1. What’s your story? Where are you from?
That’s a big question really. My name is Stephen and Letterbox is a typography studio in Melbourne, Australia – our work covers all manner of mediums (built form, pixels, ink and more) as long as it is based around the composition or design of letterforms. Although the studio is based here, the origins of the people who have worked in the studio stretch right across the globe. So we design everything from public art to urban markers, typographic experiences to books and a lot more.
2. Tell us about your aesthetic.
We specifically avoid a ‘look’ in our work as each project is completely different, requiring a unique response. So I’ll be honest with you in stating that the word ‘aesthetic’ is not really part of our process. Having said that, people always tell us that they can tell a Letterbox-designed project from five paces.
3. What is your favourite medium and why?
Type is our medium. It’s our visual language that covers all physical and non-physical forms. Typography is a manifestation of language – and language is a manifestation of culture. It’s that simple for us.
4. What is your artistic process like?
We listen. We sketch. Then we propose possibilities. We test. Then we only show one design.
5. Who and/or what inspires your work?
I know we’re not alone in this eclectic world in saying ‘a lot of different things’. But the main things that influence the work would be observation, curiosity, books, art and transformative music (by that we mean everything from the arctic soundscapes of Biosphere through to the mind-altering King Tubby).
6. What role does art play in your life? How does it change the way you view the world?
Yes, it does. But usually not through how it looks but what it says. It opens things up, making the worlds less conclusive and clear. That’s good for us all I reckon.
7. Where did you study?
I studied at RMIT University here in Melbourne (for my B.A, Masters of Design Research and PhD) and am an avid believer in lifelong learning, no matter what form that takes. Teaching is allied to the practice and always has been (since 1990). It creates a reflective tangent that is really important in constantly questioning.
8. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’ve been fortunate in being able to write my own job description all my career which enables me to take this practice in any direction I want. Of particular interest to me are typographic projects that are critical of much larger systems than design – like economics and politics. Our recent project Cashcow Oblique is an example of this, where we compared the branding from the 2016 real estate boom to the 1873 cattle boom and saw that the design world was in over-stimulation in both instances. The same mad spray of embellished typographic designs to differentiate very generic things.
9. What about in ten?
In ten years I see myself writing more. There is so much to be said of graphic design and typography – compared to other creative fields, it’s pretty open territory.
10. What do you hope to achieve with your art?
I’ve always hoped that the design work we do is all to show that typography is not just at the service of other things but can be seen and acknowledged as a really important cultural ingredient.
11. Now, tell us a little more about you as a person: what is your favourite food?
Cooked in the Sicilian way (Pisci ‘mpanattu) – Pan fried fillets of barramundi, almond flakes, salsa verde – the way that Bar Idda (in Brunswick) creates it.
12. Favourite book?
My favourite book would have to be The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. There’s a particular story which describes a character following another man who seems to be walking around New York in a strange way, only to realise when he maps his movements that he is spelling a message out using the New York street grid. For me, that set off a whole new way of thinking around fact, fiction and the relationship between people and place.
13. Favourite genre of music?
Transformative music is my thing – from the deepest Jamaican dubs through to the ambient spatial realms of Harold Budd or Brian Eno. As a result I’ve never needed to take drugs. For me it’s all there in the music.
14. What are your hobbies?
Cycling around, looking at type. Looking at the city, looking the people. It’s great. And now I’m introducing all this to my young son.
15. If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
I’ve been able to meld all the aspects of my personality into a job that I get paid for. So I can’t imagine a life without all these things. In fact it’s less a job that a way of being (apologies, that wasn’t meant to sound as hippy as it may have…).