Times of the Signs

This past Sunday my father and I went on “Alphabet City” an interesting AIGA walking tour of New York’s endangered street art: its typography. Led by one of the most renowned type designers of our time, Tobias Frere-Jones, we journeyed through Manhattan’s Civic Center, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side in a never-ending view of old signs, buildings, stone, steel, plastic, and gold leaf.

Tobias’s typeface Gotham, currently in use by Barack Obama as the official typeface of “CHANGE”, is the result of his careful study of the city’s letter over the years.

This was a typophile’s delight as our small group marveled at serifs, laughed at bad letter spacing, poor proportions, and noting arcane fabrication techniques.

At times the whole thing felt a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate factory, as we were led by Tobias (our ersatz Wonka, replete with giant umbrella in place of cane) through the hidden factory of New York’s visual candy. Maybe the analogy doesn’t work perfectly, but my dad was a perfect stand-in for Grandpa Joe as we veered away from the group at times stumbling upon our own discoveries along the way.

Despite the unseasonable cool weather, intermittent rain, and deceptive fast pace of our intrepid leader, we found the tour to be an eye-opening adventure as we were taken well off the beaten path. My dad marveled as he walked streets he had not seen since his days as a young boy.

Following is a photo essay of the day’s treasures…

The first half of the tour focused mainly on the carved stone in the municipal buildings. Note the unusual “NH” and “TT” Ligatures.

Some interesting proportions going on here. The “R” is particularly loopy

Tobias addresses the crowd

Big building. Tiny lettering. Bad choice.

Priceless example of Art Deco lettering

The crowd marvels at an amazingly detailed example of stone-carving on a cornerstone. I joke that there’s actual evidence of something (slightly) older than my father.

America’s Next Top Stone-carver?

“AMERICAN LEGION” rendered aluminum and neon. Once commonplace, now a rarity.

East meets West.

A classic style of (I believe) hand-painted lettering. Note the subtle differences between the letter “E” in “GREAT” and “ENTERPRISE” in order to fit better.

Builders often named their creations after the important women in their lives… mothers, lovers, others, etc.

This was my favorite example of letter style. Check out that “2.” They just don’t make ’em like that no more.

Plastique fantasique (note how the hand-painted portion has faded, revealing the brushstrokes)

Note the chiseled, narrow style of these letters

This wasn’t discussed during the tour, but I felt warranted mention

As the saying goes… where there’s smoke, there’s Clarendon.

A typical example of Spanish plastic lettering.

Tobias’s inspiration for Gotham. Still holding out strong.

That’s Mister Jovino to you. Got it?

Herb Levitt: Man. Legend. Tourist

The rain comes out. Patterns are the new black for umbrellas with this crowd.

Take a good look now.This sign’s days are numbered.

Really… how bad are you going to let this get before you fix the sign, Florio?

One wrong turn, and you end up in Scandinavia?

This was just beautiful.

Old building, new loft conversion…. the architectural equivalent of $1,000 ripped denim.

Old signage on a building next to new signage made to look like old signage (which never looked like that to begin with)

This had nothing to do with type, but was an amazing sight: HVAC as tenement

A man of letters…

The worst signage in NYC: The entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge.