A handwritten letter changed Craig Oldham’s life. It wasn’t the content of the letter, but its material form. Delivered to his Manchester office with the mess of ‘bills and junk mail and other garbage that arrives on a daily basis’, the personal missive was a treasure among trash. The experience of receiving the note inspired a ‘creative tennis’ conversation between Oldham and a fellow designer about the preciousness of personal correspondence.
“There is always something nice about receiving a letter,” Oldham explains. “Especially these days when emails, texts, status updates and tweets dominate our communication, leaving many to lose sight of the things that have been around for a while (like ink and paper). However, it is important that they do not.”
Motivated by the experience and following conversation, Oldham penned a series of letters to internationally renowned designers whose books faced him from his shelf, then promptly forgot about them. A few weeks later, handwritten replies began to arrive:
Handwritten letters = charming.
My handwriting = not so charming.
Michael’ [Bierut, Pentagram]
Alan [Dye, NB:Studio]
Writing letters is a bit like thatching the roof of a cottage. Not many people do it anymore. It’s only done by children writing thank-you notes to grandparents – and by nutters who write to the BBC in green ink.
Writing letters was good enough for James Joyce and T.S. Eliot – why not us?
Best wishes Adrian’ [Shaughnessy, Unit Editions]
Oldham was delighted, but surprised: “I didn’t think anyone would take any notice, but I felt I’d stumbled on something people were interested in.” He started an online archive of the letters, and invited more leading designers and creative thinkers from around the world to contribute to his collection, asking them to reply on their letterheads. After a while, unsolicited letters were arriving. The best, according to Oldham, is one from his mum. “We have a running joke that she has no idea what I do for a living – I think she still tells people I draw pictures. She came across the project somewhere and wrote me a letter, with a letter in it I sent her when I was five years old. It brings people to tears! I bite my fist when I read it.”
A handwritten letter is never quickly executed, and carries with it the trace of this deliberate and thoughtful process: the sender prepares a sheet of paper and selects a writing tool; considers what to say and scribes the message; addresses the envelope, seals, stamps it and walks it to the post office. Shoeboxes of old letters are commonly stashed under beds and on bookshelves, but how many of us keep folders of emails and text messages?
From a spontaneous beginning in 2007, the project has grown to include more than 100 letters. The full collection was exhibited at KK Outlet in London, in August, 2011. The letters were hung at eye-height in clear Perspex envelopes, so visitors could move through the space and read each precious leaf, front and back. Each is a work of art, lovingly written, drawn, painted or printed. Carter Wong design has stamped, in large wooden letterpress: ‘DEAR CRAIG SOME TYPE I FOUND ON PORTOBELLO MARKET’. Interbrand has hand lettered in red and black ink ‘Dear Craig, Let’s make a dent in the universe’. Magpie Studio sent a collection of hand drawn Ms, signed by different members of the studio.
Alongside the London exhibition, Oldham produced a case-bound, hard-back book in a limited edition of 175 copies, which he describes as a “production marvel”. To make the book as authentically analogue as possible he says, “I pestered the hell out of all the artists and designers to give me as many letterheads as they could spare, then printed the letters on them.” The letters are displayed chronologically, on a multitude of stocks and inserts. The cover features a black foil illustration by Marion Deuchars. It is already out of print. On the cards is another publication that will include all the letters collected so far in a “more standard format.”
Since the London exhibition, Oldham has been receiving three or four unsolicited letters a day: “One of the best things is I have no control over it – people want to say things, and I feel privileged they choose to say them to me.” The exhibition will travel to Oldham’s hometown of Barnsley, Yorkshire (so his mum can see it), Manchester, Berlin and, if we’re lucky, Australia soon.
We invited five Australian studios/designers to contribute to The.Hand.Written.Letter.Project:
To contribute, address your handwritten letter to:
22 Kings Road, Old Trafford
Manchester M16 7SD
From desktop magazine.
All images are copyright by The Handwritten Letter Project.