Letter Man: Joseph Churchward’s world of type

Letter Man: Joseph Churchward’s world of type 

Exhibition now closed
21 August 2008 – 9 February 2009
Free entry
Arts; People and history 

Joseph Churchward is a Samoan-born graphic designer whose fonts are used the world over. You’ve probably encountered his work through opticians’ eye charts, which his hand-lettering skills helped to create. Through pencil sketches, print negatives, photographs, and newspaper clippings, this new, eye-opening exhibition in the Ilott Room, Level 4 brings the intricacies of Churchward’s art into public view for the first time.

Churchward recalls drawing letters in the sand as a child growing up in Samoa, where he was born in 1933. He is from the ‘aiga (family) Sā Anae and the villages of Faleasiu and Tufulele.

In 1946, when he was 13, Churchward left Samoa to attend Miramar South School in Wellington, New Zealand. Two years later he gained an Art Distinction Award in Lettering from Wellington Technical College and, shortly after, began work as a commercial artist.

In 1969, he founded Churchward International Typefaces, which became New Zealand’s largest typesetting firm. A leading German company, Berthold Fototypes, accepted some of his fonts for international distribution, and they were soon in use throughout the world. 

To date, Churchward has handcrafted over 570 original typefaces – the most by any individual. His fonts feature on billboards, record sleeves, newspapers, and in digital media. One is used for the title of Te Papa’s exhibition Tangata o le Moana: The story of Pacific people in New Zealand. Churchward’s skill in hand-lettering was also used to help create the mastheads for The Evening Post and The Dominion Post newspapers.

Churchward’s typefaces are now digitally distributed and rub shoulders with the world’s favourites. Now aged 75, he still continues to create new fonts. A biography of his extraordinary life and work is due for release later in 2008.