In Britain, a Massive 'Carpet' of Words

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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.”

Young and Altmann assembled a crew experienced in sculpture, art, architecture, sign-writing, building, and diving. “Which brings us to 'trade secrets,'” Young says. “It involved serious chemistry and chemists, and they were surprised by the complexity of demands they had to address.” Among the issues were the cutting-times per letter on different machines and different thicknesses of granite: “Then having three levels of density of design; light, medium and heavy density of letters. Because of its scale and density this was a mad, insane process, the intensity of material was pretty fundamental to its character and the client responded to produced slabs with a desire for no large areas of large white space—resulting in more text and therefore higher costs. All the three-dimensionality of the letters was just to get to that flat print, like finish; for dancers, for acrobats, and readers.”

Altmann was responsible for the InDesign composition, which included 20 sections in all. “It was quite daunting to begin designing a section,” he recalls. “It was a case of taking what I thought were the most familiar, funny, or relevant jokes or catchphrases, and see how they fitted within the space and what typefaces worked and were most appropriate. All the time trying to create a structure that had a link to the posters of the past and a design that was suitable for manufacture and site. Once I had something I was happy with as a first stage design, I would produce a large print of the layout, and Gordon and I would meet to discuss and develop. We would end up with a print with many comments scribbled all over it. I stupidly tried to design most of the sections myself, but in the end it was too big a task, so two colleagues helped design the last few. It was good in the end as they added a new feel to those areas.”

The stone type was similar to metal-type manufacture. Using a water-cut process, granite letters were individually carved and then glued by hand upside down into the steel trays. “So before the concrete was poured in, they really did look like huge galleys of metal or wooden type,” Altmann says. “You could have taken a nice print off them—we never did—but I'm sure it would have worked.”

Altmann stresses the undertaking was a team effort. The two main figures at Carpet studio were Russ Coleman and Andy Sawyer. “They took thousands of painstaking hours translating our designs into reality—quite amazing looking back now,” Altmann says . “In fact the whole project was madness, but the public's response has made it all seem worthwhile. They seem to really relate it and wander about for hours reading and laughing.”

But one question remains after everything is done. With all that typesetting, were there any typos? “We worked with a great proof reader, Robert Timms, who embraced the project beyond the call of duty,” Altmann says, then coyly adds, “I know there is an apostrophe the wrong way round and also an 'N' which is upside down. But no one has written to us yet!”

Click image to enlarge

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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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