Local Characters: Jimmy Turrell creates a bespoke typeface inspired by Newcastle’s Byker Wall
This winter It’s Nice That commissioned three creatives to explore the broader possibilities of type, in partnership with Fontsmith. The result is Local Characters, a series of posters and typefaces inspired by each creative’s hometown. In our third article of the series, illustrator and designer Jimmy Turrell has designed a bespoke typeface in collaboration with Fontsmith on the Byker Wall, a council estate where he grew up in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
The Byker Wall, a council estate in the east end of Newcastle, is quite literally an architectural wall of housing. The estate curves around 200 acres of the northern city; 620 maisonettes capsuling a community. The term ‘wall’, could imply that these homes are shut away from the public eye, a private space. However, the socialist ethos of the Byker Wall, its architect and its inhabitants, couldn’t be further from this. Built from 1969–1982, the housing estate was designed and constructed by Ralph Erskine, a British-born architect who was fully involved in the idea, the construction, the immediate and continued success of the estate. From birth until the age of seven, the wall was home to illustrator and designer Jimmy Turrell. Its forward-thinking, primary-colour-clad construction and geometric forms has subtly informed his work ever since.
“The Byker Wall represents a dramatic break in the aesthetic and ethic that dominated the social housing of the sixties in the UK,” says Jimmy. “It rejects the architectural brutalism that dominated the rest of Newcastle at the time.” This rejection was a response to the leader of Newcastle City Council, T. Dan Smith, who had promised his constituency that the city would become the ‘Brasilia of the north’, “an ultra-modern Northern metropolis that would rival New York and Milan in its outlook,” explains Jimmy. Yet, in 1974 the councillor was prosecuted for corruption, leaving a mishmash of a city, “badly designed tower blocks and ugly concrete brutalist structures, many of which have since been demolished”.
Therefore, the Byker Wall represents true community-based architecture, from start to finish. Its architect, Ralph Erskine, was enlisted to construct a home in replacement of Victorian terraces in the east of Newcastle, deemed unfit for habitation. “Ralph Erskine was a planner, whose commitment to people-centred design was rooted in his parents Fabianism, his own Quakerism and Swedish social democracy,” Jimmy tells It’s Nice That. “His vision for Byker was for ‘a complete and integrated environment for living in the widest sense’.” His aim was fully achieved, but only by his own consistent and direct involvement. “He was a man of social democratic ways. His main concern was the people. He lived in the wall, he had his offices in the wall. He wasn’t the sort of guy based in London who just fucked off and left it. Erskine was intrenched in the whole thing.” With a background of socialist architecture in Sweden and Norway, Ralph Erskine’s approach was to speak to the community. “People were asked what sort of buildings they wanted to live in, he moved all of the people from the original terraced housing into the wall, onto the same streets they used to live, it was a totally new way of thinking.” The architect’s rejection of the failing familiar, coupled with an injection of community, care and colour, is the influence behind Jimmy’s bespoke typeface, FS Erskine.
Jimmy was born and bred in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, born in the hospital down the road from the wall, and his immediate family are situated within the wall. Despite moving a mile outside the estate at the age of seven, he continued to visit frequently. “My grandparents, my aunties and uncles, all lived in the wall,” he explains. “Up until I left Newcastle to go to university I visited there every week. When I was a young’un, we moved to an area which was a bit grey, dominated by brutalist architecture. To go back to the wall and visit my nan was an escapism. It is a soft place, like Lego.” This feeling of escapism was necessary during the eighties in Newcastle, he says. “It was certainly an interesting time to be alive,” says Jimmy. “It was pretty grim, a city of unrest and frustration. Thatcherite policies had pretty much killed the North East’s two main industries, coal mining and shipbuilding, the air was thick with a sense of negativity and false promises. The cities semi crumbling, grey concrete structures seemed to encapsulate the mood of the times.”
The enlightened change that the Byker Wall brought to the east end of Newcastle is visually representative in the shifting shape of Jimmy and Fontsmith’s typeface collaboration. Each letterform has between five and nine alternative shapes, jilted in “an analogy for how the Byker Wall was a rejection of what went before it in terms of brutalism,” explains Jimmy. The designer’s initial idea was to implement a fluctuation through type, conveying that he lived in the wall while parts were still under construction. “It felt like a giant kid’s playground, piles of rubble and coloured brick everywhere, half built houses to explore and play in, with the added incentive of getting chased by the building sites ‘watchy’ at the end of the day”. From this initial concept Jimmy began to disturb classic brutalist typefaces, simply by using a photocopier to scan signage he found in a skip outside an estate of sixties flats in Scottsdale.
Following Jimmy’s visual references Fontsmith designer Krista Radoeva began to focus on one idea to create FS Erskine as a fully functioning font. “We loved the textures in his work, the feeling of randomness in all the cut-up pieces and the layering,” she explains. “This was the big challenge – How do we produce a functional digital font that incorporates all of these features?” But Krista solved the problem, experimenting with a couple of letters, “I wanted to create several alternatives for each character, and to make them switch automatically in a random way, which involved a lot of OpenType feature testing”. The result is a typeface with up to 9 alternate versions of each character, set on a ‘bouncing baseline’ to give “shifting vertical positioning of the characters helping to improve the feel of randomness”.
“The next step was adding the second layer of geometric shapes, and adding the ragged edges to all outlines, again to keep in line with Jimmy’s visuals,” Krista tells It’s Nice That. “The texture is also slightly different across the whole typeface – some characters are rougher at the edges than others.” Overall, the difference in creative approach between Jimmy and Krista contributes to the success of the typeface, “his analogue techniques challenged our digital approaches and pushed us in a direction that we rarely get to explore,” she explains. “In the end all the elements came together to represent the spirit of the Byker Wall. I was really excited to see the typeface in use and how it compliments Jimmy’s work.”
On top of creating between five to nine differentiating type designs for each letterform, Jimmy and Fontsmith modified the typeface with primary coloured geometric shapes. This added a tangibility to the typeface reminiscent of the Lego-like texture and colour palette Jimmy remembers from his childhood. This cut and paste mentality additionally symbolises the designer’s day-to-day practice. Despite studying graphic communication at Central Saint Martins, Jimmy explains that digital design has never been his strength. “I was so shit on the computer, I can still barely use Photoshop and to me Illustrator is just random signs. I left university with a Pritt stick and scissors, I became an illustrator by hook or by crook.” These interruptions, the up and down disposition of the typeface was an idea of Jimmy’s to visualise the tone of the Geordie accent. “There is no accent in England that has people scratching their heads more than ours!”
Since the typeface’s completion, its characteristics that resemble the wall have caused Jimmy to reflect on his previous work. “It made me challenge and think about what I use myself, certainly in terms of what colours I use, I’ve even been using geometric shapes all this time!” he explains. “It has all been planted there from when I was a kid, the first place I ever lived has become very influential in my approach to creating things. I didn’t really realise this until I examined this brief. To say that the look and the feel of the wall has left a lasting mark on me is huge understatement.”
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.