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The Signs that Make a City

The signs on the street are a measure of how much authorities care about their citizens – and from stylish fonts to neon lights, Britain has a lot to learn from European cities which have used signage to enliven the urban landscape.

On most blocks of London council flats built in the 1930s, you can find two completely separate sets of signs. One is the original signage, and will consist of delicate, white serif letters on black or brown ceramic tiles, usually one tile per letter; often, there is a brick border around the sign, setting it subtly into the wall.

These were standardised signs—there are literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of them, products of the London County Council’s 1930s campaign to ‘build the Tories out’ of the capital through mass flatbuilding—but each of them is a small work of craftsmanship, made with care for aesthetics and surfaces, and in such a way that it will endure over the years. Implicit in the signs is the idea that council housing matters, and so do the people that live in it.

The signs on Allerton House in Hackney. Credit: sarflondondunc/Flickr.

Next to these signs in most cases—sometimes directly adjacent or underneath—is a sign from the current owner of the flats, usually a London borough, sometimes a Housing Association. These are vastly cheaper, usually just printed onto metal, and are vastly poorer both in design terms—clip art logos, clumsy fonts and ’90s colours abound—and in terms of their materials, which are often already much more worn than the original signs, despite the latter usually being 60 years older. If the LCC signs say ‘this place and these people matter’, the later ones declare ‘no, they don’t’.

Edward Johnston’s standardised alphabet for the London Underground, designed in 1916.

Both signs show a shift in the politics of lettering and branding. The old LCC signs, like Edward Johnston‘s famous sans serif font for London Transport or Margaret Calvert‘s signs for the road system and the Tyne and Wear Metro, are about unifying a complex network, creating a common high standard and a sense of coherence and unity. The signs for Southwark or Hackney Council underneath the LCC signs say little more than ‘we own this’; they are branding purely for its own sake, something that, like many bad ideas, became very popular in the 1990s.

I was thinking of these signs when dipping into Jesse Simon’s wonderful little book Berlin Typography, which documents his long running project to collect photographs of interesting signage from the German capital, and wondering why there is no such book on London or any other British city. Simon’s book is full of examples of how much small details of lettering can make an enormous difference to a townscape, giving a sense of identity and joy to places that could otherwise be bleak.

This ‘examination of how typography can come to define the essence of a particular city’ tackles somewhere quite different to London – nearly the entire centre of Berlin was flattened in the war, and it bears many traces of its division between two political systems for over 40 years after that. The book is divided into Retail, Food and Dining, Entertainment and Nightlife, Services, Civic Buildings, and Transit, but the styles mostly fall into two distinct categories – very roughly, public and private, though this isn’t the divide into staid and jazzy one might assume.

Old-style Blackletter signage from Berlin.

Berlin’s publicly owned buildings use a bizarre mish-mash of different typefaces. Town Halls and old tenements often use Blackletter, a form of Gothic lettering that would for a time be the official style of Nazi Germany, until these bizarre mass murderers decided in 1941 that the Fraktur font was ‘Jewish’ and opted instead for Antiqua instead. Buildings of the Weimar period and street signs after the war tend to use modernist sans serifs like Futura, which were loathed by the Nazis; public transport features a wild diversity of letters, with the most interesting coming from the ’70s and ’80s, through the work of the U-Bahn’s remarkable Postmodernist architect Rainer G Rümmler – the black Arial on a bright orange background at Konstanzer Strasse is a particular highlight.

Much of the rest of the book is made up of 1970s cafes, bakeries, hairdressers, and pharmacies whose names are usually written in cursive letters in neon signs in lurid colours, immediately suggestive of the seedy divided metropolis celebrated in so much music of the ’70s and ’80s. What strikes you through all of it is the care to detail; as with the LCC signs, each one is a document that somebody actually gave a shit.

An example of the bright orange seen in Berlin’s 1970s neon signs.

One thing you might expect from this book is a clear divide in urban typography between West and East Berlin, but you’d be wrong. Fewer signs survive from ’60s-80s East Berlin, due to the much greater pace of redevelopment there after 1989, but what does remain—mainly in the preserved 1950s city centre around Karl-Marx-Allee—is actually pretty similar to the slightly sleazy neon styles you’d find in West Berlin’s old centre around the Ku’Damm, which are better preserved through their decline from the city’s teeming heart into a sleepy bourgeois neighbourhood.

There is a reason for this. Planners in the Communist Bloc were very aware of the appeal of the cities of neon signs on the other side of the Atlantic, and later, the other side of the Wall, and they insisted that socialist cities make use of the same typographic technology. After 1956, streets in countries like Hungary and, especially, Poland, were full of specially designed signs that were illuminated at night, built by specialised, nationalised state institutes, such as Poland’s Reklama.

Because they didn’t necessarily have to advertise anything in particular, their designers could actually be more creative than those in the West – there are no equivalents in Western Europe to something like the neon sign of a little man doffing his cap with the message ‘dobry wieczór we Wrocławiu’ (‘Good Evening in Wrocław’), opposite that city’s main railway station. These signs have been celebrated and in many cases restored by a new generation of enthusiasts, and documented in picturebooks like Ilona Karwinska’s Polish Cold War Neon and Artur Frankowski’s Typespotting Warszawa, and a specialised Neon Museum is now a tourist attraction in the Polish capital.

‘Good Evening in Wrocław’, designed by architect Janusz Tarantowicz and installed in 1962.

For something to be celebrated like this, there has to be a threat that makes people worry that it might disappear. For the neon signs of Central and Eastern Europe, that was the gradual erasure of these one-offs and their replacement with signs and adverts identical to those anywhere else in the world bar the (occasional) translation into the local languages; there is in this a muted protest of sorts against the relentless homogenisation inflicted on these countries by the neoliberal capitalism they have all embraced in over the last 30 years.

In London, something rather similar has happened with the cleansing of Soho, as the old centre of neon and sleaze was gradually transformed into somewhere as bland as Covent Garden; a couple of signs in that district have been restored as part of the area’s sanitisation. Our real equivalent to the Neon Museum is God’s Own Junkyard, a remarkable collection in an industrial estate in Walthamstow. It’s a very personal project of the late neon designer Chris Bracey, rather than a documentation of the work of a state design bureau.

London’s Soho district in 1977.

Just down the road from that mini-museum is Walthamstow High Street. Here, the many strange and interesting signs made by small shop owners have been replaced with a council-enforced use of nostalgic 1940s sans serifs, as if the entire area has been made over on the basis of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. You can sympathise with what motivated this – a desire to reject a cityscape of global corporate logos, in order to return to the world of the old LCC signs, where elegant lettering was placed on public buildings rather than cheap tat.

But as Polish socialist sign designers knew very well, one thing you don’t want to look completely homogeneous is a high street; the result makes somewhere that was once visually exciting and diverse into a simulation of a past that never existed. The actual past of a nationalised neon industry suggests another approach altogether – the streets redecorated by an explosion of imagination, at the service of the public.