The Eric Gill series exhibition

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It is rare to visit an exhibition dedicated to typography, even in London.

Therefore, an exhibition on the development of the Gill Sans typeface by British artist/ sculptor/ type designer/ printmaker Eric Gill proved to be popular among graphic designers and typography lovers.

Gill designed the hugely popular Gill Sans sans-serif typeface between 1927-30 for Monotype, one of the world’s best-known providers of type-related products, technologies and expertise. This timeless typeface is still being used widely today, from BBC to Benetton and our website! I chose this over other popular typefaces because it is inviting, legible, and most importantly, it is quintessentially British (which is why it is called the ‘Helvetica’ of England)!


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At the exhibition, rarely seen materials including Gill’s hand-drawings from the Monotype Archive and private collections were presented for the first time. There were test prints for display fonts that were never digitized, and copper plates revealing the production process of early letterpress typefaces.

The exhibition also celebrates the launch of The Eric Gill Series, a collection of 77 fonts in three families: Gill Sans® Nova, Joanna® Nova and Joanna Sans Nova. Derived from the original work of Gill, these are contemporary digital typefaces – with a wide range of weights, alternate characters and extended language support – that pay homage to Gill’s original designs.


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Contemporary usage of Gill Sans – promotional materials for British fashion label Margaret Howell


On the last day of the exhibition, I also attended the Type Tuesday talk where Dan Rhatigan, David Hitner and James Mosley presented three different yet complementary aspects of Gill’s design legacy. It was fascinating to hear from researchers and designers who are passionate about typography. I often feel that typography has been sidelined in our image-driven world, so it is about time that we pay more respect to this art form that is ubiquitous and influential in our everyday lives.


Mino washi from Gifu exhibition

mino washi paper exhibition

Mino washi paper exhibition at The Proud Archivist


I have been wanting to visit Mino in Gifu Prefecture in Central Japan for a while. My motive is to do with none other than paper, as Mino is renowned for traditional Japanese paper making.

The origin of Mino washi can be traced back to the Nara period in 8th century; and in 2014, these paper making techniques were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.


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Unsurprisingly, I was quite thrilled when I found out about the ‘Mino Washi from Gifu’ exhibition at The Proud Archivist. The exhibition showcased some of the finest contemporary uses of Mino washi paper, whilst exploring the tradition and craft of this classic Japanese material.

Paper lanterns were the prime focus at this small but well-curated exhibition. The centre of the room was filled with an array of delicate and beautiful washi lanterns in various shapes and sizes, including works by well-known Japanese designers Isamu Noguchi and Shigeru Uchida.


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Aside from lanterns, the exhibition also displayed traditional paper making tools, mulberry bark, miniature paper sculptures of the washi making processes, and a film footage on the topic. Visitors could also purchase paper products sold by Wagumi, a London-based shop that specialises in Japanese design products.


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I had the opportunity to speak to Yoko from Wagumi, who kindly provided me more information on Mino and other paper-making cities in Japan. Our chat has given more incentive to visit the city when I next travel to Japan, and hopefully, it will be within the next two years!


Capturing autumn colours

hampstead heath

Hampstead heath


This autumn, we have had some beautiful sunny days with vivid blue sky in London, therefore I couldn’t resist taking the time off (during the week) to enjoy nature in this bustling city. And I didn’t have to go far since Hampstead Heath is the sanctuary for nature in London.


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Hampstead Heath


I often feel that when people are disconnected with nature, they are likely to disconnect with reality. Nature reflects the universe, and it reminds us of the cycle of life. When we take time to observe nature, we would open up our minds and see things in a larger context beyond our narrow world.

Like Japan, the UK also has fairly distinctive seasons, so perhaps we can learn from the Japanese and celebrate each season with joy, gratitude and curiosity.


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 Yellow and brown


During the few months in autumn, I would often walk around with my eyes fixated on the pavement (not when I am crossing busy streets) because I am so drawn towards the beautiful patterns formed by fallen leaves. Aside from the different coloured and shaped leaves, there are also fallen apples and conkers with spiky green shells – all of these are great works of art created by nature.


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 Autumn leaves


Besides the visual aspect, I particularly enjoy trampling on dried fallen leaves and listening to the rustling sounds created by my shoes/boots on the leaves. The act somehow reminds me of childhood, when life was simple and carefree. There are times in our lives when acting childlike can make us forget the burden that accumulates over time as adults.


