The language of London’s trade

Artist Gordon Young has unveiled a new public art project, Trading Words, which reflects the variety of goods imported into London over the last 400 years. It’s the latest in his large-scale typographic collaborations with designer Andy Altmann of Why Not Associates.

For Trading Words, St George approached Young to create a piece of public art in the capital’s London Dock development with the original idea being to establish some kind of “type trail”, says Altmann.

According to the designer, Young then came across an interesting publication in a second-hand bookshop that contained detailed lists of the types of goods that had been imported and exported via London over the last 400 years.“We took the lists from the original book [and St George] liked the idea of goods in and out,” says Altmann. “Then we did some proper research at the Museum of London Docklands – they have an original rates and charges book in there.” (Chris Ellmers, the founding director of the museum has contributed an essay to the book accompanying the project, detailing the history of the London Dock from its opening in 1805 until its closure to shipping in 1968.)“So for every elephant that was imported into the docks there was a particular price you had to pay,” Altmann continues.

“[There were] normal things in there – wool, tea, sugar – all those things you’d expect, but then as I started to read the books there were things like ‘dragon’s blood’, ‘divi divi’ and ‘whangees’. What the hell is all that?! They didn’t know what it was either.”

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As with the Comedy Carpet, the new Wapping piece is made from granite and concrete, though the process itself proved much simpler, in part due to the wealth of material research and testing that went on to create the Blackpool work.

When completed, the London Dock installation will contain over 1,000 words that have come from the extensive lists of goods traded at the docks. “The joy of doing what I think of as a ‘graphic designer’ is that you’re moving from one subject to another,” says Altmann.

“For me it’s the learning of something. Doing a job like this, the enjoyment is in the research rather than the design, trying to figure out how to put that really simple idea of Gordon’s across. The joy we have together is doing the research, that’s when we both get really excited,” he adds. “And with time [the piece] is going to grow and become more powerful, hopefully.”

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