Lettering at 66 Portland Place – an interview with Lois Anderson

I interviewed Lois Anderson, the RIBA’s letter carver, responsible for the distinctive lettering in RIBA’s foyer. Here she shares her experience of working with RIBA and with architects.

How long have you been carving the letters at the RIBA, and what do you carve?
12 years – the first name I carved was Toyo Ito. I carve the Royal Gold Medallists every year in January, the names of the presidents every two years and the names of the secretaries as and when that is needed.

What do you like about it?
It’s good to work in such a wonderful building and contribute to its architectural history. I’m interested in the architects whose name’s I’m carving. It’s given me the opportunity to learn a lot about their work.

And how many predecessors have you had, before taking on the mantle of being the RIBA’s stone carver?
It’s difficult to tell, but based on the style of the lettering there was probably 2, maybe 3 people before me, since the opening of the building in 1938.

So how can an observer tell the difference between the different carvers? Is there much scope for creativity?
With any lettering there is always scope for creativity. Even when making an exact copy of something else, each letter carver has their own style. So there will be space for originality whilst keeping the spirit of the original. When the names were first carved into the foyer, there was a backlog, so the entire upper part of the wall has been done by the same person at the same time (Percy Smith). To me it looks very much of its time (1930s-40s) as it shows characteristics popular during the Arts and Crafts movement. The cross-bar of the A for example is higher than it would be today. The style overall is much more wide and open, the letters themselves and the spacing between them. This is mostly evident in the Os, the Ms…anything which takes up a wide space.

The successor to this first carver had a different style, preferring a more condensed format. When I first started carving the letters, I was new to this so I opted for a middle ground between the styles of my predecessors. Were I to start now I might have adopted a slightly more personal style, in keeping with what is already there of course. The lettering above the new gallery is all my own work.

Another difference you will see going up the wall is that the earliest set of names are far more crisp, whereas everything later, including my own work, does not achieve that same effect. My only explanation can be the way the material has aged. It behaves unlike any stone I have worked with – it is very soft with hard patches – and that has an impact on the appearance of the lettering and influences how I draw the letters. You mustn’t go against the material, you have to work with it. Another quirk is that it’s so reflective, photographs of the lettering never come out well in this light.

Have there ever been any mistakes then?
None so far from me! But my predecessor made a mistake by misspelling Richard Rogers (he spelt it Rodgers – what a person to have picked!) However he fixed it, and it’s only noticeable if you look closely behind a fire extinguisher…

Both walls in the foyer are nearly filled up, what happens when you run out of space?
Well the lintel above the gallery door is where we’ve moved onto. There’s space for another 25 years’ worth of names there…maybe they will start going up the stairs. That would look really good!

The lettering here – and in a lot of institutional buildings – is heavily classically influenced, even if the building itself is modernist. Why do you think classical lettering has enduring popularity?
A lot of research has been done into why we find the proportions of Roman letters so appealing – there is something about the forms and the weights of the letters which is legible, pleasing to the human eye and to the spirit. All letter carvers are taught classical letters, and we try to do an alphabet every year to continuously improve. You have to know what the rules are before you can break them.

Like Ralph Beyer, for instance?
Yes, Ralph developed a very distinctive style of his own although he would have studied classical Roman lettering during his apprenticeship. I think that he took inspiration from early Christian inscriptions.

How often do you interact with architects in your other work? Is it collaborative?
I do a mix of architectural commissions and memorials as well as personal projects. I have often worked with architects. Often architects like to be guided towards a style of lettering which will suit the situation, in which case they may have seen some of my work before, and would like suggestions of similar lettering. On the other hand some architects may want a particular font and for this they can supply the artwork. It is often the case that slight changes need to be made to a font in order to carve it, for example a font which has been increased in size might need to be increased or decreased in ‘weight’ to look right on a building. Very occasionally (but not often!) I am presented with a job which, really, I think would not benefit from hand carving and would be better produced by mechanical methods like sand blasting, in which case I can advise.

How do you approach a new project, making is site specific and contextual for example?
Firstly it’s important to understand what information is being conveyed, and which messages need to be prioritised. Then you need to think about the material, the space, is it indoors or outdoors, the light, if the stone is vertical or horizontal, smooth or naturally riven, do you have to carve more deeply…Then you would also consider what is appropriate for the building and the area, its history and whether there are any local traditions. In particular I like to research whether there are any local traditions in lettering, as I did recently for a restoration project in Hampstead. For example, I might go and see what the lettering is like in a local graveyard – if there is evidence of a local, historical, stone carver who has used a particular device or has a certain quirk to his style, then I may try and incorporate that idiosyncrasy into my lettering for that site in recognition. Or if there is a local tradition of, say, mining, I might incorporate mining symbols into the project. Everything is site specific. And it’s the choices, the application and the craftsmanship which makes for good or bad lettering.

What’s your favourite example in London? Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. To me they’re the most perfect combination of lettering and images.

Finally, what draws you to be a lettering artist?
I actually like the repetition of the tasks. I like the fact that it’s a craft with specific use. That your creativity is being used to convey information, and that you are drawing letters which are unique and that you leave something permanent behind.