A.M. Cassandre’s
Bifur; Paul Renner's original version of Futura, Josef Albers’ Kombination-Schrift and Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet pushed the boundaries of legibility.
Their aim was to create recognisable but aesthetically new letterforms, this
concern remained relevant throughout the post-modern period of graphic
design and into the present day. Making fresh versions of twenty-six ubiquitous
letters remains an intriguing puzzle in itself.
What then makes the typeface that I know only as ‘Alphabet for a study in
legibility, 1963’, by Edward Wright, any different? There is something somewhat
primitive about it, yet also futuristic in a constructivist kind of way. Why the
little quirks, such as the gap between the bowls of the B, or the triple kink of
the 3? Having digitised it for a personal project I know these little things do
make it very distinctive, yet Wright also had another motive...
These letters were conceived as structural units, existing in three dimensions,
with depth an intrinsic part of their aesthetic. This in itself seems quite a minor
point, but even today the majority of typefaces are conceived as two
dimensional forms, consistently the same whether seen on screen or in print.
Unless the graphic designer takes liberties, or goes badly wrong, the
typographers’ vision remains sacred, hermetic even. The only photograph of
Wright’s experimental alphabet in use, a sign which says ‘TAMBO’, shows that
he was primarily interested in experimenting with the visual effects of real
world environmental context. Both the angle from which it is seen and the
direction of lighting drastically alter the look and impact of the lettering.
This idea became more fully formed in Wright’s work on one of the most well
know pieces of signage in Britain, the rotating triangular sign at New Scotland
Yard – London’s police headquarters. Here the highly polished and raised
chrome letterforms of his typeface ‘Flaxman’ create an intriguing interplay
between light and shadow as the sign rotates. Given that this is such a unique
and iconic piece of work it is a shame that Edward Wright remains a little
known figure in the history of graphic design.
His contribution to architectural lettering is even more impressive when you
think that even today many architects do not consider signage particularly
important. Also he was working in the decades following the Festival of Britain,
when traditional Egyptienne serif typefaces like Stymie Bold Italic and Profil
were ubiquitously bolted onto modern concrete buildings across the land.
Wright’s influences and reference points were far more varied and esoteric
than the majority of graphic designers active in this period – he was well
versed in avant-garde Modernism, trained as an architect, was interested in
graffiti, ancient and alternative forms of language. He was also extremely
intellectually active, being on the periphery of the rebellious ‘Independent
Group’ of artists, designers, architects and critics, which was active at the ICA
on Dover Street during the 1950s. It is unfortunate that during his career Wright
had limited opportunities to collaborate with architects, and that only a few of
these symbioses between buildings and typography have survived – the signage at New Scotland Yard, a concrete foundation stone at Churchill College
in Cambridge, and three dimensional lettering for the entrance of Tate
Liverpool, which was designed in 1988 shortly before his death.
Some of Wright’s obscurity can be put down to his selectiveness about what
projects he chose to work on, being a signatory of Ken Garland’s ethical First
Things First Manifesto in 1964. But this unjustifiable obscurity is a real shame
given how innovative and influential he was. Prolific too – working in many
disciplines beyond typography; as a concrete poet, painter, printer, collagist,
exhibition designer, historian of Modernism, writer and most of all as a teacher.
This pedagogic inclination seems to have dominated his career, having taught
typography at the RCA from 56-61, drawing at the School of Architecture in
Cambridge from 60-63, been head of the Graphic Design department at Chelsea School of Art from 63-77, and most famously his experimental
typography evening classes at the Central School from 52-56. These classes
could count Ken Garland, Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, Derek Birdsall and
Germano Facetti as regular attendees, virtually a role-call of important British
designers working in the decade following.
Wright’s dialectical approach to typography and communication - the
integration of form, concept and context - evident in his ‘Alphabet for a study
in legibility, 1963’, proved highly influential to his many students over the years,
earning him their admiration, and rightly so.