History & Futures – Week 1: History Revealed

Reflection on Lecture & Resources

Some thoughts from the lecture:

  • Type is a necessary part of life
  • Type is identity
  • Typefaces are tools for solving problems
  • Type is universal
  • Fonts are a way of showing an identity to the world
  • Type should not overpower the message

“Words have meaning and type has spirit.” – Paula Scher


I was introduced to the work of Eddie Opara in this week’s lecture and found his approach to typography, viewing type as texture, an interesting idea. His sculptural posters which bring type to life in three dimensions, playing with optical illusions and the idea of invisibility are really unique and thought-provoking. I also agree with his point that a poster is doing its job if it makes people stop and look – this can be achieved by creating posters that look arresting because they are visually different.


Venetian Type

A typical Venetian nizioleto street sign.

During a trip to Venice early last year, I saw some excellent examples of the famous traditional nizioleto street signs with their painted letters stencilled onto a frame of plaster. Only on reflection do I realise how unique they were and how big a part of its identity they are. One of the things I particularly liked about the city was the juxtaposition of the old with the modern. It’s a place of contrasts, with a real mix of street art, high art and history, which I think adds to its character gives it a rich visual culture.

Type finds from my trip to Venice in February 2020.
Venetian street art.

Edward Fella: Letters on America

Reading the book extract from Edward Fella: Letters on America this week gave an insight into the designer’s take on Americana and gave a sense of where he draws inspiration for his own design practice. He clearly casts a critical eye over the typographical marks he discovers and records them for future reference with his camera – often closely cropping the compositions to deliberately omit meaning – creating his own kind of visual language. It was interesting to note that he takes a very analogue approach to both design and photography, preferring to use a Polaroid film camera and sketching as a daily practice.


Further Research

Architectural Type

Architectural type by Johann David Steingruber. Image via Present & Correct.

In 1773, German architect Johann David Steingruber published a book featuring a complete alphabet constructed entirely of architectural plans. They appear to be the blueprints of some very unusual, whimsical buildings and each letter is presented with a corresponding imagined front elevation. It’s possible these were only ever intended as experimental fantasy – more ideas than a practical concept for real-world structures, especially as some of the letterforms result in some extremely impractical and potentially complex pieces of architecture!

Type extract from the pages of Johann David Steingruber’s architectural type book.

Historic Advertising

In researching local history this week, I came across an incredible find – a digitised copy of the Galashiels & Selkirk Almanac & Directory, originally printed in 1898 by John McQueen, a Galashiels-based letterpress and lithographic printer. It shows advertising for many businesses and gives a flavour of how visually chaotic this could be at the time – quite a wide variety of type was used and the approach to layout was generally pretty basic, though this is likely to be largely because of the physical limitations of what the printing methods available could produce in this period.

Advert for Robert Herbert, the business whose sign is described in my response to the workshop challenge below.

Workshop Challenge

Type in a Rural Town

Galashiels is a small town in the Scottish Borders, so it’s quite a rural area. The type I found was surprisingly varied and I uncovered quite a few examples of historic lettering, including stone carving and metalwork, as well as more traditional street signage.

Type found in and around Galashiels.
Ellwyn Terrace street sign.
Hand-painted antiques shop sign – with old post office sign ghosting through it.

Geotype submissions

1. This is a commemorative street lamp in Galashiels town centre. It was installed by the Galashiels & Langlee Community Council in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. It’s made of metal and features some really beautiful decorative elements. On one side it also features a metal plaque with the town’s crest, depicting two foxes under a plum tree in relief. The lettering itself is a series of raised painted serif capitals with a considerable amount of tracking between them. The type is reminiscent of the kind produced by a typewriter.


