Page 1: Biography
Type designer, graphic designer, businessman
This biography, written by Safua Akeli Amaama, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Samoan-born graphic designer Joseph Churchward was an internationally renowned typeface designer whose work graced record covers, billboards, newspapers and popular literature such as posters and brochures around the world, both during his lifetime and beyond. He hand-created around 700 typefaces, drawing upon influences from his Pacific heritage and family. His work was well known to the international design community from the 1960s but was not prominent in New Zealand until Te Papa Tongarewa acquired his archive and held an exhibition of his work in 2009.
Joseph Churchward was born on 20 August 1933 in Apia, Western Samoa, the only child of Mary Coe and George Charles Churchward. Mary was of Tongan, Samoan and Scottish descent, the granddaughter of an American whaler. George was the grandson of the acting British Consul to Samoa and Deputy Commissioner of the Western Pacific in the nineteenth century. His mother was of Samoan-Chinese heritage. Mary and George separated when Joseph was young and both married other people. George moved to New Zealand, where he worked as an auditor at a timber mill in Tokoroa. Mary had a large family, becoming a successful businesswoman in Samoa. Churchward was raised in Samoa by his paternal grandparents, to whom he was very close. Meeting his birth mother at the age of 12 deeply affected him, and he came to love her deeply. He maintained respect for his father.
Churchward had fond memories of growing up in Samoa. On one occasion, some girls were looking after him; ‘they scribbled letters on the sand to teach me how to draw letters, the waves came and washed the letters away! I … drew the same letters.’1 He recalled this experience whenever he cleaned pencil marks from his letters in later life.
In 1946, aged 13, Churchward travelled to Auckland with his grandmother and cousin. He moved in with an aunt and her family in Kilbirnie, Wellington, and enrolled at Miramar South School. In 1948 he attended art courses at Wellington Technical College, where he excelled at lettering; the College’s annual Review featured a cover he designed. During his schooling, Churchward travelled back and forth to Samoa. He extended his temporary visa permit before applying to become a naturalised New Zealand citizen in 1951.
On leaving school, Churchward joined Charles Haines Advertising Agency Ltd as a junior commercial artist on an internship; he was to stay with the firm for nine years. Haines was New Zealand’s oldest advertising agency and one of the country’s three largest, with 75 staff across four branches. Churchward also lent his skills to designing programmes for community groups on a voluntary basis, such as a programme for the Wellington Diocesan Māori Youth Festival hosted by Ngāti Pōneke in 1955.
Joseph Churchward married Samoan nurse Anna (Tua) Maria Tasi in Wellington on 29 October 1956; they went on to have eight children together. To help save money to buy their own home, Tua returned to Samoa with their first child while pregnant with their second, planning to stay for two years. Churchward worked seven days a week, often for 16 hours a day, enabling Tua and their children to return after just nine months. The couple bought their first house in Newtown.
Going into business
In 1962 Churchward left Charles Haines and set up Churchward’s Lettering Service, later Churchward International Typefaces (CIT). He specialised in creating alphabet fonts by hand, making detailed pencil sketches to measure the size, shape and impact of each letter, then tracing and inking enlarged images onto cardboard boards. Creating one alphabet could take Churchward between 150 and 300 hours. His biographer, David Bennewith, writes that he ‘forged his own alphabets by reinterpreting the familiar forms of his daily work and endowing them with influences from his culture and surroundings’.2 He named some of his fonts after family members – the 1969 Churchward Marianna typeface, for example, was named for his six-year old-daughter, who was known as ‘plumpy’.3
Churchward’s most popular font, Churchward 69, propelled him into the international market. The highly regarded German typeface foundry H. Berthold AG purchased his fonts for use in publications around the world. Churchward became the first New Zealander to have a ‘licensed original alphabet’.4 He acquired a lettering and typesetting machine in the 1960s, and CIT was the first New Zealand company to publish a photo-lettering book (a catalogue of fonts used for reproduction in phototypesetting machines). Churchward employed a number of people, including his children, to assist with the business. The family purchased houses in various Wellington suburbs before finally settling in Hataitai.
The 1980s brought two big changes for Churchward and CIT. Churchward was one of the first people in New Zealand to view the 1984 Apple Macintosh computer, but dismissed the new technology and remained committed to his manual design process. This scepticism meant his business suffered as computerised typeface design became more important. Then, in 1987, the New Zealand stock market crashed, causing an economic recession which sent CIT into receivership. Churchward sold much of the business to pay creditors and was also forced to sell the family home. He and Tua briefly separated. On the advice of his lawyer, he moved to Samoa for five years, undertaking government and private advertising contracts in the hope of recovering from his financial setbacks.
On returning to New Zealand in the mid-1990s, Churchward reconciled with Tua and recommitted himself to his original passion of designing fonts. From 2001 his fonts were made available digitally by an international typeface distributor, although he always maintained that computer renditions of his hand-designed work, particularly its curves, could never do it justice.
Recognition and later life
Churchward worked from a home basement studio which also contained his large archive of hand-drawn and -inked typeface samples. By 2008 he had designed almost 600 typefaces, many of which highlighted his family, cultural heritage, and surrounding environment. These included Churchward Samoa, created in honour of his homeland; Churchward Māori and Churchward Ta Tiki, which reflected his relationship to his adopted homeland; and fonts acknowledging his Chinese heritage. In that year, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa acquired and exhibited a large collection of Churchward’s works, including about 70 typefaces on hand-drawn boards. The following year, Churchward international typefaces, a book of collected essays and images of his work, was published by David Bennewith, and Churchward’s work was featured and discussed in an international symposium on type held in Wellington. Acknowledged for his leadership, vision and achievement in New Zealand and abroad, Churchward was awarded the John Britten Black Pin by the Designers Institute of New Zealand in 2009. The government awarded him the Queen’s Service Medal in 2010, and in 2011 Massey University inducted Churchward into its Creative Arts Hall of Fame. His work had already been recognised internationally by the design industry, and this local acknowledgement brought his journey full circle.
Churchward died in Wellington on 26 April 2013, surrounded by his family. He was 80 years old. His funeral service was packed with loved ones and friends, a testament to an active life. His fonts expressed both his whakapapa and his connection to Aotearoa, and his motto, ‘handlettering is superior’, reflected his remarkable work ethic and creative practice, as well as his career goal to succeed in New Zealand and support his family through his business.