The Making of Neon Signs

Every neon sign has a “start and stop position,” a point on each letter where a tube begins and ends. I’ve just learned how a signmaker chooses this point, and it’s something I’d never have guessed. It is fascinating.

It’s nothing to do with a letter’s traditional form, or its cultural dimensions. These are the first ways that neon speaks to us, whether it’s the plainspoken sans serif on a liquor store or the elaborate fantasy of a Las Vegas casino. In The Making of Neon Signs, an eleven minute film produced by Cpak Studio for M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, we’re introduced to a craftsman who first approaches signs from the their cultural angle: the bank that wants something honest, the restaurant that wants a simple semi-cursive script, or the sports club that uses the strong and powerful Northern Wei style. But none of this affects a letter’s start and stop position.

It also has nothing to do with neon’s visual aspects, how single-line letters work in small sizes, but different kinds of intricate doubling are used as letters get larger. Nor does it have to do with the physical considerations of the medium, the ways that inert gases combine with different kinds of colored glass to produce efflorescence, or the ways that glass can bend, or the order in which pieces can be attached. Even as I watched men without gloves hold incandescent glass rods over an 800°C flame, the obvious didn’t occur to me, which is this: you design the letter so that it’s possible to bend it into shape without burning your hands.

There are other great moments in the film that I won’t spoil, and some terrific footage of vintage sign maquettes that designers will love. Spend eleven minutes with it today. —JH

Introducing Landmark

Typeface: Landmark

In 1999, we received an irresistible commission from Michael Bierut at Pentagram: to design a typeface for Lever House, one of New York’s most significant architectural landmarks. In a neighborhood of skyscrapers designed simply to warehouse the maximum amount of rentable real estate, Lever House is a rare building with thoughtful urban values, featuring a grand public colonnade, a welcoming sculpture garden, and an enormous setback that showcases that rarest of midtown luxuries: the sky.

The typeface we created was an airy sans serif, patterned after the existing lettering on the building’s Park Avenue window, and related to the style of its cornerstone inscription. The project revealed some interesting discoveries about the way architects use capital letters, and how a typeface designed specifically for architecture could serve designers especially well. A decade after completing the project, we set about creating a collection of decorative variations inspired the material and environmental qualities of buildings: the interplay of structure and surface, the effects of shadow and light, and the transformative power of perspective. Bringing typographic qualities to mechanical forms turned out to be a formidable challenge, but a fascinating one, ultimately absorbing our designers for more than a year. The result is the family of four new typefaces that we’re delighted to introduce: Landmark Regular, Inline, Shadow, and Dimensional.

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 16

“Modern Gaspipe” is the charming taxonomic name for this kind of letterform. We’ve explored the style in our Tungsten type family — itself a fine holiday gift, ahem. But for those with a hankering for decor, the always fruitful Three Potato Four has this unlittle item for sale, a huge handpainted wooden figure three (34" / 86cm), perfect for your living room, studio, or threearium. Thanks to Brian Hennings for finding this one: frankly I’m amazed that he hasn’t had his fill of these kinds of letters. —JH

These Aren’t The Fifty States You’re Looking For

Photo: Michael Moran. Typeface: Gotham Bold

In Fast Company, Ellen Lupton writes:

The graphic designer Michael Bierut, a partner working in the New York office of the firm Pentagram, designed a 21-foot sign for the new U.S.-Canada border crossing at Massena, New York. The sign, as well as the building, which was designed by architects Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, has received substantial praise as a bold and daring piece of federal design. Too daring, perhaps. The sign is being dismantled by the Customs and Border Protection Agency for fear that it will be a target for terrorists.

I share Michael Bierut’s hesitation in second-guessing the seasoned professionals at the Department of Homeland Security, who surely know more about armed extremists than I would ever want to. Still, I think there’s a compromise to be struck: if the goal is to create a typographic fig leaf that disguises one’s arrival at our 9,161,923 square kilometer nation, why not change the inscription to “Bienvenidos a México?” —JH

The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 2: Incoming

Typeface: Gotham

Type designers are accustomed to approaching the line between homage and parody with great care. It’s especially daunting when its subject is a living colleague, as was the case last Friday when Tobias presented an award of his own design to Wim Crouwel, winner of the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize. (In keeping with the tradition, the current holder of the prize designs the award given to its next recipient.) To design an award for Crouwel, a Dutch icon who is indelibly associated with a strong and recognizable personal style, takes great sensitivity: imagine having to design a business card for Piet Mondrian, or select a ringtone for Igor Stravinsky.

