For nearly 30 years, I have been photographing lettering I see during
the course of my daily ramblings in New York. Until last year, the
process had been random, driven by the vagaries of where I was, what
happened to catch my attention, and whether or not I had my
camera—originally a heavy Nikon FE7 and later a lightweight Olympus—with
me. But in 2005—spurred initially by the purchase of a digital SLR
camera and then increasingly by alarm at the destruction that has
accompanied the frantic pace of condo-ization in Manhattan—I began to
systematically record the lettering of New York.
The project has been sustained by a series of lettering tours of the
city that I have led since last summer. The first tour was undertaken
as part of TypeCon 2005, while the subsequent ones have been sponsored
by the Type Directors Club. So far, the tours have covered the Upper
East Side, the Upper West Side, Midtown, Tribeca and the Financial
District. And the next tour (scheduled for April 2007) will include
sections of Brooklyn.
When I first began photographing letters in New York, I was often
looking for material to use in “Designing with Letters,” a class I
taught at the School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s. I was
principally interested in examples of different design strategies
involving letters: the use of line, rhythm, pattern, form, space,
substitution, mutation or alteration, ornament and color. It was a time
when the modernist and classicist view—that the function of words, and
therefore letters, was to neutrally communicate ideas and
information—was still ascendant. Inspired by the writing of Nicolete
Gray and Massin, as well as the examples of Herb Lubalin, Hans Schmidt
and Imre Reiner (among others), I set out to find instances of lettering
that were expressive rather than invisible. But in recent years, my
criteria have changed greatly.
I now photograph environmental and architectural lettering for a variety of reasons:
Not all of the lettering is “good”—whether from a classical viewpoint or
a modernist one—but it is always informative and worthy of examination.
What follows are notes on some New York lettering that run the gamut of
styles, techniques, materials and purposes.
The oldest extant lettering in New York is to be found on
tombstones. The churchyard of Trinity Church (Broadway at Wall Street;
Richard Upjohn, 1839-1846), which dates to 1681, has a particularly
pleasing group of stones from the 1750s and 1760s cut by Uzal Ward of
Newark. The tombstone of Mary Dalzell (d.1764) embodies all of the
carver's hallmarks: a winged angel's head with droopy cheeks à la
Richard Nixon, vigorously designed and deeply cut letters in the English
tradition, and a layout that seems to have been made up on the spot.
Note the strongly bracketed serifs, the subtle bowl of a, the
trumpet-like crossbars on f and t, the delicate flourishes on c and s,
and the smaller words tucked in at the ends of lines. This is lettering
that puts most gravestones to shame (Figs. 1, 2, 3).
New York’s continual and relentless cannibalization of its past
means that it does not have the richness of historical styles that
characterize Rome, Paris, London and other major European cities. Yet,
the sheer size and energy of the city has guaranteed that there is still
a wealth of intriguing lettering to be discovered—even if some of it is
under constant threat of destruction. The historical styles that
dominate New York architecture are gothics (sans serif) and Egyptians
(1850-1890), revived classical capitals (1900-1940), Gothic capitals and
uncials (1910-1940), and Art Deco (1920-1940). There are surprisingly
few examples of Art Nouveau or the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s and
Gothic (sans serif) and Egyptian letters are most often found on
late 19th-century industrial buildings as well as on apartment buildings
dating from 1880 to 1910. A lengthy instance of the former is the
ex-Merchants Refrigerating & Ice Manufacturing Co. (27 N. Moore
Street; William H. Bickmire, 1905)—now a condominium called The Ice
House—while the former Woods Mercantile Building (46-50 White Street;
1865) is a stunning example of Ionic capitals, including a beautifully
curved middle line of text. (Also note the inverted apostrophe in
Wood’s.) Both building names are in raised stone—common during this
period—which is perfectly suited to the sturdy Gothic and Egyptian
letterforms (Figs. 4, 5).
London is full of late Victorian buildings with huge reddish
terracotta dates on them. One of the few examples from New York—though
restrained in comparison to its British counterparts—is an 1888 building
in Tribeca. The date, on a delightfully ornamented band, is split in
half by a column. The numbers—with characteristically asymmetrical
8s—have been painted white, which makes them more visible, but less
homogeneous (Fig. 6).
