A typographic tribute to the language of London’s trade

Artist Gordon Young has unveiled a new public art project, Trading Words, which reflects the variety of goods imported into London over the last 400 years. It’s the latest in his large-scale typographic collaborations with designer Andy Altmann of Why Not Associates

Photography by Lee Mawdsley

The first section of Trading Words was unveiled last week and will form part of a 300 metre-long walkway within architects Patel Taylor‘s London Dock development in Wapping.

Commissioned by property developers St George, the complete artwork will take over ten years to install as the area takes shape. An accompanying exhibition currently tells the story behind the conception, manufacture and installation of the floor-based piece.

Photo: Lee Mawdsley

Trading Words is the first project that Young has worked on in London and is his latest collaboration with Why Not Associates’ Altmann.

The pair worked closely together on the groundbreaking Comedy Carpet installation that was unveiled in Blackpool in 2011. The Carpet is a huge public walkway that celebrates the work of some of the UK’s best-loved comedians and contains quotes made up of over 160,000 individual letters.

Photo: Lee Mawdsley

For Trading Words, St George approached Young to create a piece of public art in the capital’s London Dock development with the original idea being to establish some kind of “type trail”, says Altmann.

According to the designer, Young then came across an interesting publication in a second-hand bookshop that contained detailed lists of the types of goods that had been imported and exported via London over the last 400 years.

“We took the lists from the original book [and St George] liked the idea of goods in and out,” says Altmann. “Then we did some proper research at the Museum of London Docklands – they have an original rates and charges book in there.” (Chris Ellmers, the founding director of the museum has contributed an essay to the book accompanying the project, detailing the history of the London Dock from its opening in 1805 until its closure to shipping in 1968.)

“So for every elephant that was imported into the docks there was a particular price you had to pay,” Altmann continues.

“[There were] normal things in there – wool, tea, sugar – all those things you’d expect, but then as I started to read the books there were things like ‘dragon’s blood’, ‘divi divi’ and ‘whangees’. What the hell is all that?! They didn’t know what it was either.”

Among the lists of terms are several items that are perhaps less palatable for today’s tastes, such as ‘bears grease’ (a hair serum) and ‘elephants teeth’, which were actually the animal’s tusks.

There’s also an intriguing reference to ‘lucifer’. “That [was] the Dutch name for matches, while here [Lucifer] was a brand name – a brand name that became the real name,” says Altmann.

Photo: Lee Mawdsley

For the design of the pavement itself, the idea for boxing up the words – like cargo – was influenced by the work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Sol LeWitt, Altmann explains. A simple, minimal construction would work with the modernist buildings of the setting.

Altmann tried out a range of different fonts, including stencils – which referenced the sides of the boxes that transported the goods – before actually settling Gotham Narrow Black, a version of the celebrated typeface originally released in 2000 by Hoefler & Co (then trading as Hoefler & Frere-Jones).

According to the designer, despite being a relatively recent American design, it was the font that simply looked the best for the job. In an attempt to counter Young’s initial concerns that the face was ahistorical Altmann recalls saying, persuasively – “Look, we’ve just imported the font.”

“Normally with the graphic design you’re trying to find an appropriate font for the site, whereas this actually just looks nicer in Gotham,” he says, “and it’s condensed, as we wanted to get the words bigger and it suited that kind of modernist simplicity”.

Photo: Lee Mawdsley

As with the Comedy Carpet, the new Wapping piece is made from granite and concrete, though the process itself proved much simpler, in part due to the wealth of material research and testing that went on to create the Blackpool work.

Photo: Lee Mawdsley

“The Carpet was really experimental, [there was] six months work with chemists to make the concrete liquid enough so it ran in the counters [of the letters],” says Altmann. “We’d learned all that from Andy Sawyer who made both of them – it’s the same gang.”

“It’s made in exactly the same way – in a workshop in Hull not far from where the Carpet was made,” Altmann continues.

“It’s the same technique – high pressure water-cut granite, laid out in a steel tray – and then concrete is poured in. There are only two components, the Carpet had three types of granite and coloured concrete – this was much more minimal. The Carpet was first time that I know of anyone making anything like that.”

Photos: Lee Mawdsley

When completed, the London Dock installation will contain over 1,000 words that have come from the extensive lists of goods traded at the docks. “The joy of doing what I think of as a ‘graphic designer’ is that you’re moving from one subject to another,” says Altmann.

“For me it’s the learning of something. Doing a job like this, the enjoyment is in the research rather than the design, trying to figure out how to put that really simple idea of Gordon’s across. The joy we have together is doing the research, that’s when we both get really excited,” he adds. “And with time [the piece] is going to grow and become more powerful, hopefully.”

Trading Words is installed as part of the London Dock development in Wapping, London. See gordonyoung.net and whynotassociates.com. All artwork and installation photography by Lee Mawdsley, leemawdsley.co.uk

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