The Spare Effectiveness of New York’s Neon Lettering
Appreciating how old signs do a lot with just text
Thomas Rinaldi is the author of the book New York Neon and its companion blog, among other things. He’ll be leading a walking tour of neon lettering in Manhattan’s East Village on Wednesday, June 14th, as part of the Typographics Festival. Since the branding of Typographics this year is inspired by lighted signs, we asked Thomas to share his thoughts on the allure of the city’s neon lettering …
Old signage – photographing it, admiring it, basking in its vintage splendor – has become a “thing” in recent years. One can speculate as to the reasons why. Smartphones, social media, and particularly certain digital photo sharing platforms that shall rename nameless, have turned what was once a fringe hobby into something verging on an American pastime. But beyond the role of “signporn” and other hashtags, I would suggest another factor in the recent uptick in enthusiasm for old signs: the explosion in their popularity has come hand-in-hand with a widespread embracing of what one might call pre-Helvetica letterforms.
In other words, the burgeoning appeal of old signs owes significantly to their lettering. I came to this conclusion while writing a book dedicated to New York’s old neon storefront signs. The widespread appeal of old signs and storefronts is undeniable. But certain signs, I noticed, seemed to engage the camera-equipped passerby more than others. The Block Drugs sign on Second Avenue, for instance, can turn even the most impassive among us into compulsive #signjunkies. The sign isn’t exactly a razzle-dazzle extravaganza. The secret to its success, I eventually concluded, is in its subtleties – a fine patina expressive of its 70+ years on the street, and – especially – that geometric sans-serif lettering, so boldly un-Helvetica.
I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took to grasp the essential role letterforms play in the aesthetic appeal of Block Drugs and other old signs. And yet letterforms are even more central to the design aesthetic of old storefront signs in New York than in most other places. Unlike the extravagant signs one finds in western cities or in roadside contexts – think of those Route 66 motels with animated, neon-clad maidens diving into the night – New York signs made after WWII were pared down to extreme basics. This, I suggest, owed to high production costs, space constraints (heightened by restrictive zoning ordinances), and a general de-emphasis on design in traditional urban centers.
New York’s old neon storefront signs often relied almost wholly on their letterforms to achieve any level of aesthetic distinction.
Approaching an understanding of the role of letterforms in the design provenance of old signs, I began trying to describe certain signs in terms of their fonts. Was that Futura on the Block Drugs sign? A beginner’s mistake. The epiphany came finally over beers with type historian Paul Shaw at the Dublin House on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, whose glorious neon harp (installed in 1933) blinked away outside as we talked type at a table for two. “These guys were sign painters,” Paul said of the people who made the signs I’d been photographing for years by this point: “you have to give them their due.”
The lettering I so admired on these old signs was not to be described in terms of typefaces, designed by professional type designers to be mass produced by type foundries. Instead, it was to be understood as the unique work of sign painters, in some cases riffing on established typefaces, sometimes referencing “alphabet books” intended specifically for neon and other commercial signs (yes – they’re spectacular – good luck finding these on eBay), and in some cases designing totally original letterforms that in a roundabout way influenced the professional type designers who walked or drove by these signs in New York and elsewhere every day.
Today, as their numbers dwindle, old signs and storefronts stand out more than ever. Curiously, inasmuch as a sign’s job is to get our attention, signs really do get better with age, growing more noticeably different from everything else around them the longer they survive. As contemporary signage and graphic design increasingly seek inspiration from pre-Helvetica precedents, these old signs not only add interest and character to the streetscapes: they influence and inspire the work of today’s designers.