In Britain, a Massive 'Carpet' of Words

Creating the second wonder of the typographic world was no easy feat

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Blackpool, England’s “Comedy Carpet” is no joke. Rather it is a mammoth typographical artwork—a concrete plaza—covering 1,720 square meters between the famed Blackpool Observation Tower and the city’s ocean front.

Made of 180,000 letters in a variety of typeface weights and styles, carved from Indian granite and smoothed over, the carpet features hundreds of quotations, monologues, gags, punch lines and routines by some of Britian’s looniest comics—giving new meaning to that common comedian’s complaint, “You stepped on my line!”

Arguably the second wonder of the typographic world, after the Roman Trajan Column, this typographic feat (on which many feet will stand) is the brainchild of English artist and type aficionado Gordon Young in collaboration with graphic designer Andy Altmann of Why Not Associates. And the carpet is ambitious even for Young, who has carved typographic messages literally out of an entire tree trunk (putting new emphasis on the term “woodtype”).

"The whole project was madness, but the public's response has made it all seem worthwhile," Altmann says.

The carpet was inspired by “a long tradition of theatre playbills, which advertised the acts and gave us the content,” says Young, adding his primary sources were a shop in Covent Garden whose tables are packed with old theatre posters and a website that sells posters reproduced as postcards. “We visited the archives of theatre posters in the winter gardens in Blackpool,” says Altmann, who also attended “a great exhibition of variety posters” held by the British Music Hall Society in the East End of London. “But it didn't stop there,” Young adds. “Whilst there were [basic] formats, these changed, morphed each decade within a tradition; new print technology and taste having an effect.” With the duo’s inspirations in place, they next had to find digital typefaces that could be used that related back to old wood types. “We ended up drawing our own versions of fonts with drop shadows,” Altmann says.

Shadows, however, were the least of the worries. Convincing the Blackpool authorities to spend £2.6 million to build this incredible public landscape involved Director of Development Reg Haslam, of the now defunct Development Corporation ReBlackpool, who set up a competition for the seafront promenade. It was called “The People's Playground,” which referenced the history and tradition of the town. The entire seafront was being remodeled with serious engineering funds spent for sea barriers, and four new large headlands were created. LDA, the landscape architects who won the competition and are responsible for a lot of landscaping for the upcoming London Olympics, invited Young to join the project.

“The very aspect of the place, with its rich and unique heritage and ghosts, pointed at an item of fun and, ideally, laughter,” Young says about the carpet concept. “The comedy element stacked up with its location and function, the desire to create an artwork built to a very high standard, very posh in a place with a poor recent build record. The new ‘public front room’ deserved an item that wouldn't be found in the usual new urban civic spaces. The history of Blackpool has been to do things differently, to even do surreal projects. This had been part of its past success; it was different.” The clients liked the concept, he says. They thought “it was mad but somehow made sense.”

Young had previously collaborated with Altmann on smaller public projects, developing and researching relatively simple ways to put text into the environment through artworks. The Comedy Carpet was the similar, but not the same: “It was relatively simple procedures, but not without quite serious technical issues we discovered, on a large, manic, insane Blackpool scale and intensity,” Young says.

Three contractors were contacted who seemed able, but their quality and cost were, respectively, not high enough and too high. “It was decided we would have to do it ourselves if it was going to happen and appear,” Young says. “We needed further serious R&D, we needed a large industrial space and a crew to make it. The carpet 'studio' for the artwork was a former fish processing plant in the city of Hull, a place with affordable floor areas and work force.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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