studio catherine griffiths


Life in Italics

by Helen Walters


New Zealand graphic designer Catherine Griffiths lives on the edge of the world and the edge of design — and that suits her just fine, thank you.

In our increasingly fragmented and media-driven times, it’s more challenging than ever for designers to avoid being pigeonholed. Being too competent in any one field or too proficient in any one medium is, it seems, a surefire way to chain oneself to that discipline forevermore. For Wellington, New Zealand, designer Catherine Griffiths, however, diversity and continual experimentation are not optional. “I have always involved myself with people of other disciplines, discovering common ground between lines of work, to enrich and broaden my own thinking,” she says. “I’m not an academic; I am a thinker and maker of things. I am inspired by the environment about me, wherever I am.” Griffiths, 40, was trained to be a traditional print designer, but her experiments often do incorporate the natural or built world.

Take her work on the Wellington Writers Walk. In 2000, Griffiths was invited by the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors to design a series of A4 bronze plaques — a fairly common exercise — to honor local writers and poets and to be installed in the city’s Civic Square. Rather than adhere to the tried and tested route, however, she proposed a radically different approach. “I saw this project as an opportunity to work typographically with the poetry and prose of the writers,” she says. “I knew at the outset that what I was thinking would be beyond anything the committee had imagined, but the motivation for me was celebrating their words, their language, their voices,” she explains. “How could this not be an opportunity to use the very tool I had, and push it for all it was worth? It was so obvious to me.”

She designed a series of 15 astonishing, large-scale concrete text sculptures that were positioned along the city’s waterfront. Writings by New Zealand authors including Bill Manhire, Katherine Mansfield, and James K. Baxter are set in blocks of either Helvetica Extra Compressed or Optima type, to varying but always impressive effect. The Wellington design community took notice immediately. “Their discreet elegance provides a delightful engagement that lifts my aesthetic spirit, with words that resonate of Wellington,” says locally based creative consultant Len Cheeseman. “And as Wellington is not a city rich in good lettering, her contributions enhance the urban experience.” For her part, Griffiths was delighted to have transcended the traditional expectations of a graphic designer. Or, as she puts it: “Suddenly I’d leaped off the printed page and into the landscape — in front of everyone.”

The Writers Walk has led to other environmental projects, including a commission to work on Ponatahi House, a private residence north of Wellington. Having suggested that the owners “wrap their house in literature,” Griffiths commissioned texts from Jenny Bornholt, a former New Zealand poet laureate, and designed a series of 120 glass panels that form a typographic skin around the upper level of the exterior walls, windows, and terraces, converting the house into a unique, exquisite piece of typographic architecture. It’s the ultimate melding of creative disciplines.

Griffiths has defined design on her own terms from an early age. As it happens, she had no idea what “design” really was until she went to college in 1984. But having chosen to study the radically leftfield course of Visual Communication Design at Wellington Polytechnic, Griffiths discovered a whole new world: type. “Our tutor, Hamish Thompson, opened our eyes to typography and its wider, exotic being, its potential for expression,” she remembers. “He had just returned to New Zealand after studying at the Basel School under Armin Hoffman and Wolfgang Weingart and then teaching in Phoenix, Arizona. Suddenly, we were examining, exploring, and experimenting in a way that astounded me. The language of the letterform took on a whole new meaning. It was exhilarating.”

After graduating from the Polytechnic, Griffiths set up a short-lived local firm, Design of the Times (an unsubtle homage to Prince and Sheila E — “We were still so very young!” she admits, a bit sheepishly). In 1988, she moved to London to work at various firms, including “imploding” design giant Sampson Tyrrell. It was a truly influential time. “In those early years in London, I learned the formulae and formalities of British design. I learned restraint, refinement, and attention to detail — qualities that have unquestionably lingered with me,” she says, naming the likes of The Partners, Carroll, Dempsey and Thirkell, and Newell & Sorrell as huge inspirations. “This wider world presented other disciplines and other passions that have affected the way I see, think, behave, and respond across every part of my life, including typography and design. It is all entwined in the best of ways, sometimes to a delicious bursting point.” It’s a typically lyrical description, and though her time at Sampson Tyrrell was challenging and educational, albeit not entirely happy — “I discovered I was dispensable” — her philosophy and outlook remain very much the same to this day.

