“I’ve set up a lot of celebrity cover shoots in my time, but this one has definitely been the hardest,” says David McKendrick, clearly only half-joking, as we greet each other near the Barbican estate on a crisp summer morning. We’re about to meet Pam Mason, who runs the estate’s launderette, and David, the co-founder of design studio B.A.M., is talking me through the interview and photoshoot we’ve arranged and describing the character we’re about to spend the morning with.
David first met Pam when he arrived in London after graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2000. His illegal sublet flat at the time didn’t have a washing machine, so he went to use the local launderette. “Our first interaction was her voicing her clear despair and disapproval at my failed attempts to fold my bedsheets,” he recalls, in his strong Scottish brogue. “She had a lit fag in her mouth and I remember being very impressed that she confidently balanced the very long ash on the end without fearing it would drop on my freshly cleaned sheets. I remember thinking it was quite a skill.”
Nearly 20 years after that first encounter, we head into the launderette and find Pam, who has worked here – tending the washing machines and helping customers (like young David) with their washing – for the best part of three decades. She’s a small woman in her early 60s, with short, fluffy hair, today wearing a white puffer coat. Does she remember that first time David came in all those years ago? “Not really, no,” she says bluntly. “He remembers more of it than I do.” This just about sums Pam up. She rarely uses more words than strictly necessary and is more than happy to put David firmly back in his place.
The launderette itself doesn’t look like it’s changed much in about half a century. The walls are covered in faux wood panelling and orange Formica, and the washing machines are an eye-catching mouthwash green that induces a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s – even in someone born a couple of decades later.
Over the past 20 years, David and Pam have built up a fondness for one another, a friendship held up by three pillars: routine, gentle teasing, and typography. Let’s start with routine. Every morning, David goes for a swim at the local pool and passes by the launderette to check in on Pam, who arrives at around 6 am on a normal day. “Most mornings I pop my head in for a quick hello and catch-up,” David explains. “I’ll maybe talk about my love life or work, Pam will give me her opinion, then she’ll maybe grumble about how many washing machines are out of order or critique my outfit for the day.”
On the day of our visit, we also witness some of the teasing that goes on between the pair. I lose count of the number of times David asks Pam to marry him and of the number of times she tells him, in response, to piss off. She also points out that she knows everything about David, including the intimate details of his love life. “I can tell when he’s had someone over, because of what he brings in the next day,” she says, leaving a long pause for everyone’s minds to wander. Finally, she breaks the silence: “Serviettes! You don’t use serviettes unless you’re entertaining someone else.”
But undoubtedly the most intriguing aspect of David and Pam’s friendship relates to typography. For anyone who doesn’t know B.A.M., it’s a design and art direction studio founded by David, alongside Lee Belcher. Together the pair have completed dozens of print and design projects, such as the latest identity for the White Cube and work for magazines including Esquire and Wallpaper*. Typography is a large part of the studio’s work and one of David’s lifelong passions. And it’s is one of the unlikely reasons why his and Pam’s relationship has flourished over the past few years.
It all comes down to the signs that Pam puts up around the launderette; pieces of A4 paper written on in felt-tip pen, practical notes telling customers about broken machines and where to find detergent, and reprimanding them for trying to wash rugs and carpets in the machines. “I first noticed Pam’s signs 19 years ago,” says David. “But in the last eight years, I have really begun to appreciate them. Graphically, they are astounding works of accidental art. The consistency, use of a limited colour palette, uppercase only, is wonderful.”
In January 2018, David decided to set up an Instagram account (@p.a.m.stagram) for Pam and posted a selection of pictures of her notes in the launderette. “I remember saying to him, ‘Why are you taking photos of them?’” says Pam. “I don’t really understand. I just do the signs and he takes photos of them. I leave it up to him.”
Scrolling through the past 18 months’ worth of images, it’s not just the consistency of Pam’s notes that stands out; what the notes say is also wonderful. You’ve got the sincere: “DEAR CUSTOMERS I AM HAPPY TO ANNOUNCE I HAVE 500 FOLLOWERS THANK YOU PAM”; the comical: “PLEASE READ THIS NOTE”, alongside an arrow pointing to another sign; and the concise honesty of “WE ARE HAPPY TO SAY THAT THE MACHINES ARE WORKING NOW.”
As the note above implies, the p.a.m.stagram account now has almost 600 followers. It seems to have caused a bit of a stir. “A guy came in recently and said, ‘Are you Pam from the Instagram?’” says Pam, who appears utterly nonplussed by the attention.
Although relatively modest, this following has spurred David and B.A.M. to deepen their partnership with Pam and her launderette signage. Towards the end of last year, for instance, the studio released a limited-edition PAM x Supreme T-shirt, with all proceeds going towards the housing and homelessness charity Shelter. The biggest effort the studio has made, however, began last November, when David and Lee started drawing the typeface, using eight years’ worth of David’s photos. “We’ve drawn several glyphs of each character and developed these to be selected randomly so that the notes maintain some of the inconsistency of her hand-drawn notes,” says David.
So, how has Pam responded to David’s efforts in drawing the typeface and creating a digital embodiment of her handwriting? Well, she’s not particularly happy. “She’s miffed, to say the least, and wonders why we would bother,” says David. “It doesn’t look right,” says Pam, scowling at some examples on David’s phone. “It doesn’t look natural.” David agrees with her that the typeface hasn’t quite captured the essence of her real-life signs. “In many ways,” he says, “she’s proved that no matter how hard we try to recreate her typeface, we can’t achieve the originality and beauty of her signs.”
At this point, Pam decides to show us one of the ways in which the typeface is wrong, grabbing a handful of coloured felt-tip pens and some blank sheets of lined A4. She carefully draws a few letters in her characteristic all-caps writing. Her “W”s are particularly unique, drawn with just the tiniest of apexes in the middle, where the two slanted strokes meet. “If I did those big,” Pam explains, “it just wouldn’t look right.” She then lambasts David for how often his letters go over the lines, pointing out that she never allows this to happen.
In the past few months, Pam has been told that the launderette is up for sale and, because of this, her future here, where she has worked for so long, is now uncertain. As a sign of their friendship going back 20 years, David has this summer created a book documenting some of his photos of Pam and her signs from the past decade, and showing off the typeface in action, too. Printed by Push, the book is a document of some of Pam’s more memorable work and a small token of David’s gratitude.
While there’s no fully worked-out plan for the typeface just yet, he says that if someone did genuinely want to buy it, he and Lee would refine it further and build it into a saleable product. “At which stage,” he says, “I’ve discussed with Pam that any proceeds would go to a suitable charity.”
But if anyone – like Pam – feels that the B.A.M. typeface will never quite live up to the real thing, as seen festooned over the walls of the Barbican launderette, then there’s one very important final question to ask: Is Pam open to taking on commissions? “Yeah I’ll do it,” she says, “as long as they provide the paper and that.”