The greatest design artifacts of city signs

Written by By J O Rourke, CNN Atlanta, US In the 45 years since it opened its doors, CNN Style’s curators have picked out the most iconic signage in an art form that’s taken…

The greatest design artifacts of city signs

Written by By J O Rourke, CNN Atlanta, US

In the 45 years since it opened its doors, CNN Style’s curators have picked out the most iconic signage in an art form that’s taken countless forms from graphic design to calligraphy to graffiti. Today we take a look at what makes the signage so identifiable.

Never have these signs been created so purely as in the pre-World War II period.

That’s when architecture began to change, and people’s relationship with their space changed. Traditionally, signs became a marketing tool used to fill up large spaces on the ground or ceilings, defining and motivating an architectural space.

‘Above all, it’s about the aspirational visitor … being what you aspire to be.’ — Artemis Room Art Experience’s Annabelle Son, design studio owner

“I don’t think [site names] were previously referred to in terms of rituals and religious thought,” says Annabelle Son, founder of Artemis Room Art Experience and holder of the sign category. “There was something quite sacred about calligraphy and ephemeral. So you see now this sort of sort of nostalgia for that, which is quite powerful, and evocative.”

Son’s message of projecting one’s own ideals into architecture became integral to both architecture and sign design: “Above all, it’s about the aspirational visitor … being what you aspire to be. But also having an affinity to the place,” she says.

A Rorschach test to art

New York’s St. Francis de Sales Elementary School covers its neighborhood with billboards to boost its profiles. “It was necessary, I think, to raise the school to the level of the neighborhood and to highlight the school within the community,” says Headmaster Rocco Rizzi. Credit: Manuele Todi/New York Times, Getty Images

It was partly this trend that led to the widespread use of marketing signs, as Tod Pritchard explains: “People would install a sign, and people who were unfamiliar with the city would say, ‘You know, that’s such a great sign, the way that it draws people into this building or this neighborhood — that makes the building stand out,’” he says.

Much like the game of chess, which sends players’ responses to different moves, signs have left their marks on the world of design, culture and art. They’ve begun to make you take notice when a few signs come onto the scene, and they’ve become part of your everyday vocabulary.

Culture, art and commerce

“The building itself serves as sort of a cultural and civic engagement site for the entire city, and also serves as an attraction for tourists,” says Son.

“There’s something about, when you go and you walk down the street in New York City, you see all these trucks with marquee signs in front of them, and on the street you see it. And it’s like ‘Whoa! What are those signs?’ But it all comes together.”

Just like shopping on Amazon, icons of consumer culture shape and define our consumer behaviors. Everything from store design to location, signage and product design have all become central to the modern shopping experience.

Today, retail signage is far more advanced. “I actually think it’s really sad that the chain store has disappeared into the street, not really into the malls, [which are] by and large chain stores like Walmart and Target and so on,” says Son.

New York’s St. Francis de Sales Elementary School started the building chain, advertising its school by placing giant billboards across the neighborhood. Credit: Manuele Todi/New York Times, Getty Images

By telling stories of how we’ve changed, signage has also developed new mediums — signs can have a different role in our lives today, since they can be remixed in a multitude of new ways: text tattoos, film replicas, and even playlists — an answer to the old “When you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

At its best, signage also changes the way we use space and express ourselves, according to Pritchard: “I love how a sign is a way of moving the crowd along a particular path. It’s actually — it’s a great metaphor for how we live in a city.”

These are our favorites, but make sure to visit each of these rare examples.

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