Partnership / British Council: Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

Tales of the sea: behind John Morgan’s identity for Island, the British Pavilion at Venice Biennale


Ben Swanson

For this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the British Pavilion takes on the provocative theme of Island, with a bare-bones public space atop the building’s roof. Below, the building will sit empty of exhibits. Both the elevated platform and vacuous space below will host events throughout the Biennale’s six-month run, with a broad range of creative contributors interpreting the subject of Island in depth, so it was imperative the branding not interfere with this openness and diversity. It was a compelling task for designer John Morgan, then, to come up with a visual identity, and he laughs as he remembers the early meetings in the building’s void.

“We are producing almost no graphics for the site,” he says with wry humour. “It was almost a spoof meeting. The conclusion was to do nothing! But doing nothing is hard won and should not be underestimated. It’s seen as an abandoned pavilion with some traces of the previous installation by Phyllida Barlow, so to put lots of wall text or super graphics everywhere would weaken the concept.” John previously worked with the pavilion’s architects, Caruso St John, on Tate Britain, which has a similarly reduced graphic sensibility. In Venice, there will be a small amount of subtle signage, but that’s it. “We’re sympathetic to this attitude, to supporting the architecture and the experience. If we produce any graphics, they should look like they’ve always been there.”


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


Star from page three of both Ulysses and Island

Hence it was with the pavilion’s accompanying book that John and his team could stretch their design legs, and the identity for the exhibition was born from this side of the project. Being given the title Island was “such a gift” John says, being one bold word to lead the design, and it immediately brought to mind James Joyce’s Ulysses – a favourite book of John’s, which is closely linked to the theme, he explains.

“Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and Joyce’s novel shares certain structural themes with the poem, though in Joyce’s case the journey takes place over one ordinary day in Dublin. I’ve always loved the cover of the first edition of the book from 1922, published on Joyce’s 40th birthday – we’ve used its model for several publications – and I’ve long been obsessed with the blue of the cover and the white letters. American novelist William H Gass described it as ‘a chain of white islands, petals shaken on a Greek sea’. Joyce chose this colour combination to evoke the idea of the Greek sea. In our edition we scatter the white islands over the slightly murkier blue shade of the Venetian lagoon."


James Joyce’s Ulysses 1926 edition


James Joyce’s Ulysses 1926 edition

Having settled on this main point of inspiration for the pavilion’s identity, John asked his friend and past collaborator, ceramicist Edmund de Waal, if he could borrow his copy – a fragile, tattered edition from 1926. This served as a starting point for the typography, colour scheme and even size of the final book. 

For the type, a designer in John’s studio, Adrien Vasquez, went on an investigative mission to match that of the Ulysses cover as closely as possible. “The original was printed in Dijon so we thought it was most likely a French foundry,” he explains. “We found Elzévir from Deberny & Peignot, and redrew it almost exactly, but with some adjustments. The weight wasn’t right – and we have a different combination of letters in ‘Island’. We introduced some dips to the serifs so they have a slight curve.” 

“The ‘D’ has this nice portly belly,” John adds, “and is slightly unbalanced, too heavy at the bottom.” The result is a bespoke typeface with the sophistication and heritage of the original Ulysses masthead, Adrien says. “The starting point is Ulysses but it’s developed. There’s a shared history.”


Deberny & Peignot: Initiales Elzéviriennes, Spécimen Général, 1926


Deberny & Peignot: Spécimen Général


John Morgan Studio: Island letter “D”

As for the colour, the edition John borrowed from Edmund was faded and missing the tone he had imagined for his Venetian sea blue. “This is too aqua,” he says, pointing at the ragged book, “we wanted something deeper and darker.” It’s also “a fraction bigger” in scale than the original Ulysses edition, he admits almost apologetically, showing his absolute dedication to his homage to Joyce’s novel.

Inside the book lays a surprising element, which represents another highly personal and strong conceptual link to the Island theme. It is a facsimile of a little red, pocket-sized edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, scanned cover-to-cover and reproduced in full, within the Island book’s pages. This time the edition came from artist Marcus Taylor, one of the pavilion’s curators. The play is set on an island and seemed apt, John says, particularly because “it’s water stained and looks like it’s been carried around in someone’s pocket on a raft”. Again in utter commitment to the original design, John didn’t want to attempt to re-set the book in any way, so the whole 96-page book – including blanks – exists at the exact 1:1 scale of Taylor’s edition.


Shakespeare’s The Tempest 1898 edition


Shakespeare’s The Tempest 1898 edition

Among its 240 pages, the rest of the book features two short stories by Trinidad-born Sam Selvon and photographs by Howard Grey following the Windrush generation and their arrival in London. Though this material was included before the topic hit recent news headlines, it’s not just coincidence, John says. “the territories explored in the book, Brexit, isolation, colonialism and abandonment have been bubbling up for some time."

Elsewhere there is poetry by Kate Tempest about identity within London, photographs of the pavilion by Hélène Binet, a contribution by John Akomfrah, a visual essay by Caruso St John, and an essay by Penelope Curtis (ex-director of Tate Britain) about The Raft of the Medusa and other artists who explore the notion of floods such as Dominique Gonzales-Foerster.

“The content and design process has been iterative too,” John concludes. “Because there’s no exhibition to document, we have an empty pavilion, it’s a publication which should carry the spirit of the programme.”

Island is published by The Spaces, and available to buy here.

It’s Nice That is media partner for The British Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia – presented by The British Council, which runs from 26 May – 25 November 2018. Find out more about the programme here.


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island book


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island identity


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island identity


John Morgan Studio for The British Council: Island tote