Studio Visit

Stephen Banham of Letterbox

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
30th of July 2010
A simple, elegant typographic solution by Letterbox for a client named Kreisler (a photographer). A graphic 'K' was designed based on an observation of light going through a lens.
Custom fonts by Letterbox - this is Bisque.
...and this is League
Snazzy signage around town designed by Letterbox

Stephen Banham is old-school. Or, as he recently questioned via email '....should that be Old Skool?'  Either way, you get the idea!  You mightn't necessarily know his name, but you've more than likely seen his brilliant work around the traps in Melbourne town... after all,  Stephen's design studio Letterbox has been putting out carefully considered, elegant design solutions for a varied client base for nearly 20 years!  With this in mind, when I went to meet Stephen recently at his Brunswick studio, I was kind of expecting to meet someone a bit older.  At least someone with grey hair, you know?  But there was no grey hair...  in fact I am guessing Stephen couldn't possibly be over 40, and since he started Letterbox in 1991 I am really struggling to do the sums in my own head...!? Anyway, unless he has some kind of Doctor-Who style tardis at his disposal, Stephen is clearly a stayer!  He's one of those rare people who has committed themselves to just one business and one job for the last 20 years... and this in itself says a lot about his many achievements.   Even after so many successful years in business, Stephen has kept his business deliberately small... in this time he has truly perfected his craft, and maintained tight control over the studio's prolific output.  It's no wonder Letterbox are  just so freaking good at what they do!

Letterbox undertakes mainly typographic projects. They also design awesome fonts, which you can buy (here!).  The projects Letterbox takes on have varied over the years... but one thing has always been important to Stephen - the cross-pollination of client-commissioned projects (identity, signage systems, book design, and font customisation) with studio-commissioned projects (publications, typeface design, lectures, forums, tours and exhibitions).  One brilliant example of a Letterbox love-job is the 'Characters and Spaces' self guided typography tour Stephen curated last year - I LOVED IT! There are so many brilliant extra-curricular Letterbox projects documented on their website... do go and have a look around - I promise you will be impressed! :)

Other things to love about Letterbox :

- Letterbox takes on many brilliant interns and promising designers from Australia and across the globe, including last week's interviewee Niels Oeltjen! (who designed some of their fonts which you see above).

- Stephen insists on a strict policy of leaving the office at 5.30pm on-the-dot everyday!  AWESOME. I want to be that person.

Stephen is a quiet achiever, but he is such a brilliant local talent, and is super well respected within Melbourne's design community... he's also in the middle of writing a book about typography in Melbourne, to be published by Thames and Hudson and the State Library of Victoria, due out next year! (I will keep you posted!).  I am really grateful to Stephen for taking part in a Design Files interview - Thanks Stephen!

Stephen Banham at his desk... love that Bingo sign, which Stephen picked up for $5.00 at some op-shop before people realised things like that were cool.

Tell me a little about your background - what did you originally study and what path led you to what you are doing now?

Compared to many others, mine has been a relatively linear career – despite very ideas of being a priest, journalist or artist, I've been able to develop a career in typography that draws upon all three of these – the discipline of a priest, the curiosity of a journalist and the creativity of an artist. Although I studied to be an advertising art director at RMIT during the pony-tailed 80s, I realised that this direction was not for me. The answer was for me to move to Berlin for a period of time, kerned type on a kitchen table for three months and then came back and started up my own studio. That is not the best way to do it and not something that I would suggest to graduates or others wanting to enter the industry. It was an analogue world then so learning things and meeting significant practitioners took a heck of a lot longer.

How has Letterbox changed since you first set up shop in 1991? How have your goals for the company and day-to-day working practises evolved since those early days in Northcote?

In many ways the studio has changed a great deal (the technology, the size and freedom of projects) and yet other things are the same. Many things, such as staffing, have deliberately been kept small because of my belief in running a more dynamic studio model. You get smarter about things of course. The studio is more diversified in many ways.

Letterbox seems to do a great job balancing client-commissioned projects with studio-commissioned projects. What is the secret to ensuring that the ‘love jobs’ don’t always end up on the back burner?!

The key is to not consider them as 'love jobs' but as a fully integrated part of your studio practice. For example, many research projects take so long (years) that you have to allocate time to them during the week otherwise they would never get done. Teaching has also been brought into the studio model as well. It's not a separate job. This is something that I had always done but had confirmed through my discussions with other practitioners like Peter Bilak and Jan Van Toorn.

