When we last caught up with Ciarán Birch, he was heading into the final year of his degree at the University of Brighton. A year on, and fresh out of graduation, the graphic designer has his sights set on London, ready to start his freelance career in earnest.
A type design module during his second year at Brighton was the catalyst for Ciarán’s obsession with typography. Spending much of the last year honing in on this specialism, the progression of Ciarán’s command of type and lettering is exciting to see. “I try to get a drawing done every day where I test out different styles and applications in order to gain better typographic sensibilities,” he tells It’s Nice That. “It gives me so much more control over a project which has such an impact.”
This typographic work forms the bedrock of Ciarán’s practice which fuses an experimental approach to form, with rigorous conceptual logic. This combination is a difficult one to master but he seems to have achieved it in Phenomeno, a typeface borne of his interest in the more natural artefacts of English heritage. Explaining the starting point for the project, Ciarán’s tells us: “I’m very interested in chalk drawings, rock formations and the history of how English people expressed themselves creatively through a landscape that will long outlive us all.”
Focussing specifically on megaliths – the neolithic stone circles and monuments which populate the English countryside – through Phenomeno, Ciarán wanted to capture the sense of mystery and wonderment associated with these sites. “These places remain very mysterious with so many tales having been written about them,” he muses. “For example, according to folklore, the Cheesewring in Cornwall was formed as the result of a rock-throwing contest between giants and humans. I wanted to tap into this mysticism and create something that appears sculptural and intriguing.”
While considering how he might express this spirit in typographic form, Ciarán was drawn to the work of neo-romantic artists like Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. Inspired by the way these artists “looked towards the English countryside… depicting a historically-rich, surreal and spirited image of the landscape,” Ciarán found himself repeatedly returning to the principals and perspectives embodied by the movement. When he reconsidered these in a contemporary context, what emerged was Ciarán’s very “own fictional movement”: hyper-romanticism. Carrying forward the ideals of English neo-romantic artists, for Ciarán, hyper-romanticism is about “placing a lens back on the English landscape and its stories at a time where urbanisation is rapidly consuming our understanding of nature and myth.”
With this lens firmly in place, Ciarán set about making repeated visits to the neolithic sites scattered across his home county of Oxfordshire – making sketches on location and constructing 3D models upon his return. It was a lengthy process and a worthwhile one; Phenomeno’s strong, glyph-like characters beautifully translate the wonder, stoicism and spirit of these remarkable places into a poetic typographic form.
As he prepares to make the move to London, Cairán admits he “will miss being near the countryside” and the landscapes and histories that have been so grounding for both him and his work up to now.
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