Gemma O’Brien: the type whisperer

Published:  July 20, 2015
Issac Teh

Also known by her Instagram handle @mrseaves101, Gemma O’Brien is a typography enthusiasts’ dream. With the ability to create type that is unique, elegant yet powerful, she is definitely spearheading what is the rise of lettering and typography in design today. We know her work well, but what set her down this path and what makes her tick as a creative?

desktop speaks to Gemma and finds out what it takes to become a ‘type whisperer’.

For those who don’t know you yet, can you tell us about how you got started with lettering and developing your unique style of typography?

I initially became interested in typography when I was studying at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. It was my second year of a design degree there and I learnt to set type by hand in the letterpress studio. I became fascinated with the process and from that point forward started researching the history of typography, photographing signs in my environment and drawing letterforms. This passion eventually became my career and now I create type treatments for commercial clients and art projects for a living. Over the years my interest has shifted away from fonts and the history of typography and more to the expressive nature of calligraphy or exploring new ways to approach type-based artworks from an illustrative point of view. Experimentation is a big part of my practice and I like to play with different styles and tools. I also like to work at a range of scales, from small detailed drawings to large-scale murals.


image: Alice Marshall

You’re quite active on social media, how did you come up with the handle @mrseaves and @mrseaves101? Any particular affinity with the typeface in question? 

When I first became interested in type at uni, I started a blog called For the Love of Type (which isn’t really active anymore) and I used the pseudonym “Mrs Eaves” to write my posts. I’d seen the font of the same name (designed by Zuzanna Licko from Emigre) and was intrigued by the story behind it. Basically, Sarah Eaves was the housekeeper of printer John Baskerville, and after her husband left her, and Baskerville’s passed away, they became lovers! They later married and the story goes that she continued to print his types after he died . So –in what was a largely male-dominated world of printing– she was considered one of the forgotten females of the type world. I loved the story and adopted the name for my self on social media. I think when I first got Instagram @mrseaves was taken, so I got the runners up prize of @mrseaves101!

Your Instagram feed shows you in all the countries that your work takes you. Which is your favourite destination and why? 

At the moment my favourite destination is Barcelona. I was there to speak at the OFFF design conference a couple of weeks ago and totally fell in love with the city. It’s relaxed, sunny, creative, filled with amazing Gaudi architecture and incredible food.



What is the most difficult piece of work that you’ve had to produce thus far?

I find whenever  I take on something entirely new (a different style or technique) there’s always a lot of fear in the early stages which can be difficult. For example, the Kirin Cider job where I hand painted 37 huge billboards was very daunting initially as I’d never painted letterforms at such a large scale and quantity before.  I also find the openness of self-directed art projects quite challenging. The initial ideation phase can be difficult because there are so many options. Sometimes too much choice in the  creative process can make it much harder!

How do you find inspiration if you’re hit by the dreaded creative block?

I can get quite overwhelmed after looking up reference or inspiration online. For me, the best thing to do is to get outside, go for a walk and try not to force creative thinking. The best ideas (as cliched as it sounds) often come to me when i’m riding my bike or in the shower. I think it’s important to cultivate boredom too. We are constantly distracted by our iPhones and stimulation these days that I think it’s good to put those things down, escape where you can and try to just do nothing for a short time every day! It’s those moments of space and nothingness that allow creative connections to blossom in your mind.

MAIN IMAGE_gemmaobrien

Any advice for budding young letterers or people wanting to start out doing something like hand-lettering or typography-based design?

Lettering and typography is very cool these days. It’s really become the hit thing in the last 5-10years. There’s also a lot of similar styles doing the rounds. So my advice would be to first ground your practice in a good background of the key history and techniques of calligraphy, lettering and type, draw by hand before moving into the digital space and try and find your own voice. This can be very difficult – especially given that so much of typographic style is steeped in tradition and trends are so highly circulated online. Allow yourself time to experiment to come up with a look that can be unique to you.


As someone at the forefront of your craft, where do you think the hand-lettering scene is headed in the near future and who else do you think is a driving force in the community?

I think that given there has been such a huge surge in the level of interest and demand for hand-lettering that it’s time for a return to experimentation to start to explore new looks and approaches. There is a lot of very derivative looking work out there. I think as a designer in the future you need to be able to bring something to the table that has a certain level of craft as well as a unique voice. Some of the key people who’s work I follow and love and continue to bring new stuff to the table are Luke Lucas, Martina Flor, Friends with Type, Jordan Metcalf, SawDust, Alex Trochut, Luca Barcellona and many more.

Can you reveal a little about what’s coming up next for you?

I am currently working on a new solo show that opens at China Heights in Sydney on July 31. It will feature some new works on paper and a mural in the gallery.

Profile Image: Elle Green

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