24 hours with Jonathan Barnbrook

When he was younger, Jonathan Barnbrook spent a lot of time in cemeteries. Don’t worry, this wasn’t due to a Morrissey tendency, and there’s nothing of the Nosferatu about him. He was there to study the typography. Engraved text on old headstones and monuments has been a major inspiration for him, and reviving, adapting and giving a modern voice to bygone letterforms has been a key part of his work.

“I live in Highgate, because it’s where Highgate Cemetery is. Cemeteries and gravestones were a real inspiration when I was younger, for the typography and atmosphere,” begins Barnbrook. “I was interested in classical typography and the places to go for it in London, where I was studying, are churches and graveyards. Highgate is especially good, as it’s completely overgrown. It’s like going to this lost civilisation. When you went in, there were trees everywhere and gravestones, covered in ivy and broken. It’s a really beautiful atmosphere.”

There are all sorts of reasons why he finds classical lettering so interesting. One is the permanence of what’s carved in stone, the opposite of today’s throwaway culture. A headstone sums up someone’s life in three lines, but it can’t just be discarded. Another thing he finds fascinating is that even today inscriptions are hardly ever considered to be proper design – they’re regarded as semi-skilled folk art.

“The normal person’s gravestone isn’t considered to be proper art, design or typography, and I find that quite interesting,” he continues, looking down at his mug of tea and speaking in a quiet, considered manner. “That non-design is also a very strong influence on creativity in contemporary graphics. People find something that hasn’t been produced by a designer but they kind of bring it into their work for an aesthetic.”

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