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FAUX OLD TIMEY SIGNAGE

The streets of DUMBO turned into a Cold War-era film set via anachronistic signage for the filming of Steven Spielberg’s St. James Place.

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MONTRÉAL PREVIEW

A quick preview of lettering and typography in Montréal. Because of Quebec’s strict language laws, French is the dominant language on street signs and in commercial signage.

Multi-lingual signs in Israel (here & here) and Ireland (here).

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NEW ORLEANS PREVIEW

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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SARONY

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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PUERTO RICO

A few shots from a recent trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was interesting to see how the buildings and typography had changed since a visit in 2007.

Also, mofongo.

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PHILADELPHIA PREVIEW

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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PERFECTION IS STANDARD, MISTAKES COST EXTRA

If you’re around the Chelsea area in the next few days, stop by the Joshua Liner Gallery to check out the ICY sign shop with work by Sean Barton, Lew Blum, Justin Green, Mike Lee, Dan Murphy, Steve Powers, Alexis Ross, and Matt Wright.

In addition to the work along the walls and the tornado of grocery style signs, there are work tables and nooks set up in a carefully curated chaos (the flotsam and jetsam accumulated throughout the course of the show).

The most interesting parts are the stray bits, the practice marks, doodles, and guidelines that are normally invisible or go unnoticed in a finished sign.

ICY makes the signs that should be all over New York. There’s a life to sign painting that can’t be recreated in cheaply cut vinyl and mass produced signage.

Perfection Is Standard, Mistakes Cost Extra
ICY Signs + Stephen Powers
Joshua Liner Gallery
540 West 28th Street
Through November 16
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VENICE PREVIEW

Venice is one of the strangest and most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

The city is made up of 118 islands, some connected by small footbridges and others accessible only by boat. On streets along the lagoon, the sun bounces off of the greenish water, casting an eery and beautiful glow on the surrounding buildings. Inland, the streets are labyrinthine and narrow, with shadowy walls along passageways that preserve signs and markings from long ago. The water (along with its sometimes sulfur smell) is pervasive and somewhat startling.

The most common letterforms in Venice are the nizioletti, the streets and numbers stenciled directly onto buildings. Street names are stenciled with black paint on white rectangles, framed with a black border. Numbers and directional signs are stenciled in red on white backgrounds, though newer yellow signs with black type is common for directions to the more popular tourist attractions.

Much of Venice is geared towards its estimated 20 million tourists, rather than its 60,000 residents. Banners protesting oversized cruise ships and stickers mocking the Disney-ification of the city are prevalent throughout the streets.

Photos from Florence and Rome on the main site. Non-typography photos of Venice here. Full set of Venice typography photos will be posted soon.

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BROOKLYN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Last week, I made an appointment at the Brooklyn Historical Society to look through their manuscript collection and peruse the incredible typography and lettering.

The building itself is pretty amazing (with some of the nicest doorknobs I’ve ever seen). It was built in 1881, designed by architect George B. Post specifically for the Long Island Historical Society (as the Society was then known). Books and magazines from the last several hundred years line the stacks of the library, and nearly all of them contain beautiful letterforms.

I looked through boxes and boxes of club ephemera, certificates, and maps from the 19th and 20th centuries. Here are a few good ones:

The Historical Society library is open to the public, but if you want to look at the archives and manuscript collections, you’ll need an appointment.

(Though it creates a nice ambience for a library, the lighting is not ideal for photographing documents, so please excuse the not-so-great photos.)

Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
brooklynhistory.org


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FLORENCE

A few of my favorite shots from an afternoon walking around Florence.

Several hundred more from Venice, Florence, and Rome to be added to the main Vernacular Typography site soon.

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