FEATURE: These Northern Types – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Oli Bentley, Creative Director of Leeds-based design studio Split, this year produced an exhibition series and book, These Northern Types, a 16-part typographic exploration of northern identity. Working with a team of writers, engineers, printers and members of the public, Oli has brought together type design, experimental production methods, public engagement and specially commissioned written work. Here, Oli tells us more…

I’ve always said I’m a proud northerner and, for most of my life, it’s been easy to say that. But a few years ago I found I was beginning to feel unsure about what that really meant.

I’m a designer. It’s my job to work with bands, arts organisations and companies to help give focus and clarity to their identities. And this uncertainty about how I felt about myself, as a northerner, made me wonder how – if – I could use design to bring any clarity to my thoughts about my own sense of identity, and to wider issues concerning our relationship to place.

The more I thought about it, the more my own idea of ‘northernness’ – and, more, what being from any place means today – became a self-generating storm of questions, and the more vague the whole concept became, but it felt like an exciting lens through which to examine a load of other issues. It was these questions, and disparities I could see between commonly held perceptions and reality, that were the real inspiration for the project.

So that was the germ of the idea that became These Northern Types. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions about their understanding of the north and the people who are from here, or who’ve washed up here, and about their own relationships with this debatable place.

The response to their often complex, considered and compassionate answers has involved (accidentally) building what we believe might be the world’s largest printing press (we’re having a chat with Guinness at the minute), a giant 7-foot stick of rock run through with the legend ‘I ♥ Nowhere’, prints using ink made from curry sauce, gravy or soot, screenprinting onto lifejackets used by refugees, a whole bunch of new type designs and lots more.

Oh, and we created a trademark for The North which we launched on Twitter from our ‘London office’ in Shoreditch. That went well(!).

Each artwork is partnered by a piece from a northern writer – gathered into a box set of 17 individual books: memoir, polemic, poetry and more, encompassing music, football, grit (geological and psychological), thrift, accents, pretension, fish and chips, sanctuary, nationalism, industry, money, division and pride.

Our collaborators, each bringing their own inspiration to These Northern Types, are musicians, poets, novelists, bloggers and lecturers, people living with dementia in care homes, and female refugees from all over the world living in sanctuary in Leeds. All northern, all in utterly different ways.

Inspiration sometimes struck in the most unexpected of moments. Ruby Tovet, born in 1930 and living in a care home in Leeds, talked beautifully about the roots of her ‘northern soul’ and its links to wider social struggles – the coal mining that generations of her family had done in the north east, and the physical harms it entailed. Suddenly she used the phrase, “We lose bits of ourselves,” – referring to eyes and fingers and so on.

That one phrase, spoken by an extraordinary woman finding her memories and her language increasingly inaccessible due to her advancing dementia, led to the creation of a poem made of more-or-less verbatim fragments of her interview. This, in turn, led to the creation of a physical poem set in lead letterpress type, with a number of the letters melting away. The written artwork and the physical artwork suggest both an individual and a societal memory loss as generations move on. As Ruby put it, “it’s funny how change happens, it sort of creeps up on you.”

Other inspirations came from people we worked with in other ways – for example, the team behind our People Powered Press and our new font, Graft. JKNOilTools, Accurate Laser (Leeds) and JW Laycocks created these steel letters – themselves inspired by the cross section of a steel I-beam The letters are laser-cut, welded to matching steel blocks and milled to 23.32mm high (standard British Type Height). The set includes four numerals that come in at 3840pt. That’s just a few inches shorter than me. And I’m 6 ft. These all sit in a giant printing press, made to an incredible standard by the lads at JKN in just two weeks. They run their workshop 22 hours a day, turning lumps of steel into any shape you can imagine. Seeing their work ethic first hand inspired the naming of Graft.

This type and its press gave community groups a voice as we worked with local writers to produce giant outdoor posters for display on the streets of the north. And it’s elements like this of These Northern Types that will give the project a meaningful future.

I certainly never wanted These Northern Types to try and tell people who they are – or define a fixed notion of what northernness is. A black-and-white definition like that could never ring true for all 15 million people we lump together as ‘northerners’. Grappling with what’s beyond the 2D, clichéd, flat-caps-and-whippets notion of the north was definitely the project’s biggest inspiration.

I think this is why one of the key ideas within These Northern Types is a phrase from Alan Sillitoe’s novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (paraphrased by Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys): “Whatever people think I am, or say I am, that’s what I’m not.”

The attempts to define us inspired us to ask some pretty deep questions about what we are not. We’re the ‘other’ in many ways. Which is why we find common ground with people living in, say, the south of Italy or of the USA – other people widely stereotyped and living in the opposite half of their country from the centres of power, finance and media. One undercurrent of this project, audible in its many voices, is the idea that this is a universal experience. To be the ‘other’ is by no means restricted to geography.

You may not live in the north of England, but there is a ‘north’ in every continent, every country, every community – physical or otherwise. So I’d hope that – wherever you are, whatever people say you are – These Northern Types will resonate with you.

You can buy the book here.

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