Vernacular Typography Molly Woodward Usagi NY Show Card

In October 2015, Usagi NY will present the first exhibition of Vernacular Typography.

Found lettering and other forms of urban communication have a way of creating and preserving a sense of place and local identity. Vernacular Typography is a celebration of the symbols and icons that surround us every day–the texture of a city that often goes overlooked or ignored.

Usagi NY is a new 2,800 sq ft concept store in DUMBO Brooklyn, which houses a gallery, cafe, and library. Offering a marketplace for creators, the shop opens its doors to creative practitioners working in the differ- ent fields, presenting the work and process of emerging, influential creative thinkers and specialists such as artists, designers, architects, engineers, artisans, writers, musicians, and more.

Dates: October 8 – November 7, 2015
Opening hours: Tue – Sat, 11am – 6pm
Opening Reception: Thursday, October 8, 6pm – 9pm
Venue: Usagi NY, 163 Plymouth Street, NY 11201, USA


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All over the world, beautiful signage is being destroyed and replaced by homogenized signs that threaten to erase local culture and history. In Paris–where even public restroom signage is worthy of intricate and inventive mosaic detailing–that loss is devastating.

Graphique de la Rue is Louise Fili’s Parisian follow up to last year’s typographic wander through Italy, Grafica della Strada. Fili’s collection of the Parisian letterscape beautifully captures and celebrates the forms that mark, illuminate, and symbolize the city’s boulevards and rues.

Like a typographic madeleine through the streets of Paris, the signs documented in Graphique de la Rue are a powerful trigger of memory and evoke a strong sense of place. For those unfamiliar with the signs or Paris, the book acts as a transportive introduction that can be appreciated aesthetically as well as for its historic value.

Some signs are ornate, others wordless, sometimes odd, but mostly, they’re just beautiful.

A small graveyard in the back of the book mourns the loss (and subsequent replacement) of a few of Fili’s favorites, and serves as a reminder of the uncertain future of these typographic landmarks.

Graphique de la Rue will be available from Princeton Architectural Press September 1.

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Vegetarians, avert your gaze.

Fewer things go better together than meat and whatever is next to meat.

In the open dining rooms of many a Texas meatery, that companion to meat just so happens to be typography (printed, painted, scrawled, drawn, lettered, what have you).

The signs of these establishments are honest and direct. In all shapes, styles, and formats (and sometimes obscured by decades of smokey oak) they unequivocally point the way to meat.

What follows is a pictorial survey of the meat and corresponding typography & lettering of some of the finest BBQ I have ever known.

Franklin Woodward Vernacular Typography TX BBQ_015

Franklin Woodward Vernacular Typography TX BBQ_003

Franklin Woodward Vernacular Typography TX BBQ_005

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An assorted sample of vernacular typography and lettering found recently in New Orleans. There’s no single dominant style of lettering, but rather a mix of everything (hand painted, hand scrawled, fading ghost ads–many layered over even older ghost signs, tile, neon, and about any other type of signage imaginable). The connecting thread seems to be the omnipresent plastic beaded necklaces twisted and dangling over most signs.

Also, beignets.

Woodward Vernacular Typography Cafe du Monde Beignets and coffee

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Recent construction has revealed the ghostly remnants of an ad applied to the side of 37 Union Square West.

Vernacular Typography Napoleon Sarony Portraits Fading AD Ghost Sign 37 Union Square West

The ornate sign, partially obscured by a window frame, was illegible on its own, but a Library of Congress image of Union Square West from 1894 shows a clearer view of the same swirly signature, which reads Sarony. Below his signature, an even fainter “Portraits” is (barely) visible.

Vernacular Typography Napoleon Sarony Portraits Fading AD Ghost Sign 37 Union Square West

Napoleon Sarony was a Canadian-born artist and lithographer living in New York. He moved to Europe in the 1850s for formal artistic training and later learned wet plate photography from his brother, a successful commercial photographer in England.

In 1866, he moved back to New York with the intention of starting a photo supply office. Instead, he returned to photography, focusing on celebrity portraits. In 1871, he expanded his business to 37 Union Square West. The space served as a studio, gallery, and salon d’art.

It was there that he set up elaborate backdrops to photograph some of the largest stars of the time (his images of Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain among the most iconic). He would pay celebrities for the exclusive rights to their portraits and sell the reproductions. He published his cabinet cards on site, each marked with the same Sarony signature that hung outside the building.

His portraits became so popular that his style was often mimicked or outright copied. In 1884, Sarony successfully sued the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company for selling unauthorized lithographs of this Oscar Wilde portrait. The landmark case extended copyright protection to photography, and Sarony v. Burrow Lithograph helped establish photography as an artistic expression rather one of mere reproduction.

Sarony moved his main gallery to Fifth Avenue in 1885 and sold off his back stock of negatives to a former rival before his death in 1896.

A Berenice Abbott photo from 1938 shows the building with its post-Sarony exterior.

At some point in the 1950s or 60s, the building was recovered with the strange facade that remains today. The fading Sarony Portraits might be covered up again, but for now a little piece of history peaks out.

Vernacular Typography Napoleon Sarony Portraits Fading AD Ghost Sign 37 Union Square West

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A Philadelphia section has just been added to the main archive (HERE), with photos primarily taken along the Market-Frankford SEPTA line in West Philadelphia.

The area is predominantly residential, though the population has dwindled in recent years. There are small commercial clusters around the El stops, but lots are mostly vacant and storefronts boarded up and decaying. Work from public art initiatives like the incredible Mural Arts Program pop up all over the city and brighten blighted areas and transform public space.

Here’s a quick preview:

Here’s an interesting interactive city map that gives a larger view of the vacancies in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods (link).

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