17 Graphic Stories

Writer Ray Edgar Published The Age (2009).

They say there are a million stories in the big city: graphic designer Stephen Banham has documented 17 of them.

Casting a design dragnet around one city block, Banham spent six months peeling back the stories behind the logos and brands. From Flinders Street to Collins, Elizabeth to Swanston and incorporating Degraves Street, Flinders Lane and Centre Place, Banham maps the cultural milestones and historical curiosities that have formed Melbourne — all told through design. Titled Characters and Spaces, the self-guided walking tour will be distributed as a supplement to the State of Design catalogue for the festival of the same name that begins on July 15. “It’s an antidote to the Flickr culture that says ‘Isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t that cool?’ It’s all completely superficial,” he says. “We are more interested in the back end; the stories that make design compelling.”

In the white noise of information we are barraged with, Banham attunes us to our culture’s hidden treasures, like the Hosie’s Hotel mural conceived during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Commissioned by Carlton United Breweries, Richard Beck’s mural depicts three abstract clinking glasses to reflect the modernity of the host city. “The effect of the Olympic Games on Melbourne’s design was amazing,” Banham says. What inspired the project, though, was an act of subversion. Struck by the crammed lettering on the Centreway Arcade facade, Banham was determined to uncover the hidden meaning in the seemingly abstract arrangement. He walked up a stairway to an upper floor where a walk-over enabled a closer view. There the message revealed itself. “We live in a society that sets an inordinate value on consumer goods and services. The irony is that it’s a completely commercial environment, but the architects, Cocks Carmichael and Whitford, have snuck this one in, which is beautiful,” Banham says. You also have to have the right vantage point. “At the top of the Majorca building in Flinders Lane there’s this beautiful signage that can only be seen from a particular step at a certain angle,” Banham says. “So it’s also about (discovering) the hidden stuff you wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Characters and Spaces is the fifth in a series of ongoing collaborations between Banham and RMIT’s communication design program. Previous efforts in this series, called Character, have included hosting the premiere of the film Helvetica, and examining the effects of chance on design. But Character Five, as this project is also known, looks set for a life beyond one festival. Banham’s project echoes the American designer Robert Brownjohn’s rationale for documenting London streets in the ’60s: “The city’s signs put a sort of music into the streets where we walk.” Put the city blocks together and it’s a symphony.

From discreet signs like the steel tubing used on the Graham Hotel to the garish billboard above Young and Jackson, each has an intriguing history to tell. The giant wrap-around video screen above Young and Jackson’s corner is a customised shape, Banham says. “Each piece of graphics that goes on screen is adjusted so that no content falls into the structure’s gaps.” Perhaps more intriguingly, he examines how a heritage building can have such a massive electronic hoarding. “How it got its permit is that this hotel has always had signage and billboards,” Banham says. “In a brilliant bit of lateral thinking the owners argued that the billboards on the top are as much a part of the cultural heritage as the hotel. It’s fantastic that they see signage as part of cultural history, not an attack on the cultural history.”

Of course the project poses the question: if there is so much richness in one city block, how much else is out there? If the tour proves a success he hopes eventually to document the entire CBD. “Every year we will release a new block of research, so little by little year after year the whole city gets covered. Over about 20 years I know the city pretty well. It’s a matter of working out which stories to tell, because there are hundreds of them.”