2. I love the natural lichen patina and weathering on this historic stone carving that’s 111 years old. The stonework is part of a Georgian-era postbox in a prominent location at the edge of the town’s Bank Street Gardens, a busy main thoroughfare through Galashiels. It has weathered surprisingly well, given how exposed it is, but I suspect that’s because it’s probably red sandstone. Next to the carved numbers is a decorative vase or urn with foliage and fruit emerging. The style of the overall design and numerals are in keeping with the aesthetics of the Arts & Crafts movement of the time, which held craftsmanship in great regard.


3. Old Gala House is the former home to the Lairds of Galashiels, dating back to 1583. In modern times the building is used as a museum and gallery space featuring contemporary work as well as helping to tell the rich history of the town. This decorative wrought-iron gate stands at the entrance to the gardens and incorporates Gothic script lettering cut out of the metal like a stencil. Behind this is a brass plate, providing a visual contrast to the letterforms so they can be read. Over time, the sign has weathered, rust and lichen adding to its character.


4. This is a Victorian-era headstone at the Gala Aisle burial ground, a graveyard which dates from the 17th Century, the original site of the first parish kirk (church) in Galashiels. The “Aisle” was built in 1636 by the local laird as a family burial vault. The surrounding cemetery features graves from the 1600s – 1800s. This particular tombstone features beautiful gothic blackletter type with decorative flourishes carved by hand into the stone, along with simpler serif letters. Despite its age, the inscription has survived remarkably well and is still clearly legible.


5. This ironwork sign is a decorative feature on the iron gate at the entrance to a former workshop and house belonging to Robert Herbert & Sons. The company was a small jobbing engineering workshop in the late 19th Century, typical of its time. Business premises of this type were common in the past but are becoming much less so now. The sign has been repainted red in modern times and its curved metal letter shapes emulate handwriting. As well as signposting, it may also have served as an advertisement for the type of work the company undertook.  


Reflection on Week 1

Looking at “typography in the wild” this week made me look closer at some interesting examples of type. Some of them I have walked past many times without truly examining them or questioning what they say about the place and their provenance.

I enjoyed taking the time to delve a little deeper into some local history and was quite surprised at the variety of type that I found, given the fact that Galashiels is not a large town. Through my research I have started to appreciate the rich history of this place, and the appreciation of true craftsmanship here. I also noted that there are still visual remnants hinting at the town’s industrial past.

A style of type can become synonymous with a place, eventually becoming inextricably linked with it – examples of this would be Milton Glaser’s iconic “I ♥ NY” logo, Edward Johnston’s Johnston Sans typeface created for the London Underground, or Hector Guimard’s beautiful Art Nouveau designs for the Paris Métro.


References

Blackwell, Lewis and Wild, Lorraine. 2000. Edward Fella: Letters on America. London: Princeton Architectural Press.

Baines, Phil and Dixon, Catherine. 2008. Signs: Lettering in the Environment. London: Laurence King.

Steingruber, Johann David. 1773. Architectonisches Alphabet, bestehend aus dreyßig Rissen, etc. Mizler.

Galashiels & Selkirk Almanac & Directory for 1898. Galashiels: John McQueen.

Present & Correct. 2021. ABC Home. Available at http://blog.presentandcorrect.com/abc-home [accessed 27 January 2021]

Live Borders. Old Gala House. Available at
https://www.liveborders.org.uk/culture/museums/our-museums/old-gala-house [accessed 31 January 2021]

Scotland Starts Here. Gala Aisle. Available at https://scotlandstartshere.com/point-of-interest/gala-aisle/ [accessed 31 January 2021]

British Listed Buildings. Gala Burial Aisle, Church Street, Galashiels. Available at https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/200373360-gala-burial-aisle-church-street-galashiels-galashiels [accessed 31 January 2021]

Electric Scotland. The Galashiels & Selkirk Almanac & Directory for 1889. Available at
https://electricscotland.com/history/gazetteer/galashielsselkirk.pdf [accessed 31 January 2021]

British Listed Buildings. Workshop & House, Union Street, Galashiels. Available at https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/200373411-workshop-house-union-street-galashiels-galashiels [accessed 31 January 2021]