Your PhD research at Central Saint Martins looks at “architectural lettering and corporate identity: early branding on commercial buildings.” How about lettering and urban identity—what relationship do you see between letters and the cities in which you find them? Some cities and countries have a strong lettering identity. Sometimes it is very easy to spot, like the street names in Bath, England, which are often carved in stone; or the traditional street names in Andalusia, Spain, which are hand painted on tiles with a recognizable letter style; or the blackletters in northern European countries. However, there is another layer of lettering in the environment that is less obvious to see: lettering on manholes, pipes, posts, etc. They are particular to and enrich each city or area, even if we don’t notice them at first.
Unfortunately, vernacular lettering is being wiped out from cities. It is completely disappearing and as such, the main streets are becoming more and more similar. Every main street in England basically feels the same now—they are all indistinguishable. The loss of the main street as a cultural value is sad. It is not only that local shops and styles are gone, but also that retail chains are not worried at all about having a conversation with their physical surroundings.
Some cities and countries have a strong lettering identity.”
What differences have you noticed between lettering in England and in Spain? Spain and other southern countries, like Portugal, often attach fascia signage over shop fronts. The materials used for fascia signs have changed through time, but fascias were, until the ’50s or ’60s, mostly written or painted—traditionally with brushes on wood and glass, as well as on mirrors, stone and brick. The problem with these is preservation. These materials fade over time, and the shop owners today want new fascias, with contemporary materials and letterforms. Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia and Vigo still retain many historical fascias, but they have been disappearing alarmingly quickly in the last few years.
Of course there is also fascia lettering on buildings in England, but there is also architectural lettering—letters built within the building, often using the same material as the building. One main difference between architectural and fascia lettering is that stone and ceramic have a better rate of survival. If the building is still in place, chances are that the architectural lettering is still there. But time has no sympathy for fascia lettering, particularly if it was applied originally on wood panels.
What role can technology play in preserving architectural lettering? It is fundamental. New technologies can at least help preserve the memory of architectural lettering and raise awareness among nondesigners and nonhistorians. Photography is essential, as well as creating databases crossed with geographical and academic information, mapping, and personal data. These digital tools cannot prevent the physical abuse and the deterioration caused by time and owners, developers, etc. toward historical lettering, but they can help create a case for its protection. A good example is the digital, user-generated archive Historypin, which allows historians, libraries, archives and museums to “pin” historical photographs, audio and visual recordings, and local and individual knowledge to Google Maps. Historypin uses geolocation to customize its collections to a user’s physical location. The materials and memories are gathered and shared by people, groups and institutions that ensure a high-quality standard.
Would it ever make sense to adapt an architectural lettering for digital or print? Generally, it doesn’t make sense and doesn’t end well. When architectural lettering is converted into digital forms, in most cases, it loses the soul of the original lettering and becomes clunky, somehow unnatural. However, if the designer has the ability to apply the life from the architectural lettering to the typography without losing the original characteristics, but rather adapt these characteristics to the typographic rules of print or digital, then we might have something interesting.
You joined the foundry TypeTogether in 2013. What effect does working with such a wide-flung, international team have on TypeTogether’s designs? Being such an international team—with members in Rosario, Argentina; Catalonia, Spain; Paris, France; Kansas, United States; London, United Kingdom; Athens, Greece; and Beijing, China—means that our interests in cultures other than our own increases. We work hard to show this rich diversity in the foundry catalog by increasing the number of scripts and languages we support. Although Latin is the main script we offer, Arabic, Greek and Cyrillic are growing, and we are preparing other scripts that will be released soon: Hebrew, Devanagari, Bengali, etc. It is absolutely amazing to have the opportunity to learn and work with non-Latin scripts and collaborate with all the people we meet during the process.
What advice would you give to a designer who’s looking to embark on her or his first type walk? Look up! But also look down! Take your camera with you, and always, always, take a picture if you see something worthy—it might be gone tomorrow. If it is still there the next day, you can go back with your good camera and lens.
Perambulate. There is no need to go to a particular place. Repeat places—you might see something new each time. Just open your eyes and start reading the city. Books on basic architecture and local history could be good starting points. Most importantly, enjoy it.