The fascinating history of 117 Farringdon Road

When you walk down the road to your office, or when you sit down at your desk do you ever wonder who else has worked where you work, sat where you sit or looked out the windows you look out of today?

When Purple moved into ‘The Piano Works’ on 117 Farringdon Road 15 years ago, we were told by the honest-looking estate agent, who handed over the keys, that it was named the Piano Works by the developers because ‘they used to make concert pianos here back in the 1800s’.

Now, being a curious bunch, we wondered how these purported purveyors of pianos got their stock in and out of the building? The stairs are steep, the internal walkways are both crooked and narrow and the Victorian lift shaft we now use as a server room is a tiny 3′ 6″ wide by 4′ 6″ deep.

A piano measures about 5′ x 2″ for an upright and 6′ x 8″ for a grand. Whichever way you spin it something about the story just didn’t fit.

Googling Victorian piano factories on Farringdon Road didn’t shed any light, so we booked an hour with Frances (the archivist) at the library in Holborn. Put on some white cotton gloves and pawed through heaps of original London maps and old planning documents – just to see if our estate agent knew his stuff.

It turned out the facts were much more interesting than the fiction to a bunch of type-nerds like us.

In 1864, an application was submitted by Arding & Bond Architects (nice surname Arding!) to build a new five story premises on Ray Street for their clients V&J Figgins.

Ray Street was the main thoroughfare back then and what’s now Farringdon Road was the side street. Once we knew that, all the pieces fell into place.

Vincent Figgins (the second) and his brother James ran one of London’s leading type foundries, offering a huge array of typefaces and letterpress services. They were moving to Ray Street for more space, as they were much in demand with the many print businesses popping up all over London.

We lucked out with a second-hand bookshop in Lincolnshire who had a copy of the gorgeous hardback specimen book the Figgins brothers printed to commemorate their grand opening in 1856. And not a piano in sight.

Take a look at how the building looked back then. In the header image you can see the view from what’s now the Betsey Trotwood. And what about these incredible typefaces!

Today you can still see the Vincent and James Figgins monograms in the wrought iron railings along Ray Street on the way to the Coach & Horses. And if you are as brave as our Shang and ever get on the roof of our building, the outlines of word FIGGINS can still be made out under the layers of 21st century paint.

Now the Figgins brothers were clearly smart, successful business men. But their company was built on the strength of the 100s of unique typefaces they inherited off their dad, the type designer Vincent Figgins (the first).

Vincent (the first) was one of the pioneers of modern typography, responsible for defining the style of British design and printing in the nineteenth Century.

He is credited with creating the first ever slab-serif typeface known as ‘Antique’ in 1816. Which was either a “typographical monstrosity” or “the most brilliant typographical innovation of the nineteenth century” – depending on which design critic you asked at the time.

History is pretty certain that Vincent (the first) was the man who first coined the term ‘Sans Serif’ to describe the fonts without serifs he was designing around 1830. He wasn’t the first to do this, but he was the man who made the style a reality, offering sans serif fonts in a variety of weights and specialising in the condensed designs that still look contemporary today.

Next time you’re in the studio we’d love to show you the old Figgins book and the brilliant typefaces. To find us on a map, our official address is still The Piano Works.

And like we all say at Purple, whatever project you’re involved in, it’s worth the time and energy digging deep because more often than not there’s something brilliant waiting to be discovered.

Andy (H)Arding

Figgins fan

Thanks To Holborn Library, St. Brides Foundation, British History online, Forest Books, Jeremy Tankard and the other type historians who have researched all this properly for us to pillage.


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