studio catherine griffiths


Inner-City Modality

by Mercedes Vicente


A vowel-based composition (hot metal of a different type?) rises up above Wellington’s Cuba Street. Words: Mercedes Vicente. Photos: Paul McCredie.

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 AEIOU 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 Plymouth, New Zealand


04 writing & critique


An installation on an installation on an installation ...
Artist statement, »catherine griffiths : SOLO IN [ ] SPACE« A documentation, Pocca, CHINA
September 2021

Porto Design Summer School 2017
Looking back on the fifth edition
April 2018

Notes from ‘Designing the perfect photobook’
A short talk as part of a panel discussion, PhotobookNZ
March 2016

A meditation
Sir Ian Athfield, 1940 — 2015
by Catherine Griffiths
Architectural Centre, NZ
April 2015

The Design Kids interview
The Design Kids, Jul 2015

A Playlist : CG >> CG
by Catherine Griffiths
DPAG Late Breakfast Show, NZ, Aug 2014

Body, Mind, Somehow: The Text Art of Catherine Griffiths
by Gregory O’Brien
Art New Zealand #150, NZ, 2014

Nothing in Mind
by Chloe Geoghegan
typ gr ph c, Aug 2014

typ gr ph c in Strips Club
by Catherine Griffiths
Strips Club journal, Mar 2014

In the Neighbourhood
by Catherine Griffiths
Desktop #294, Australia, 2013

Interview by Heath Killen
Desktop #294, Australia, 2013

FF ThreeSix
by Catherine Griffiths
Typographica, Mar 2013

A note on the D-card
by Catherine Griffiths
Apr 2013

Shes Got Legs
by Lee Suckling
Urbis, NZ, Jan 2013

Truly, No Idea
by Catherine Griffiths
for Flash Forward, Desktop, Australia, Nov 2012

Look for the purple lining
by Catherine Griffiths
Eye Blog, UK, Mar 2012

The Big Idea, NZ, Jun 2011

Shots in the air
by Catherine Griffiths
Eye Blog, UK, Jan 2011

John & Eye
by Catherine Griffiths
ProDesign 110, NZ, Jan 2011

Quite a Blast
by Catherine Griffiths
ProDesign, NZ, Jan 2011

Inner-City Modality
by Mercedes Vicente
ProDesign, NZ, Aug 2010

Beautiful World of Typography
by Catherine Griffiths
excerpt from a talk, Govett-Brewster Gallery, NZ, Jun 2009

For the record
by Catherine Griffiths
Introduction to TypeSHED11, NZ, Feb 2009

Locating Our Feet
by Catherine Griffiths
Threaded, NZ, Oct 2008

Notes on Feijoa
by Catherine Griffiths
ProDesign, NZ, Apr 2007

Life in Italics
by Helen Walters
Print, New York, Sep-Oct 2006

Writing by Types
by Justine Clark
Artichoke, Australia, Apr 2003

Inner-City Modality

by Mercedes Vicente

ProDesign, NZ, Aug 2010

related links

AEIOU — a typo/sound sculpture


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