Gemma O’Brien is what you might call a night owl—a person who is habitually active and wakeful at night. When you and I are asleep dreaming about dogs with wooden heads and magic saxophones, Gemma is fiddling around in her studio, drinking coffee and creating hand-drawn type. She’s a typographer.
KIRIN CIDER ENGAGED GEMMA TO HAND PAINT BESPOKE ADVERTISING DISPLAYS AT NUMEROUS LOCATIONS IN URBAN AREAS AROUND AUSTRALIA, FROM FITZROY, TO VIC, TO REDFERN, NSW.
IN ISSUE 40, WE CALLED MISS O’BRIEN UP AFTER MIDNIGHT—THE EQUIVALENT OF ABOUT 11AM FOR GEMMA—TO ASK HER WHAT SHE’S DOING AND WHY.
Gemma, what are you up to?
I was just about to grab a coffee!
It’s 1am. What are you doing drinking coffee?
I work in the night-time. I’m a crazy person. I do most of my work between eleven o’clock at night and four o’clock in the morning.
No, I get too distracted in the daytime. People send me emails, if it’s sunny I want to go outside… I always end up working at night.
How much sleep do you get on average?
I probably get about five or six hours a night.
Yeah, people always tell me I don’t sleep enough, but it’s not like I’m an insomniac. It’s just that by the time I actually want to go to sleep it’s pretty late.
So what do you call yourself—are you a typographer?
Well, I guess I’m a typographer; that’s what everyone seems to call me. But traditionally that title went to people who worked with fonts and set type, which is different to what I do which is illustrative type and drawing. But it’s just easier to say typographer.
What do you write in the ‘occupation’ field on forms?
When did you start doing what you do?
I guess about five years ago. I’ve done other design stuff in that time—art direction and working in motion graphics, et cetera—but I’ve always done lettering commissions and hand-drawn type stuff.
What drew you to this work?
If someone came up to me seven years ago and said ‘You’re going to be a typographer’, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I studied law, I was going to be a lawyer, and then I realised I wanted to do something creative so I studied design; and then one day typography just became something I was obsessed with. I started documenting it, taking pictures of hand-drawn signs… Every time I went to a new city the first thing I’d do is walk around and investigate all the signage.
What’s your favourite letter of the alphabet?
People have asked me this before and they think it’s a silly question, but I actually do have favourite letters.
You’ve been asked that before?
Yeah! What, you thought you were the first person to ask me what my favourite letter was?
I don’t want to know now. Go on, tell me.
I really like the letter ‘K’ and I really like the letter ‘M’.
‘K’ I really like because it’s unique. I like to play with the swash of ‘K’.
What’s a ‘swash’?
A swash is like a decorative extension of the existing letter; it’s hard to describe. I’ll send you a picture. But I like ‘K’ and ‘M’… I like ‘O’… They’re all great, really. I like them all.
What’s your favourite font? Mine’s ‘Tequila’. Are you familiar with the font Tequila?
Tequila? No, I’m not familiar with it, although I like the sound of it.
It’s completely shit. It’s that font they use on menus in Mexican restaurants.
Oh! Does it have a kind of party vibe?
That’s the one. It’s festive. What’s your favourite?
Um… maybe Mrs Eaves; that’s the font I used as my moniker when I started my blog. It’s quite a beautiful font, very feminine. An American designer created it in 1996, and she based it on that sort of default font Baskerville?
It’s no Tequila but I know it.
John Baskerville was this mad type designer in the 18th century, and he created the font ‘Baskerville’. He had this live-in housekeeper named Sarah Eaves, who eventually became his wife after her first husband died. And then when John Baskerville died, Sarah Eaves continued printing a lot of his type; she was one of the first women to work in typography! And that’s why this woman [Zuzana Licko] designed the font ‘Mrs Eaves’ in 1996, in honour of Sarah Eaves.
That’s so cool!
Okay, back to work, Gemma.