“Listen. And look. Find your own voice.” – Catherine Griffithsby Corinne Smith on 31/08/2012
We end the week speaking to Catherine Griffiths, award winning independent Designer and Typographer. Originally based in Wellington, last year Griffiths made the move up to Auckland, to live and work out at Karekare. Her work includes visual communication design, self-published artist books, typography in public spaces, architecture and the landscape, and more recently, writing on design. Design Assembly have been fortunate to have Griffiths speak and hold a masterclass workshop and now we talk to her about her journey and what she is working on.
How did you start out in design?
I didn’t ‘understand’ graphic design as a profession until I was 16 or 17, when I applied for the Wellington Polytechnic VCD course. They accepted only 25 students a year. Then I understood. If you mean in practice, three of us set up our own studio back in the mid ’80s (pre-computer days), around the corner from the typesetting company, Churchward International Typefaces. We were called Design of the Times.
What was your ‘big break’?
I was ‘fired’ by a design company, where I was a senior designer, which prompted me, in 1995, to set up my own studio, as an independent designer. I rented an office space inside an architecture studio in a 1930s central Wellington building and became very much part of the fabric. They still send Christmas cards. The ‘break’ allowed me to follow an instinctive way of thinking and working, which, along with a whole lot of corporate communication design, led to making the Wellington Writers Walk concrete text sculptures, organising TypeSHED11 in 2009, self-publishing with Bruce Connew as Vapour Momenta Books, and realising the on-going AEIOU series — the third, a private commission on a project with Athfield Architects.
Tell us about your studio/ work environment: what are its best/worst points, why is it like it is/how important is it to your creative process?
My studio/work environment has shifted physically and emotionally a number of times, expanding and contracting according to circumstance. The effect of each move is bound to influence who I am and what I do, and if anything, this latest move — the two studios Bruce and I have built (each, with hammer and nails, and a little help from each other) — will likely alter, possibly sharpen, our minds! Being nimble, and able to improvise, is part of my mantra. Both detail and big picture go hand in hand. Recently, I was told: “Catherine, devil is in the detail”, and not without consequence in this case. The next day, I opened the latest issue of Eye magazine, and there it was: an interview with UK designer John Morgan, entitled “Devil in the Detail”. I could have been reading about me.
Does your personal creative process differ from your studio’s?
I am my studio.
Do you feel your physical environment, where in the world you work, has shaped your creative process and outputs and continues to?
I know I can make work wherever I am, whatever my situation, Paris or Karekare. You only have to look back over this last year (never mind the previous decades) when we made the big move from Wellington to Auckland, after my final typographic fling on the hillside at Athfields, where I installed a way-finding (or - losing) system of letters, and you can clearly see the influence of circumstance. The arrival at Karekare was marked by Sound Tracks, for The Dowse, a seven-metre long digital drawing of the sounds of the vowels, a dark tangle of line, like this forest where we arrived last winter in the midst of a real ding dong electrical storm. This winter (I’ve never known so much rain), I made a typographic composition to the poem Rain, by Hone Tuwhare. Set in Kris Sowersby’s Pitch, it looks just like beads of rain on a window at night. Sounds literal, doesn’t it.
What’s the biggest professional lesson you’ve learnt and how has it shaped your career direction?
Pay attention to detail, never assume anything.
What design project, personal or professional are you must proud of and why?
To choose one over the other? The commissions and projects where I’ve been given freedom to express, where there is support for the vision around the idea. Those works are the most powerful, go beyond what is expected, and are often the most appreciated. Not wanting to pick one, but a relevant work I designed three years ago, The Trestle Leg Series (excerpts of poetry and prose wrapped around eight of the eastern trestle legs of the west box girder beneath the Auckland Harbour Bridge) has recently been installed. It almost didn’t happen, but the local community lobbied for it and got it back on track.
Name a designer or design studio you admire, and why?
To name one: the work and brain of Leonardo Sonnoli (opening speaker at TypeSHED11, he also critiqued the posters from A Type of Improvisation workshop that I ran last year with DA). His work is intelligent, sensitive and clever. And not for copying.
Above: Workshop posters selected for screenprinting: Shabnam Shiwan, ‘Experimentations with light and object’, selected by Masayoshi Kodaira (left). Anna Myers, ‘Am I Who I Think I Am’, selected by Leonardo Sonnoli (right)
What are you currently working on? Professionally and personally?
A 500+ page book by photographer Hanne Johnsen, with photographs, drawings, interviews and essays — all in Norwegian.
My own work memento :: motif for Proyecto de Arte Contemporáneo Alzheimer, an exhibition currently on in Valparaíso, Chile, at the Parque Cultural (an ex-prison redeveloped by Oscar Neimeyer). The installation comprises The Phone Book, five Keyhole rugs, made by Dilana, set out in formation with two yellow dots, and The Jets, a short film made from my Paris studio — all come out of my Club de Conversation collection of French phone numbers.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Now that would be telling…
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to people starting out in this industry?
Listen. And look. Find your own voice.
Above: Keyhole series from ‘Club de Conversation’. Dilana Workshop
Wellington Writers Walk – Bruce Connew
‘AEIOU’ – Paul McCreedie
‘The Trestle Leg Series’, ‘A Hillside Intervention’, and ‘Sound Tracks’ – Catherine Griffiths