studio catherine griffiths


photographs (above) / Paul McCredie © 2010

Colour-coded drawings express layered form and structure

Construction of the vowels to the chalked-out drawing on the workshop floor


Inner-City Modality
Mercedes Vicente


As a typographer who has brought her art to the realm of public sculpture and architecture, Catherine Griffiths has engaged with typography as a form of self-expression, escaping its functional constraints and practical duties. Among many other awards and recognitions, in 2002 her Wellington Writers Walk concrete text sculptures won her the ‘Stringer’, New Zealand’s highest award in graphic design. In Griffiths’ hands, typography frees itself and wanders across disciplines, the poetics of the letterform and its relationship to space, architecture and the landscape, with exact thinking and insightful results.

I first saw Griffiths’ new typographic site-specific sculpture AEIOU as I was getting out of a car parked not far from its location on Cuba St (on the first level terrace and part of Cubana Apartments). I thought this piece was subtle but with presence. Its materiality but, more importantly, its scale (the piece is 5m high by 2.5m wide) gives it a definite monumentality.

Yet this is lightened by its attenuated, planar, linear structure and the rusted steel construction material, which does not call attention to itself but cleverly blends in with the surrounding corrugated iron clad and wooden buildings, its steel rods resembling the structural skeleton of a building. ‘Taming’ steel with a rusted patina confers to it a humbler character (rather than the usual sleek corporate look of steel), one vulnerable to the corrosive effects of time and Wellington’s tough weather conditions.

Typographically speaking, Griffiths used as her starting point an altered form of the typeface Verlag, designed in 2006 by Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler & Frere-Jones for the Guggenheim Museum — a typeface that refers back to modernism and the architecture of its building. Verlag, incidentally, Griffiths reminds me, is German for publishing house (another of her design endeavours is the publishing firm Vapour Momenta Books). Stripped to the minimal, purest form, AEIOU uses the uppercase, as “you can’t get a more simple form than a single stroke which, in the alphabet is represented by an uppercase sans serif I,” states Griffiths.

The ascendant geometric composition of the vowels, from bottom up, each superimposed half-way onto the other, tends to infuse gravity to the letters rather than levitation. The lower half of the composition is formed by the A grounded at the base, locked by the horizontal lines of the E. The I acts as the intermediary form, and initiates the ascendancy towards the vaporous O and the U’s finishing lines rising up to the sky.

The interlocking of the vowels, complicated visually by an exuberant pattern of five lines, adds further friction, and makes their reading more difficult. In looking to identify the letter’s form, one’s internal voicing of the vowel is slowed down and held until it is discerned visually. The disruption makes the utterance an act of reading rather than automatically delivering them from memory. This has an interesting regressive effect, as we re-enact the process of identifying the form of letter before vocalising it, as children do in learning to read.

Another linguistic attribute of vowels is the mutability of its multiple idiomatic phonetics. My mother tongue, being Spanish, I uttered A-E-I-O-U phonetically in Spanish (again regressively, the vowels being the building blocks of language), asserting a chameleonic presence adapted to the mother tongue of its observer. This makes vowels (and by the same token other letters of the alphabet) a prolific and playful subject, unlike words locked in the phonetics of their idiom. Griffiths has now been collecting recordings of the audience’s responses from the street for an ongoing sound piece examining pure sound and tracing the steps of performers such as Laurie Anderson.

Analogies to children’s toys and educational tools for early childhood learning are obvious, yet AEIOU’s references exceeded these and are multiple. One reference is concrete poetry and the pictorial layout of letterforms, released from the linear conventions of usage and instead engaged in the pure pleasure of visual and metaphorical aspects of letterform.

In this regard, Griffiths has readily acknowledged the corporeal poems and interventions in urban spaces of Barcelona-born poet Joan Brossa (1919-1998) as a great source of inspiration. Typography’s task of visualizing speech and sound becomes patent in Griffiths’ typo/sound installation.

AEIOU brings about to the attentive observer a self-awareness,
not to mention insights, about the inner workings of our mind when it comes to language and speech.


Mercedes Vicente / ProDesign, NZ, Aug 2010


Mercedes Vicente, at the time of writing, was Curator of Contemporary Art, Govett-Brewster Gallery, New Zealand. She has been instrumental in the Darcy Lange project.

Informed by AEIOU, custom lettering for Cubana Apartments by Kris Sowersby


photographs, drawings / Catherine Griffiths © 2009


01 typography in the landscape


Light Weight O
O’Connell Street, Auckland, NZ
2012 / installed 2018

Wellington Airport domestic terminal, NZ
2015 / installation tba

Te Kei, Ara Institute of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ

Zion Hill Park
Auckland, NZ
2014 construction 2015/16

Fifth Movement
Takapuna Beach House, NZ

The Trestle Leg Series
Auckland Harbour Bridge, NZ

A Hillside Intervention Athfield Architects, Wellington, NZ

A typo/sound sculpture, Wellington, NZ

Wellington Writers Walk
A series of 15 concrete text sculptures, Wellington, NZ
2002 and 2004

Ponatahi House
A house wrapped in literature, Wairarapa, NZ

Distance Markers
A series of cast-iron, number discs, Wellington, NZ


AEIOU, typo/sound sculpture


Commissioned by Karen Krogh Architects for Cubana Apartments, Wellington, NZ

A typo/sound installation where the observer delivers the sound. AEIOU is constructed of five vowels in steel, lightly stacked five metres high on a
first level terrace in Wellington.

This installation is the first in the series — Sound Tracks, 2011 is the second — where I respond with the vowels wherever space and funding can be found. I continue to record sound responses to AEIOU made by observers, as an expanding sound score.

5.0m high x 2.5m wide, steel

related links and reading

Mercedes Vicente writes
Inner-City Modality

Constructed/Projected, 2015
Fifth Movement, 2012
Sound Tracks, 2011

Awarded one of ten honorable mentions at Zgraf 11, by the International Jury: Niklaus Troxler, Barbara deWilde, Rick Poynor and Boris Ljubicic


catherine griffiths © 2011 / all rights reserved / contact / twitter / facebook / instagram /