It don't mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing – was his mantra – jazz forming the rhythm to his many and varied creative pursuits. He loved to make things, and once sent me photographs of a chair saying, ‘Here's a crazy project I've just completed, a sax chair for my garden’. A wooden lean-to chair the sides and legs formed out of giant blue and red saxaphones. He even named several of his typefaces after jazz classics and musicians. Michael belonged to various ‘clubs’ and was always actively involved. I first met him through Letter Exchange and ATypI and we became firm friends. He was a great raconteur, loved to share a meal and a glass of wine – and, I discovered, was an inspired dancer delighted to be my partner and first on the dance floor at ATypI occasions. He was simply great fun to be with and I feel privileged to have known him. Although very sad on his passing, just to think of the twinkle in his eyes, and his infectious energy and enthusiasm, still makes me want to smile.
He was a special person, extremely gifted as a lettering artist and in other related fields. ISTD made Michael an Honorary Fellow in 2005 and he seemed as delighted about this as he was about an earlier much grander honour – MBE for Services to the Arts, 2001. His expertise as a letterer and maker was much sought after. He was on the Royal Mint Advisory Committee on the Design of Coins and Medals 1991–2004, chaired by HRH Prince Philip. His visits to the palace became a rich source of anecdotes, a few somewhat irreverent. Originally inspired by Eric Gill’s Autobiography, Michael’s early experience in letter carving was first under Joseph Cribb, Gill’s first apprentice, and then as assistant to Reynolds Stone. Since then he has designed and carved many inscriptions in Westminster Abbey, Winchester and Canterbury Cathedrals. One of his largest commissions was the great frieze of artists’ names in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, 1990, which he undertook assisted by Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling. At the time we had a studio a few streets away in Soho, and Michael ‘smuggled’ us [me and David Quay] in for a sneak preview, explaining that he had to do a quick temporary repair job on one of the overlapping stones – with super glue, as Prince Charles was about to visit. We then had to make a quick exit.
Michael was also an accomplished book jacket designer, author, typographer and type designer, and an inspiring teacher and lecturer. He stressed the importance of drawing in the creative process, and described lettering as an abstract art sharing affinities with music and architecture in the use of space, fluidity and expressiveness. His oft ‘Let’s see where this takes us...’ was a lead in to experimenting with line and form, and finding a connection between language and the letterforms. I envy the students that had the opportunity to study with him.
Although adamant about the hand and the pencil, he successfully transferred his type design skills to the mouse and the screen, creating typefaces for Adobe, Monotype, and Fine Fonts his own independent foundry with Andy Benedek. This move from traditional skills formed an entertaining lecture Goodbye Analogue, Hello Digital! In 2005 ISTD was invited to South Africa to take part in the AdobeLive ‘roadshow’ in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. We asked Michael if he would be willing to take part as the keynote speaker. No easy feat – an intense, fast pace, whistle-stop tour. With his characteristic enthusiasm’. We travelled over 32,000 miles by air, 970 miles by car and at the end of the tour Michael took up the offer by Adobe of a tented-safari involving a 400 mile helicopter journey to the ‘outback’. I only went along for the ride as his ‘minder’ and I was exhausted. Meeting him back in Jo’burg, he was full of the experience. On the flights we shared stories about type, type design, and much else. Michael made one comment that stays with me – about the importance of documenting your work and sharing expertise – he mentioned working with the British Library Sound Archive taking part in their National Life Stories: Craft Lives project. His many books, including the memoir Adventures with Letters, meticulously document for posterity not only his work, but his own inspirations, his ethos and process. Although sadly we have lost a great man, we still have access to his work, and more tangibly his views and thoughts are there to inspire and guide us. So much more to say – and I haven’t even touched on bicycles or Duke Ellington. Thank you Michael, you definitely had that Swing.
For a true insight into this man who will be sadly missed by his many friends and colleagues around the world, I would recommend you read Adventures with Letters, published by Michael in the summer of 2012. This book explores his 60 year fascination with letterforms, through a very personal account of his lifetime’s work. The title itself gives a flavour of the man who was indeed a great adventurer, who loved travel, photography, bicycles and jazz.
Freda Sack FISTD – London