From the history of letterpress printers to the present-day trend of vinyl cut-outs, founder of Glyphics sign shop, Brian Heppell, talks about his love affair with typography and the East End’s role in disseminating the alphabet to the masses.
A rainy day walk down Leonard Street is brightened up by Glyphics’ shop front, where a huge white ampersand symbol contrasts with a collage of metallic vintage letters salvaged from shop signs and other miscellaneous places - a hobby of Brian’s. Beyond these pleasant glimpses into the past, at the back of the building there are a mixture of classic and modern printing processes churning on, including hand painting, presses that stamp paper with type, silkscreen which uses woven mesh and ink stencils to watermark materials of all kinds, and computer aided letter cutting and design.
Brian’s love for letters began very early on in life; “My doctor said what you do want to be when you grow up and I said an artist. He laughed and said, well you'll have a very enjoyable life but you'll probably be very poor and live in a garret. I didn't realise his daughter was a famous sculptor! But I've loved virtually every day of my working life with letters.”
It was at The Times newspaper that he got his hands-on education, starting as a messenger boy in 1958 and making his way up to apprentice. “I started as a hot metal typesetter, that's one of those guys that goes to the little boxes and pours all the type out. So they [The Times] taught me type, they taught me design, they taught me really everything, I was a very lucky boy.”
He built upon his vocational training until a more contemporary technology was introduced; “It was just at this time when things were changing in the whole of the printing industry. There's more change that's happened since 1960, than the last 450 years of print before that.”
That period was a launch pad for many to get into graphic design, however Brian kept up his childhood dream and became further infatuated with the erstwhile pleasure of making letters and laying out type by hand; the charm of its minimalism, the focus on negative space, the strive for perfection. He explains, “I'd been through the old techniques which hadn't changed since compositors used to walk around with a sword at their side and a plumes hat on their head, until about 1960 when film cutting started coming in and the use of chemicals. I've always followed the alphabet or the alphabet's followed me.”
Establishing Glyphics in 1985, he moved his craft towards new machineries and his business onto Leonard Steet; “We still use bits of silkscreen printing and letterpress printing but I thought: this is great, I'm going to go into that technology of cutting lettering out of coloured films and making metal letters, and so Glyphics is here now.”
“I've always said in life timing is everything. If you're a batsman, it's the moment you hit that ball, the moment the ball is released from the hand and the time you meet it. Without getting too philosophical about it, we moved into Shoreditch at a time when there wasn't too many people, but just enough to make it interesting.”
Though the historic method of letter pressing and its warm ever-so-slight imperfections have been largely replaced by colder and more seamless technological advances, Brian is seeing a re-surging desire for that old quality, individuality and handmade feel. “I'm one of the old ones really whose actually still in this bloody line of business! But there is always that revival, where the new generation want to go back and look at the vintage stuff, everything digital is so perfect that they don't know what imperfect is, so that's why you kind of start seeing this sort of Shoreditch-Hackney feel”, referring to the upcycled look often seen dotted around the local area.
“I've met some really interesting people in Shoreditch. It's funny you get all these guys developing apps and all these new technologies, but they want to use old vintage stuff in their shops! It's a real dichotomy, it's really strange.”
This demand for antique style lettering is why his shop window is full of authentic vintage characters. Having built up his collection from all corners of the earth, he's become attached to it and struggles to let go of his bona fide plunder, instead choosing to use the display as a mood board and recreate that period feel with reworked materials if a client desires. The alphabetical scavenger hunt started ever so slightly outside of the law; “We found old shops that had closed down and started nicking some of the letters off the shops! We found bits on eBay but that was quite an expensive way of doing it. Then I started looking abroad and now I've got letters from Norway, America, Germany, Finland, France, Holland.”
“Using up-to-date techniques I make my own old-looking fairground lettering and every single one will be unique." In a market saturated with low-quality alternatives to the painstaking techniques he's used to, Brian is keeping up the standards. "I've got a client in Milton Keynes, I shall use corrugated iron, and it will probably have paint chipping off it, put bulbs in it and you get the smell of the candy floss, the night air and the pop guns going off. LEDs and hot lights, people love it.”
Like funfair paraphernalia, there is an irresistible sense of nostalgia associated to the old world of letterpress workshops in East London. Brian describes the importance Shoreditch played in creating the printed word as we know it; “What you've got to realise is Shoreditch was virtually the centre of everything that happened in print in this country, Finsbury Square is where it was all happening about 1465. They had a polyglot bible done in about 5 different languages. And in Chiswell Street there was a guy called Caslon who engraved stocks of rifles with very filigree designs into silver, but he moved into making type. There's a road which is now called Moor Lane off of Chiswell Street, that road actually used to be called Type Street and down there were some little type setters who’d spawned from Caslon.”
As letter pressing left barely-perceptible idiosyncrasies on paper, so the printing industry has left an almost indiscernible mark on the locale; “Vincent Figgins’ type foundry on Farringdon Road is now a Wetherspoons pub, and his initials are there in the iron gates, everyone walks past and doesn't know it.” Although now only the ghosts of old signs can be seen on the landscape of Shoreditch and its surrounds, the stories of the East End's printing world can still be found inside Glyphics and its mastermind.