If there is anyone able to see past the obvious, it is Wim Crouwel. In the 1960s, Crouwel’s fresh yet doctrinaire approach to graphic design earned him the pejorative nickname “gridnik,” which Crouwel, with typical flare, adopted as a moniker, and later chose as the name for his best known typeface. In his acceptance speech on Friday, Crouwel described his decades-long disagreements with his friend Gerrit Noordzij — in whose name the award is given — and both men reflected gleefully on their continuing philosophical differences. This fruitful synthesis has colored both the study and the practice of graphic design, and it’s satisfying to see it recognized. This is what awards should be for.

In keeping with the custom, Tobias designed an award that uses his own work but includes a nod to Crouwel’s. In celebration of the pre-history of the Gotham typeface, Tobias arranged for the fabrication of a traditional enamel sign, featuring an abundant grid of Gotham’s many styles (64 out of 66, to be precise.) Hearing Crouwel speak with such good humor at the presentation ceremony, I was almost tempted to reveal Tobias’s original idea, which was to find a way to bridge the Dutch tradition of chocolate letter-making with Crouwel’s arresting new alphabet of 1967. (“I probably could have done it with Kit-Kat bars,” Tobias mused.) I am certain Crouwel would approve. —JH

The Neon Boneyard

Our own Andy Clymer has returned from a trip out west with some fine photos of Las Vegas’s infamous neon boneyard. A project of the Neon Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of one of the nation’s great lettering traditions, the neon boneyard is of course located in the Las Vegas desert: an ideal climate for preservation, and convenient to the center of the energetic neon carnage of the 21st century.

Years ago I enjoyed a tour of the boneyard during a visit with Yesco, the Young Electric Sign Company, who are responsible for the haberdashery of a significant number of megawatts on the Vegas strip. It was with a combination of pride and horror that I discovered how many H&FJ fonts were being used on the new digital signs that were fast replacing the old neon: even today, Yesco’s own site advertises their digital abilities using a little Knockout. For a type designer with a love of signs, it’s a very odd feeling. —JH

Adventures in Kerning, Part II

Typeface: Verlag Book

A kerning table, which makes special allowances for characters that don’t fit together naturally, can reveal a lot about the personality of its designer. Every font pays special attention to the pair Va, but the font that includes Vr suggests a familiarity with French (vraie) or Dutch (vrou). Pairs like Wn or Tx hint at an even broader perspective (Wnetrzne, Poland; Txipepovava, Angola), and the designer who kerns the ¥4 has presumably spent some time thinking about finance. Including ÅÇ is the mark of someone who’s trying too hard: these letters don’t nest together naturally, but nor do they appear together in any language.

When I first learned about kerning, mystifying to me was the presence of Yq in almost every one of Adobe’s fonts. Adobe’s early faces sometimes neglected far more common pairs, or even whole ranges of the character set — many fonts didn’t kern periods, dashes, or quotation marks — but Yq was ever-present. When I met him in the early nineties, Adobe’s Fred Brady hinted at why: located in northern California, Adobe’s designers often had a thing for viniculture, and one of the world’s most famous dessert wines is produced by Château D’Yquem.

We’ve included Yq as a standard kerning pair ever since, though I’d never gotten to see it in action until yesterday. Here, in the window of Sotheby’s on Bond Street, is our Verlag typeface, Yq kern and all. There are kerns obscurer still that we’re waiting to see in public, though I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing the 9th century Old English word wihxð (wax) in the window of Sotheby’s anytime soon. —JH

Type Tour II

If you missed Tobias’s Typographic Walking Tour last September, and weren’t one of the 22 lucky callers to register for his 2008 encore performance, you’ve one more chance. Come to the 2008 FUSE conference, April 13–16 at the Chelsea Piers, where Tobias joins Malcolm Gladwell, Stefan Sagmeister, Debbie Millman, Chip Kidd and other sharp tacks for a three-day exploration of design and culture. The Type Tour begins April 13 at 11:00, and places are limited! —JH

Lettering Obituary

Gertel’s Bakery, 1914-2007, died last week from complications arising out of escalating land prices, finally succumbing to demolition on November 2. It was 93.

Born at 53 Hester Street, Gertel’s storefront had long been a fixture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Between the early forties and late fifties, the store acquired a new facade, with the store name rendered in a carefully executed script, and a “streamer” below. The auxiliary lettering, including the memorable one-liner “Bakers of Reputation,” was made in the contrasting “gaspipe” style of flat sides and rounded tops.