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 Apples and conkers


I truly believe that art and beauty is all around us, and if only we take the time to observe, we would be stunned by what nature has to offer. Furthermore, solitude in nature provides us the time to connect with ourselves; and if you ever experience negative emotions, an few hours in nature can be as effective as a counseling session. Try it to see for yourself.


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Stoke on Trent’s vanishing kilns, craft and economy

Gladstone pottery museun

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Top: The grade II* listed Gladstone Pottery Museum where visitors can learn about city’s pottery history and manufacturing processes; Bottom 2 rows: The city is full of abandoned pottery factories, kilns and chimneys


Last year, I visited The Asia Triennial in Manchester, and I was pleasantly surprised by the how the city has evolved since my last visit back in the early 90s. The city has also been named the most liveable place in the UK according to the Global Liveability Survey – beating London for the second time.

This year, after my 2 day visit in Stoke on Trent, I left the city feeling rather depressed, appalled and agitated. Unlike Manchester, Stoke on Trent exposes the uneven distribution of wealth in this country; and how the government has neglected many parts of the country that urgently require regeneration and economic support.


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Top row: Hanley park; Bottom left: The grade II* listed train station; Bottom right: The city’s typical terraced houses


In its heyday, about 4,000 bottle kilns dominated the city’s skyline, now only 47 (listed) are left standing. Walking around the city, one can’t fail to notice the abandoned factories, kilns and chimneys that once played a vital role in city’s development and economy.

In the 1980s and 90s, Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the decline in the British manufacturing sector; and as a result, many factories closed down or moved overseas, leaving a sharp rise in unemployment in the ‘high-skilled but low-paid’ sector. Although in recent years, there has been a revival in the city’s pottery industry, with ceramic exports have rising by 36 percent between 2009 and 2014, the road to recovery may still take some time.


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 The city’s mishmash architectural styles


Last year, the city made headline news when Stoke-on-Trent City Council put 33 derelict properties on the market for a pound each in a desperate attempt to clean up the area. The ‘Clusters of Empty Homes Programme (£1 home scheme)’ was a bold and unconventional idea, and it seemed to have paid off when thousands applied for them. Yet despite all the positive press coverage of the city’s ‘renaissance’, I was not entirely convinced when I was walking around the city on a weekday afternoon.


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The city’s Art Deco, Brutalist and contemporary architecture


Lack of urban planning is only one of the issues in this city. The mishmash architectural styles – not in a positive eclectic way – reveal the incoherency of city planning, hence you can find architectural styles from all eras in one street. I find it bewildering that unnecessary regeneration (and social cleansing) is constantly taking place in parts of London that erase its local identity; whereas cities like Stoke on Trent would probably benefit more from it than a wealthy and over-developed city like London.


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The ‘Cultural district’ is the least cultural place I have ever visited


On paper, the cultural quarter sounds exciting, but in reality, I saw nothing related to ‘culture’ except for a street art piece and hand-written tourist information on a disused shop window panels. Many of the shops in this quarter are derelict, while the ones that remain open are chained stores like Waterstones and TK Maxx.

There were teenage ‘hoodies’ hanging out in the streets, and older guys drinking outside of the pubs looking as if they have been there for days! Even the sun couldn’t lighten up the grim and dismal atmosphere in the city centre, and I was desperate to get out.


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‘Emptiness’ in Stoke on Trent’s city centre


I did some research on the city when I got back to London, and I discovered a Regeneration masterplan report proposed by the local Council in 2011. This plan suggests that followng: “the redevelopment of Stoke Town has the potential to create 500 jobs over the next 5 years and attract £25m in investment. The Council is providing £1m for remediation works and a further £2m for the wider town centre.”

Four years after this publication, I am not sure how many of its grand plans have been realised. As far as I could see, the former Spode works and its surrounding area still look dilapidated, and the same goes for the city centre or cultural district. So what happened to this master plan? Was it lack of funding that obstructed the regeneration?

I have never been to Detroit before, but I have a feeling that Stoke on Trent is the smaller and less drastic UK equalvalent of the US industrial capital that fell from grace. If Detroit is able to slowly bounce back from bankrupcy, then there is still hope for Stoke on Trent to thrive again as UK’s pottery capital.

The trip has been an eye-opening experience for me, and like most Londoners, I probably take things for granted and I tend to forget that London does not represent the rest of the country. It is a real shame that most of the foreign and government’s investments focus mostly on already wealthy cities like London, Bristol and Manchester etc. Shockingly, regional inequality in the UK is said to be the worst in Western Europe according to Eurostat, the data agency of the European Union. Many parts of UK are at least 20% poorer than the EU average, and the Shropshire and Staffordshire region (including Stoke on Trent) was named the 6th poorest in the UK in 2014. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing at an alarmingly rate since this Government took office in 2011.

