Last year, Leeds City Council created Unfold, a programme of activity celebrating the city’s visual arts community, to tie in with Leeds hosting the British Art Show 8. As part of the activities, design studio Something More was commissioned to create an installation in the main concourse of the newly refurbished main train station, funded by LeedsBID with the support of Network Rail.
“There were two main objectives,” says Something More’s Stephen Woowat, “Create an iconic, visual welcome to the city and celebrate its creative and cultural community.”
Woowat says they wanted the installation “to be something that was not elitist or owned by any one person, but something open to everyone. Rather than continually rethinking the space entirely each time, we felt it needed an element of permanence to it. Our proposal was to develop a typographic sculpture of the word Leeds – a simple, bold statement that you had arrived at the city. Each letterform however, would also function as a canvas that could change and be reinterpreted by different artists and designers over time. This approach would allow the necessary adaptability, while still creating a single iconic visual thread.”
The studio initially played with the idea of using abstracted letterforms as in the famous Channel 4 idents, but “The station’s concourse isn’t huge and is already home to departure screens, Adshels, rows of benches and everything else,” Woowat says. “It’s a visually noisy environment and it would be hard for the letters to create impact when pulled apart on their own. There were practical considerations too: dropping a bunch of big letters around an already busy space created obstacles to get around. The last thing we wanted it to be was a nuisance or in the way.”
“We needed to create something that would have visual impact, but not undo the efforts made to free the space up in the first place. With this in mind, the letters were clustered, but staggered and rotated to create a less defined barrier. It felt less rigid and created more natural pockets of space between them. We wanted the area to feel inviting and allow people to walk freely through and around. The letters were also broadly orientated to read Leeds as you arrived from the platforms – a welcome to the city – rather than facing the outside, which symbolically felt more like a sign for the station itself.”
“Rather than be solid shapes, filled and opaque, the inner areas would use clear, polycarbonate sheets to display commissions,” Woowat says. “The overall semi-transparent effect would also allow light to travel freely throughout the space, but still create a nice visual disruption.”
“In many ways, the letters were secondary – the commissions inside them were the hero. We worked to maximise the area inside so that they would provide the biggest canvas possible,” he continues. “We developed a ‘bloated’ treatment that cleaned out the natural cuts in the Es and S and the counter of the D. We played around until we found the right level of abstraction between nice, big usable spaces that still could be understood as letterforms. Designing out details like the counters had structural advantages too. Had they been kept in, we’d have needed to find a way to suspend them in the middle of the polycarbonate sheets. This would have made engineering the letters more complicated. We risked creating unwanted supports and the appearance of a more stencilled typeface, which would have broken up the canvasses too much.”
“Building a long-term installation for a public space required the structures to be very durable. Demanding the letters had no visible bracing required all the strength to be held in the outer frames. They needed to support themselves, but also be ready for people to potentially sit on them (the L) or generally knock into them.”
Something More worked with design development company XKX Projects to develop a plan to fabricate the letters from steel, using a series of parallel bracing rods that were shaped to run around a frame. “These would then be welded together along with rolled steel sheets to form the outer edges. Small lugs then provided a simple fastening mechanism for the polycarbonate sheets inside,” Woowat explains.
For the artworks to sit inside the letterforms, Something More assembled a team of local artists and illustrators who were given a letter each.
“We agreed a single brief that everyone could have their own take on: Celebrate Leeds,” Woowat says. “All of the contributors regularly met as a creative collective so that everyone could see how each design was progressing. It was important to consider them as a set, so we could guide letters in individual directions before they developed too far. Some letters were swapped early on if it was felt a particular design would benefit from a different shape.”
Each design would be printed onto clear vinyl film and then applied to the polycarbonate sheets. “We did a lot of print testing to understand how this process could be used most interestingly and effectively,” Woowat says. “The application of white ink proved the crucial factor, as this would turn areas opaque. This allowed a very fine control over transparency and enabled everyone to build it into their ideas from the outset.”
“There was also a functional necessity to adding a white underpin. We found that that when backlit in daylight, coloured inks used just on their own would glow and create a fantastic stained glass window-like appearance. However, at night, or when there was lots of visual interference occurring behind the letter, the designs would simply disappear completely. Underpinning with white had the opposite effect – when backlit in bright daylight, the designs would flatten and feel slightly silhouetted – but under interior lighting at night, the designs would be highly visible.”
“To apply white everywhere would have made the designs more resilient to every situation, but ultimately defeated the interesting transparent nature of the piece,” Woowat says. “In the end, a combination of the two were used throughout, specific to how each design worked. It also created a nice visual effect, allowing letters to appear slightly differently and reveal new details, depending on what time of day you saw them.”
“Collaboration has been critical to realising this project. It has required the bringing together of widely different skills and disciplines to help make it happen,” Woowat says. “We hope the end result becomes something that people will enjoy, interact with, and importantly, look forward to seeing how it changes next.”
Commissioned by Leeds BID, via Leeds City Council’s Unfold programme, working alongside Network Rail. Fabrication and installation: XKX Projects. Contributing artist commissions: L – Something More, E – Kristyna Baczynski, E – Alphabet, D – Hungry Sandwich Club, S – Idiot’s Pasture. Print: Quarmby Colour Install and press photography: David Lindsay