Having returned to New Zealand in 1991, she continues to experiment restlessly, devoting her life to her work and aiming to ensure that both are as fulfilling and pure as possible. Her singularity of vision is demonstrated clearly in a body of work that defiantly crosses all categories and forms of media. Her exquisitely detailed graphic design emphasizes strong, beautiful typography on her work for a variety of cultural organizations and clients, including Creative New Zealand; the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology; and Victoria University of Wellington. “As an individual, I am on the fringe, really, a practitioner with ideas,” she says. “I find that fringe territory useful to explore my ideas, to focus, with an occasional foray into the mainstream. I have no desire to embroil myself in design politics, or philosophical or personal agendas. I do my thing, my way.” Griffiths is to the side of the industry, perhaps, but in no way is she sidelined — rather, she is able to pursue her genuine interests without having to compromise. “From the outset, I made a conscious and firm decision not to employ staff and not to develop an expanding design house,” she says. “I wanted to remain a creative spirit, independent and focused on my work, free from management beyond the essential, and to maintain a seamless and unimpeded designer-client bond.”

Hers is a rare stance of staunch defiance that’s somehow appropriate for a designer based in a world that itself is so far removed from the large scales of American or European design. As she describes, “There’s a very strong DIY mindset here. ... While we’ve never really had our own culture of design — our aesthetic is adopted and rehashed — what is emerging is a sense of this place, and an attitude.”

“New Zealanders like to think of themselves as being independent and part of a can-do society, and Catherine certainly displays those qualities in her work,” adds Fraser Gardyne, co-founder of Auckland- based design practice GardyneHOLT and until recently the president of the Designers Institute of New Zealand. “She is both a big-picture person and one who focuses on detail. Her work is original and based on strong ideas, and I don’t think that compromise would be a word she would value.” As such, Griffiths is happy to stand both within and without, preferring simply to play by her own rules. “I’ll happily dump clients if the relationship becomes counterproductive without considering, for a second, the consequences to turnover and income — well, perhaps a tiny bit! Time is too short.”

For the past few years, the environment of work and home has been one and the same, with Griffiths working from a studio built on the ground floor of the four-story Wellington house she shares with her photographer husband Bruce Connew. When not on assignment, Connew himself works upstairs, and the pair often collaborate professionally: Griffiths has designed all of her husband’s books since 1995. Their working relationship is not always seamless, and it shines a helpful light on her approach and attitudes. “Bruce’s new book, Stopover, is about migration and the Indian sugarcane cutters of Fiji,” she says by way of example. “We had a moment the other day, and sometimes this is how our collaboration works — with a little bit of tension. He didn’t accept that the draft cover I had designed worked ... and said I had not given it my full and undivided attention, my passion and feeling.” With typical frankness, she adds, “Which indeed was true. However, we worked through the problem with civility and kindness and realized we had left out a vital step — the sort of difficulty that can develop with familiarity. We had failed to discuss, with purpose, what the cover should express. Once we conferred — the cover should be about migration, about people connecting and disconnecting at different points about the globe — I was able to bring my mind to the meaning and express myself.”

New challenges are certainly always welcome. The latest is the prospect of travel and fulfilling a long-held dream to live and work in France. “My plan is to spend more time in Paris and make other work — including my own projects, whether that be book and exhibition design, collaboration in architecture, or installation,” Griffiths says. “I want to make work that engages people, whether it takes them out of their comfort zone or not. If they want to add to the experience, even better.”

Helen Walters / Print, New York, Sep-Oct 2006


Helen Walters (at the time of writing) was editor of Innovation and Design at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. She is also a contributing editor to design magazine Creative Review. Walters is the author of several books, including a survey of experimental animation, a monograph of a Brooklyn design agency, and a series of titles featuring contemporary T-shirt graphics.


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

Life in Italics

by Helen Walters, editor of Design and innovation at Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Print, New York, Sep-Oct 2006

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