In a daring (and endearing) move, its neon sign included three different forms of the letter “E,” which friends recall fancifully as a nod to the neighborhood’s melting pot history. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Gertel’s was regularly photographed in public, though often unable to hide the tragic effects of irreversible sun damage.

Gertel’s will likely be survived by a condominium, Luxury, and an awning, Arial. —TFJ

Photo: Jeremy Perez-Cruz, 2007

The Guerilla Anagrammer

Photo: Jack Szwergold

One of Andy’s photographs features his friend Albert walking before a giant FU on a Williamsburg sidewalk. “The letters used to spell out You Are Beautiful,” Andy explained, “before someone started moving them around the neighborhood…” It reminded me of a similar bit of guerilla anagramming in my neighborhood: a few years ago, our local movie theater finally gave up the ghost after 93 years. During the brief interregnum between tenants, someone had a few weeks of nighttime fun with the marquee.

For a while, I got most of my news from this sign, whether it was the looming SARS epidemic or the equally ominous appointment of Chief Justice Roberts. Jack Szwergold has collected them all on Flickr; the ones that make the least sense are among the most entertaining. —JH

Until the Next Type Tour…

Angry villagers descend with torches and pitchforks.

After taking a moment to recover, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out for the AIGA/NY “Alphabet/City” type tour this past weekend. Being a native New Yorker, I’ve come to think of the city’s lettering as a kind of home to me. So it was a real pleasure to see so many people ready to walk the streets for hours and look at letters, reaching for their cameras to capture an old carving, or some weatherbeaten shopfronts.

Winding through the heat and crowds, we saw lettering grand and humble, prominent and hidden. (Thanks to Michael Surtees, John Kwo and Caren Litherland for these photos.) We even got a serenade from a Mulberry Street maitre d’ (did anyone get a shot of that guy?), and a very special outdoor concert on Chrystie Street. All part of a weekend stroll in Manhattan.

Even after three miles or so and two and a half hours, it was less than half of what I wanted show for those neighborhoods. Perhaps there’s material for another tour someday. Until then, keep shooting! —TFJ

More Type Tour Photos

John Kwo posted this Flickr set with some beautifully crisp photos from the type tour. Don’t miss some of the great inscriptional lettering to be found on lower Manhattan’s municipal buildings, including these spirited NH and TT ligatures.

Over at Villatype, Joe Shouldice has assembled some instructive comments to accompany his photos. Points for relating why signpainters’ dropshadows point left instead of right, and defining the term “gaspipe lettering.”

More goodies from Matt Sung, again on Flickr. Matt definitely shares our thing for distressed typography!

You’ve got to admire the rudeness of the above, from Michael Surtees’ Flickr set. Michael captured some other excellent moments, including this unlikely but fabulous set of inscriptional, inline, sans-serif, old-style figures. —JH

Type Tour Photos

For those of you who missed this weekend’s typographic walking tour that Tobias led for AIGA/NY, designer Karen Horton has uploaded a Flickr set containing some of the highlights. There are a couple of treasures here that aren’t to be missed, including at least one rare architectural palimpsest that won’t be visible for long. (Demolition in the city regularly exposes sudden windows into the the past, as in 1998 when Times Square was suddenly home to a 121-year-old advertisement for “J. A. Keal’s Carriage Manufactory,” painted in 1877.) Some of the lettering on the type tour is older still, and some of the newer signs may find themselves covered up by adjacent construction. So catch them while you can, or wait another 121 years to see if they resurface in 2128. —JH

A Typographic Walking Tour

More than fonts, it’s lettering that contributes the dominant flavor to New York City’s typography. More often than not, these one-off inscriptions and signs, handmade by artisans in a variety of media, were rendered in styles unconnected with the business of typography, which refers only to the practice of creating alphabets for printing. But the advent of digital type has made it easier than ever to use a mere font for architectural lettering as well. Combined with the building boom that’s transforming the city faster than ever, the grand inscriptions and humble signboards that constitute our alphabetic inheritance are vanishing fast.

In preparing the Gotham typeface, which celebrates just one of New York’s unmistakable typographic themes, Tobias Frere-Jones assiduously photographed tens of thousands of signs throughout the metropolis. On Saturday, September 29 at 11:00, Tobias will be leading a typographic walking tour for AIGA/NY, which promises two and a half hours of the city’s most unexamined — and imperiled — typographic treasures. Space is limited, so book early. Don’t forget your camera, and a snack. Sold out! —JH

Update: Photos and more photos from type tour attendees.

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