Now, I really want to ask David Cameron one question, “What happened to your grand vision of the BIG society?


Middleport – The last working Victorian pottery factory

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Trent & Mersey canal


I had pre-booked a guided factory tour at the last working Victorian pottery factory – Middleport pottery factory the morning after my visit to the British Ceramics Biennial. I decided to take a scenic route (also recommended by the B & B owner) along the Trent & Mersey canal as the factory is located next to it.

The one-hour walk offered a glimpse into the past of the city. Engineered by James Brindley and completed in 1777, the canal played a crucial role in the thriving pottery industry at the time. The pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood was one of the major backers of the canal, as he saw the canal as an economic option for transporting huge amounts of china clay and other raw materials such as coal between the ports and his factories.

Unfortunately, with the demise of the potteries industry, now there are only derelict factories and kilns along the canal. In 2011, Middleport was at serious risk of closure, and the Victorian factory was in a state of disrepair until Prince Charles and The Prince’s Regeneration Trust stepped in and rescued it from being turned into a car park by the pottery giant Steelite interational next door (informed by our guide at the tour)!


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The facade of the Victorian factory


The Grade II* listed site was constructed in 1888 for a well-known local ceramics company, Burgess & Leigh Limited. The company was founded by Frederick Rathbone Burgess and William Leigh in 1862, and it was Leigh who had the idea of constructing a new pottery factory next to the canal. An architect was hired to design the factory (which was unheard of at the time), and it became widely recognised as the “Model Pottery” in the Staffordshire pottery industry. With its 3 biscuit and 4 glost bottle ovens, the factory was known locally as the “Seven Oven Works”.

Sadly, only one biscuit oven is left standing today; all the glost ovens were demolished in 1949, whilst the other 2 biscuit ovens were removed in 1965. The last biscuit oven survived solely because it is attached to the building, hence it escaped the fate of demolition.


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Top left: Original factory signage; Top right: The Victorian steam engine; 2nd row right: The entrance to the last kiln at the factory; Bottom row left: Old factory machinery; Bottom row right: A vintage poster of the factory


After a three-year, £9 million regeneration of the site, the restored Pottery opened to the public in July 2014. It has resulted in the safeguarding of 50 local jobs and the creation of 66 more. Aside from a visitor centre – featuring the original Victorian offices – the site also has an open kiln with a small museum, an art gallery, a room with a Victorian steam engine, Prince of Wales Studios for young designers and craftsmen, a factory shop and a cozy cafe serving wholesome local specialities.


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middleport pottery factory

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middleport pottery factory


Before the factory visit, I had no idea that this is the last of its kind in Britain, and I was glad that had pre-booked the guided factory tour. The tour was not only informative, it also enabled us to understand the processes of the pottery manufacturing. We were led into different parts of the working factory and chatted to workers who are not only locals, but the 2nd or 3rd generation workers of the same factory!


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middleport pottery factory

The underglaze tissue printing room (except for the lady working on the Fortnum & Mason pottery in 2nd row right)


Burleigh is renowned for its traditional printing technique – the underglaze tissue ceramic transfer printing which first developed circa 1850. I was surprised to learn that Burleigh is now the only company in Britain (or the world) to employ this time-consuming but skillful technique. Other companies now use either screen printing or digital printing to save time and costs. Although Burleigh also employs these printing techniques, the underglaze tissue printing is what makes the company special.

Seeing the workers happily applying their skills and enjoying their tasks really made my day. I wish that more British companies would continue to support local manufacturing as it is part of their heritage. These skills and craftsmanship would be lost forever if these companies continue to set up factories overseas to cut costs.


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Top left: The art gallery; Top right: The studios for young local designers/artists; 4th & bottom rows: The factory shop


After the tour, I spent some time browsing in the factory shop and I ended up buying an English ceramic tea set for my brother as part of his wedding present. Having just met the workers at the factory, it felt good to know that each piece of the set was made with care, skill and passion.

If you are going to spend one or 1/2 day in Stoke on Trent, then I highly recommend this guided factory tour. It is not only about ceramics, but fundamentally it is about the British history and heritage.


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middleport pottery factory cafe

Top left: The display of pottery in the visitor’s centre; Top right: The Burleigh pottery board game; Bottom: The popular cafe by the canal decorated with murals painted by local artist


A short film about the Middleport pottery factory