The former Excelsior Power Co. Building (33-48 Gold Street; William
Milne Grinnell, 1888)—now apartments—is a Romanesque Revival monolith
with an equally gutsy nameplate. The proto-Art Nouveau letters, one of
the great examples of architectural lettering in New York, are cast in
metal and affixed by screws. Oddly, the date does not match the
nameplate. Instead, it is cast in terracotta in Gothic revival style
(Fig. 7). (Compare the numbers to those on the Tribeca building.)
New York is awash in examples of classical revival capitals on
buildings. They are most often incised in limestone or granite, but can
also be found cast in bronze and copper. The capitals vary widely in
quality from building to building with some being tepid imitations of
their Roman forebears while others manage to achieve that difficult
balance between robustness and delicacy. A prime example of the latter
(though not without its flaws) is the inscription on the Municipal
Building (Centre Street at the end of Chambers Street; McKim, Mead &
White, 1907-1914). “AMSTERDAM” is impeccably designed, spaced and
carved while “MANHATTAN” is notable for its courageous use of ligatures.
Too bad the Y and K (neither original Roman capitals) in “YORK” are so
weak. In contrast, the nameplate on the Bricken Arcade Building (230
West 38 Street; 1924) in the garment district is a distinctive example
of loosely interpreted classical Roman capitals cast in bronze. Some
letters (e.g., N) are pure, while others (e.g., R) betray Art Deco
influences in their idiosyncratic proportions. Although the letters are
well spaced, they lack presence (Figs. 8, 9, 10).
Inscriptions based on versals (medieval initial capitals that often
mix roman forms with uncial ones) are common on university buildings and
churches constructed in the first three decades of the 20th century.
Surprisingly, such letters can also be found on a number of skyscrapers
from the period. The name of Union Theological Seminary (Broadway from
West 120 Street to West 122 Street; Allen & Collens, 1906-1910 ) is
carved in relief in chunky versals (with uncialesque H, M and N) on a
ribbon that ripples across the narrow band above the central entrance.
They are powerful letters, befitting the seminary's serious purpose. In
contrast, the incised and gilded Gothic capitals (with uncial M and W)
over the entrance to the Garment Wear Arcade (306 West 37 Street) are
well designed, but the overall effect is anemic. The letters are small
and thin, and the words are poorly spaced. These shortcomings are
accentuated by two flanking rosettes (Figs. 11, 12).
New York is famous for its skyscrapers, so it is no surprise that it
is rich in outstanding examples of Art Deco lettering. Much of it is on
familiar architectural landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the
former McGraw-Hill Building, the Daily News Building and, especially,
those that comprise Rockefeller Center. But the city also has
lesser-known gems. Two are visible only to the eagle-eyed and/or the
curious. A neon sign for Longchamps, a defunct chain of restaurants,
improbably survives on Madison Avenue in the ’40s. Its extended monoline
sans serif letters are perfect suited to the vertically stacked design.
Mosaic lettering—reminiscent of 1920s typefaces such as Broadway—lurks
under the awning over the 34th Street entrance to 7 Park. The design, in
gold, black and white, tiles says “The Green Park”. It is improbably
surrounded by a limestone lunette with carved celtic and medieval
decorations (Figs. 13, 14).
Lettering on buildings rapidly disappeared with the rise of the
International Style after World War II as architects sought to strip out
all ornament. The notable exceptions are the Guggenheim Museum and
Lever House. The lettering along the rotunda of the Guggenheim
Museum—assuredly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself—is unique in
being constructed out of v-cut metal inset into concrete (Fig. 15).
Although postmodern architecture claimed to learn from Las Vegas, it
largely failed to come to grips with the role of lettering. The two
prominent instances in New York where letters (or, more properly,
numbers) have been treated in a postmodern manner are due to the
intervention of graphic designers rather than architects: 9 West 57
Street (the Solow Building; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1974) and
127 John Street (Emery Roth & Sons, 1971). The large, freestanding
red 9 on the sidewalk in front of the Solow Building is the work of
Chermayeff & Geismar while the enormous electric clock adjacent to
127 John Street was conceived by Rudolph de Harak of Corchia-de Harak
Associates. Unfortunately, the clock—whose Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk)
numbers originally lit up to mark the hours, minutes and seconds—no
longer functions properly; and most of the other elements that
Corchia-de Harak contributed to the office building (including a
corrugated metal tube with fluorescent lighting that served as an
entrance to the building's lobby) disappeared when it was converted to
luxury apartments several years ago and renamed “200 Water Street”
(Figs. 16, 17).
