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One Designer’s Urgent Mission: Preserve Classic City Signage Before It Disappears

Her latest book documents the signs and storefronts in Barcelona.

The legendary graphic designer Louise Fili had always admired street signs and frequently photographed the unusual and remarkable typography she encountered during her travels. But she began to notice some of her favorite signs were disappearing. So her photos took on a new purpose: to preserve them before history forgot them.

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“The reason I’m photographing signs now is a sense of urgency to record them before they’re gone,” she says. “Signage is disappearing at an alarming rate, even in Paris where you think they have such good taste they wouldn’t allow it to go.”

[Photo: 2017 Louise Fili/courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
In the past few years, she has published books on signage in Paris and in Italy, to help open people’s eyes to the beauty of signage. Next month her latest book, Grafica de les Rambles: The Signs of Barcelona (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), will be released. By helping readers fall in love with signs, Fili hopes she can rally stronger calls for preservation.

[Photo: 2017 Louise Fili/courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
For The Signs of Barcelona, Fili followed a similar process as her previous books: pulling up storefronts on Google Maps to find the most beautiful and obscure signs, trekking to those addresses to shoot them, then wandering around the neighborhood to find more material. She first traveled to Barcelona in the 1970s and cross-referenced some of her old photographs to Google Street View to see if they still exist. Sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.

“[Preserving signage] is not an easy thing,” she says, pointing out that what’s causing much of the loss are escalating rents that force older businesses to close. Once a new business moves in, the old signage typically (but not always) goes. Barcelona’s city council recently granted historic status to over 200 storefronts to help curb the loss.

[Photo: 2017 Louise Fili/courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
Barcelona’s most creative signage often dates from the era of Modernisme, a highly decorative, florid turn-of-the century movement that’s like a Catalan version of Paris’s Art Nouveau. (Gaudí was one of the most famous architects from this time.) Fili noticed that compared to designers in other European cities, designers in Barcelona often integrated the signage into the overall facade of the building–why entire storefronts are so ornate. She also noticed that as a whole, the city’s signage exists in more diverse materials: neon, mosaics, gold leaf, engraved stone, metal, and wood, for example.

Fili often begins her own design work by drawing and sketching letterforms, so it’s no surprise that signage with script typography comprises an entire chapter. One of the signs she was most excited to photograph–for the photography studio Fotos López–was rendered in simple cursive and illustrates why her books are important.

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[Photo: 2017 Louise Fili/courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
Using her Street View method, Fili saw that the Fotos López sign was still on the building, but when she arrived she discovered that it was gone. She relayed this story to a reporter from El País, a national newspaper in Spain, who was interviewing her for a story about her project. Someone who read the article knew the store’s owners and they eventually got in touch with Fili and told her that they had to close the store, but removed the sign for safekeeping. The store’s founder offered to temporarily put up the sign if Fili ever returned to Barcelona. She did and an image of it is on the book’s introductory pages.

Fili’s efforts are working, and while she hasn’t selected the next city in her series–and is mum about the short list–fans are quick to offer suggestions.

“To my great surprise, [The Signs of Italy] got a lot of great press in Italy,” Fili says. “And the reviewers said the same thing, ‘Gee, we pass by them every day and we never thought about them. It took an American to make us appreciate them.’ On the other hand, whenever anyone asks, ‘Why don’t you photograph signs in New York City?’ I have no interest!”

Grafica de les Rambles: The Signs of Barcelona ($40) is available on September 26, but you can preorder it from Princeton Architectural Press now.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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