City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Tobias Frere-Jones

Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.

Tobias Frere-Jones, with his partner Jonathan Hoefler, are amongst the world’s leading typographers. With lovely coincidence, City of Sound’s logo is set in the fabulous Gotham typeface that he and Hoefler designed; it adorns the outside the Storefront gallery as Frere-Jones speaks. Gotham was derived from their extensive research into New York lettering and signage. I’ve written about it many times.

I introduced Frere-Jones by noting how New York, unlike its fellow world cities London and Tokyo, appears to have a richer set of lettering still on display, on the street. I draw this from my own observations, the work of Frere-Jones & Hoefler, but also from recently reading the excellent small pamphlet ‘Letters from New York 2’, published by the Society of Scribes. This has a great illustrated essay by Paul Shaw – ‘Looking for Letters in New York: A Tale of Surprise and Dismay’. Highly recommended.

I suggested that the lettering on our streets is a rich information layer, conveying the history and character of the city itself. And Frere-Jones has done as much as anyone to document, research, decode and then create with this lettering. He speaks clearly, with an everyday poetry, about these key signifiers around us, and with the energy and pride of a native New Yorker.

The presentation is essentially a series of fantastic photos of lettering in situ. Starting with the initial inspiration of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, Frere-Jones relates how this “engineer-made lettering”, which is in a sense “non designed”, has a character, richness, skill and vitality lacking in much contemporary signage.

He says that the “shapes of our letters are just as important as the shapes of our buildings, or the accent in our voices … (They’re) just as important, in terms of recognising the city.”

The image of the Gansevoort Market sign, and that of Primary School 142, or of the 356 Madison Street housing projects from 1948 are particularly lovely, and with the Port Authority signs, you can see the DNA of Gotham emerging. There’s another sign – the Tunnel Garage one below – of which Frere-Jones says he barely has the vocabulary to describe the Gs. But they’re wonderful.

Frere-Jones says he set himself “the task of visiting every block in Manhattan and recording every piece of surviving lettering still there”. And since 2002, he’s made it from Battery Park up to 14th St., producing 4000 photos or so. We see a tiny fragment of these, and seeing the entire set must be a terrifying and beautiful thing.

A favourite sign is that of the Manhattan Railway Co., which ran the elevated trains in New York. Frere-Jones notes that the last El was torn down 50 years ago, yet the lettering is still there – on Division St. It’s a visual reminder of history, of the previous city. The lettering is sometimes the only survivor, everything else changes around it. “Particularly with numbers”, he says. “The number of the building is the only thing that doesn’t change.”

Tobias Frere-Jones

I love his description of the type downtown, the bold san serifs you see there. He calls it a “mercantile brashness” that you find all through TriBeCa and surrounding. Frere-Jones notes that these “dignified elegant” designs form “an appropriate way to express pride in an institution” that you rarely see. I asked him where, as a practising designer, this sensibility was now? Where is the muscular, confident civic pride, helping make concrete this powerful abstraction of New York City? Has that been displaced into other areas, or simply disappeared? We don’t arrive at a clear conclusion on this, other than the economic and cultural conditions changing so radically that signwriting and lettering, as a way of conveying messages to the public, simply doesn’t exist anymore. Also, Paul Shaw pins the International Style movement, and what followed, as having little time for lettering on its buildings. More’s the pity. Frere-Jones wishes that letters still had that role – of talking to the public – and still had that importance in the everyday city. But knows that it’s not going to happen.

To me, those san serifs are the visual equivalent of those bullhorns outside. They are New York. It can veer dangerously close to nostalgia here, which Frere-Jones clearly doesn’t do. By infusing their history to create something new, which has such a clean, practical and elegant aesthetic that I feel I can confidently select it for the quintessentially 21stC media form of a weblog, he absolutely sidesteps any notion of wallowing in the city’s fading glories.

Tobias Frere-Jones

We see a few ghost signs too, which leads to what he calls “the sad part of the presentation”, running through “examples of lettering that are no longer with us”. His value here is as historian, documenting change in the city, but I like that he does this as a by-product of his practise, rather than simply for nostalgic reasons.

He suggest the only place that this quality of lettering is still practised is on trucks you see around the place, and shows a few photos of these vivid signs and designs. Ditto the curiously attractive “Chinatown geometric” vernacular forms around Canal St.

He’d love to take on the street signs of New York. Studies of street signs in the city from turn of century to 1950, indicate a rather quaint solution, but something that worked much better than current ones. They were clearly produced with the knowledge of sign painter applied to how these look and work.

He’s also working on getting this awe-inspiring photographic database online, but that’ll take some time. As will getting above 14th street. For now, he shows us a fabulous example of how to fuse careful, historical research, with a genuine love of the city, and then fold that into a creative practise. It’s a great talk.

With Tobias’s permission, I’ve posted up a few of his example images here, some of which were from the talk and some of which weren’t.












2 responses to “Postopolis!: Tobias Frere-Jones”

  1. Alex Avatar

    The BLDGBLOG is set in avenir, actually, not gothm.


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Ah thanks Alex. (I actually knew that, as Geoff and I had talked about it a while back. Forgot!) Thanks for the clarification.


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