Most urban lettering is in stone, but there are other materials that
have been used: wood, brick, terracotta, tiles, metal, neon, glass,
plastic and paint. Wooden lettering was common in the 19th century, but
little of it survives today, and it is no longer a popular material. One
sign that is still intact, though warped and faded, is for D. Rich Co.
located at the top of a modest brick building on Church Street in
Tribeca. Letters assembled from bricks are equally rare. An unusual
example in that it appears on a building more than five stories high is
the Dover Building in the garment district. Terracotta letters were
quite common in the late 19th century and a fair number of examples
survive, among them the roundel for the former American Express Co.
building on Harrison Street. (Note the seriffed X amidst the sans serif
letters.) Letters made from tiles are usually found inside buildings
rather than outside, but an astonishingly sophisticated instance of the
latter is B. Fischer & Co., which appears on a building Greenwich
Street in Tribeca (Figs. 18, 19, 20, 21).
Metals used to fashion letters include bronze, copper, iron, steel
and aluminum. Most metal letters are affixed directly to the building’s
surface, but some are raised by metal rods. Such letters can often be
hard to read in bright sunlight as they become entwined with their
shadows. Metal’s strength allows letters to also be positioned
vertically on roofs, canopies or porticoes such as the script lettering
of The Brevoort, an apartment building in Greenwich Village (11 Fifth
Avenue; 1956) (Fig. 22).
Neon signs are a staple of 20th-century urban lettering. Most of my
favorites in New York tend to be for old bars and diners, such as the
one for the Collins Bar (735 Eighth Avenue). (The bar also has a
wonderful late 1930s or 1940s sheet metal sign.) An older technique for
identifying a business is gold leaf lettering on plate glass, a standard
part of the signwriter’s repertoire from the 1880s to the 1950s. A
relatively new example of the technique is the design I did for Barolo, a
restaurant at 398 West Broadway, in the late 1980s. The name is pure
lettering, but the other elements are modified versions of 19th-century
typefaces. Since the 1960s, plastic letters have become ubiquitous in
the urban environment. Most of the time they are associated with fast
food restaurants and other franchises, but today they show up on more
upscale businesses as well. See the sign for Ixta, a Mexican restaurant
and tequila bar on East 29th Street (Fig. 23, 24, 25, 26).
Before there were billboards and neon, signs painted on the sides of
buildings used to be the most common means of advertising a business.
Many of these signs from the early 20th century—and sometimes even from
the 19th century—still survive in older cities, especially those with
rich manufacturing pasts. Dubbed "ghost signs" because they are
inevitably faded and often surface when older buildings are demolished
to make way for new ones, they are not only of interest aesthetically,
but also historically. They remind us of past products, businesses and
even entire industries that no longer exist. The ghost signs on the
building now inhabited by Miya Shoji (109 West 17 Street), a
manufacturer of Japanese screens, indicate that it once served as a
carriage house (Fig. 27).
Nearly all of the inscriptions and signs discussed here involve
handmade letters. That is, there are no typefaces. The exceptions are
the red 9 of the Solow Building, the 127 John Street clock numbers and
the subline on the Itaxa restaurant sign. But, since the 1960s,
typefaces have increasingly replaced handmade letters in the
environment. As they do so, the visual appearance of cities—especially
thriving ones like New York—becomes more and more homogeneous. This
trend has gone hand-in-hand with the increasing blandness of
contemporary buildings. If we want our cities to retain their
personalities, we must recognize and preserve the distinctive lettering
of the past along with the buildings and other structures they
accompany, and we must create equally compelling lettering for the
present and the future.
As part of Beirut Design Week, the AIGA Middle East chapter hosted an exhibition titled “Karasi: Bringing Design to the Table” that attracted more than 500 guests to a hidden garden in the old alleyways of Gemmayz.
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