Harry Pearce at Pentagram

It’s a shame in a way that the Whitechapel Gallery ended up being too small for Harry Pearce’s 26 talk last week. This new-look building is a fascinating place, full of memories of writers and artists now long gone. Having been rebuilt from a combination of the old library and the old gallery, the place is living testament to the interplay of words and images – rather like Harry’s talk The Schizophrenic Road, which was relocated to Pentagram Yard.

Harry’s a familiar face of course, having designed the broadsheet newspaper that helped launch 26. For those who don’t know his work though, let’s just say he’s a leading international graphic designer and typographer, a self-styled wordsmith, and a wizard of the letterform. Well known for bold textual creations, he made his name in design circles as the second half of Lippa Pearce, the award-winning design duo that joined Pentagram three years ago.

In more recent times, he’s been turning his hand to just about anything, from designing buildings, to ongoing work with human rights organisation Witness. He’s also an old friend of the late Alan Fletcher, the designer who became his mentor, and the man who this talk remembers.

It was Alan who inspired Harry to collect the verbal oddities that have become a kind of creative backbone for his work. After seeing Harry’s photo of the street sign ‘Avenue Road’, Fletcher got excited,

“Fuck it Harry you’ve discovered the schizophrenic road. Whatever you do keep recording these. Think this way…”

I’m trying to think of a way of summing up Harry’s worldview, but it’s not that straightforward. As the talk continues we start to piece the puzzle together bit by bit.

He’s interested in ‘confusing words with images’ like with his Macbeth poster, where letters form from spaces in a pool of blood. He loves games and conundrums. He’s interested in irony and silliness and says ‘nonsense often has more meaning than sense’. He’s a collector, yes. Of images, dreams, amusing sayings or scenes. And he’s interested in manifesting memories.

Like all great wordsmiths, he’s a storyteller who understands juxtaposition and verbal dynamics, not just in the way words and images are crammed with meanings, like his incendiary political poster for Burma, but in the way sentences and situations rely on the reader to complete them (a pure principle of interaction in fact).

A great example of this simple idea in action is his divine photo of an arrow-shaped sign pointing towards the Heaven Café. It’s been nailed to a tree, but of course someone’s nabbed a nail and the thing’s now pointing to the sky. What visual poetry.

The talk continues and he shows us his designs for the Dana Foundation, an academic offshoot of the Science Museum, dedicated to the study of the human brain. It’s offices and study areas on the top floors with bars and lounges on the ground. In an effort to lighten up the lab coat image of the boffins, he’s done just about everything he can to stencil what’s inside our heads onto the walls.

Dana’s brand identity is drawn from the shape of the building, encapsulating it entirely. For the centre’s interiors he’s turned the walls and windows into a massive neural mural. Every surface is emblazoned with printed thoughts, ideas and conversations. It’s pretty incredible for a writer to see – a temple of type whose letterforms are engrained into the fabric of the architecture. 
“I’ve always believed that typography and buildings have a very similar nature,” he says. “An architect recently said to me, that what matters most and is often overlooked, is the space between buildings. That’s the space most people inhabit. You could say the same for type; often it’s the space between forms that hold the key to its beauty.”

There are seemingly no outer limits to his approach to work today. The one congruity is things are much more than they first appear to be. It’s words, conversations, memories and what they leave behind in the physical world that matter – what he neatly calls “Conversation’s Ghosts”. 
“You know when a conversation takes place that when it’s done, it’s done – you have the memories you have the effect of people’s words on you,” he says.“I imagine the place/space where this takes place has a memory of it too.”
There’s a huge amount to the Schizophrenic Road, and a lot to take away. It’s not just about collecting street signs and writing down your dreams, though that might be a good idea, but more importantly about reading ‘things’ in all sorts of ‘other’ ways. Words, it seems, are much more than just words.

Thank you Harry.

And thank you Mike of Digit for a review worthy of the event.

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