Characters and Spaces walking tour guide... curated and designed by Letterbox.
Characters and Spaces walking tour details... curated and designed by Letterbox.

Is it really true that everyone leaves work at 5.30 at Letterbox?! That is amazing.

Maybe this come back to the self-discipline I spoke of before. The studio is just very, very well organised. We have to be because we work on between 10-15 projects (studio-led and client-led) at once. This idea that you have to work until 4am every night is an industry myth that you can either buy into or not. Closing the studio doors at a set time sets down the ground rules for clients. It trains them to behave.

What are some favourite projects you have worked on at Letterbox?

The quality of the projects has been improving all the time. I've enjoyed the projects where there is a more direct involvement – the Assembly (looking at how kids recall corporate identities), Circular (a series of eight typographic man-hole covers) and Stereotyped (still in production). But perhaps one of the most enjoyable is one I'm working on at the moment – it's a book I'm writing about the cultural stories of typography, particularly signage. It's already taken a year or two of research, drawing upon material I've collected over the past 20 years as well as image collections, countless books, interviews etc. It's being published by Thames and Hudson and co-published by State Library of Victoria and set for release in September or so in 2011.

'Circular' typographic man-hole design by Letterbox

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Starting at 7.30, the first thing in the morning is the four minute bike ride to the studio. Then the next 90 minutes or so are spent peacefully sorting through the overnight emails before the others come in. When this happens, it's a case of briefing or updating people on current projects. It might be a film, a typeface modification, a book, an annual report, an artist catalogue, a website or any other kind of thing... Although projects may go for anything from one day to two years, every day offers different dimensions – some joyous, some frustrating. All this goes on until about 5.30 when we hop on our bikes and literally pedal off into the sunset (depending on the time of the year of course).

Letterbox's hugely popular launch of Fancy at Becco in the CBD gave hundreds the opportunity to enjoy the book and buy boxed sets of the completed Ampersand series.
Customised medical lightboxes by Letterbox for their Orbit Oblique exhibition.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration? – travel, art, local or international print publications, the web etc?

All of the above. Contemporary art is the one I spent the most time with. I find it baffling, frustrating but often very inspiring in the end. The travel is often related, going to see triennales, biennales etc. It's pretty rare that graphic design in a pure sense gets me really intrigued – particularly if it is trying to look like graphic design. Music is my other major inspiration.

Can you name some other creative people whose work you admire?

Most of the people I admire work in fields that feed into design – Music (Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Boards of Canada, Severed Heads), Art (Peter Atkins, Jessica Hische, Juan Ford) etc. Every now and then I get a buzz from seeing sublime graphic design – it happened the other night when I saw the beautiful night signage for the European Masters show at NGV. All these strings of letters floating over the water, amazing stuff.

YES Stephen I have been drooling over this incredible installation at the NGV too!!  I actually 'tumbled' one of these pics last month... these photos are borrowed from the very awesome HotPod blog!

What would be your dream creative project?

I know this sounds corny but I'm really happy with the range of projects at the moment. Lots of writing, some motion, teaching, an art project, some interesting client-led projects, I'm content. The idea that one has to wait around for a dream job to drop into your lap is silly. One has to go out and create them and enjoy the process along the way.

What are you looking forward to?

Hmm. Looking forward to having my weekends back once I finish writing my current book (to be published by Thames and Hudson and co-published by State Library of Victoria)

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I can't help but be rather evangelical about Brunswick I must say. I moved house here about 7 or 8 years ago and then moved to a studio space (The Hardwick Building) the studio across 18 months ago and it's been one of the wisest things I have done. Brunswick is going through the same dynamic (and at times awkward) process that we saw in Flinders Lane (where we were based for 14 years). There's a great sense of community here and plenty of new things going on all the time. The food is fantastic.

Details from Letterbox's studio in the Mariana Hardwick Building in Sydney rd, Brunswick (how about those windows?)
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne? Bar Idda. Damn fine Sicilian fare. And red wine served in a duralex glass. Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade? The tools of my trade are ideas. And you can't really buy those, you make them.
Letterbox bookshelves
Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning? Usually in a Brunswick café having breakfast on our way researching some signage somewhere. Melbourne’s best kept secret? It's letters.
Gigantic signage by Letterbox for the North Melbourne Town Hall Artshouse.  'The joy of carefully spacing was not shared by the signage installers' mentions Stephen, as each letter solid concrete letter weighs over a ton. I want this out the front of my house!  At least one letter?!

Latest Stories

Recent Studio Visit