Thursday, June 6, 2013

Letters From Neon: Serifs and Sans-

As a child of the '80s, I grew up with a certain indistinct disgust for Helvetica.  I had no idea that it had a name.  The word "font" had yet to work its way into the popular lexicon.  I just knew that those letters were EVERYWHERE to such an extent that almost any other letterform seemed more appealing by comparison.

Corporate Helvetica.  (Thomas J. Quinn)

Come to find, I was not alone.  The coming-of-age of a new graphically-conscious generation has seen bit of a backlash against the tyranny of Helvetica.  This, I realized only when I began writing the neon book, is a big part of the the widespread enthusiasm for old signs (neon and otherwise) today.  

The post-Helvetica generation at work: anything but Helvetica on this recent Netflix packaging.

"Neonline Block."  Historically, signpainters could source letterforms like these from books such as Alf Becker's "100 Alphabets," published in 1941.  (NYPL)

Old neon signs almost never use anything that looks like Hevetica.  In fact, as I learned, they don't really use typefaces at all.  At an early stage in writing the neon book, I made an ill-conceived attempt to describe certain signs in terms of "typefaces" or fonts.  As type designer Paul Shaw told me over beers one evening at the Dublin House bar, the letterforms found on these old signs are often unique designs created by sign painters on a case-by-case basis.  "These guys were sign painters," he told me: "give them the credit they're due." 

Eight old neon bar signs found around NYC.  Not one features the standard, triangular "A".  The round-topped "A" is an icon of classic neon typography.  (T. Rinaldi)

The individuality of design found among old signs is heightened because big corporate retailers and chain stores never let their signs get old. Thus, signs that survive more than a few years usually belong to independent businesses whose old signs - and pre-Helvetica letterforms - are truly one of a kind.  Though old neon signs are seldom discussed in terms of type design, I have come to the conviction that lettering is an essential part of their appeal.  Feast your eyes, then, on some favorite letterforms from the signs I found in my ongoing survey of New York's surviving pre-Helvetica neon.

Classic, round-topped "A"s are the least of it at the Papaya King (179 East 86th St., Manhattan, made 1964 by the LaSalle Sign Corp).  Check out those "P"s and "Y"s, too!  That "K" ain't bad either...

At Circo's Pasticceria (312 Knickerbocker Ave., Brooklyn, made c. 1953), we find the classic round-topped "A" with slab serifs, no less...

More round-topped "A"s at Nathan's Famous (1310 Surf Ave., Bkln, made c. 1960 by the Salzman Sign Co.) - witness, too, the signpainter's stretched-and-skewed letterforms, seen also at:

Capitol Tackle (132 W36th St., Manhattan, made c. 1941 probably by City Wide Neon), and at: 

...Rudy's Bar and Grill (627 9th Ave., made 1937 - note the nice chamfering happening here, too), and formerly at:

The Collins' Bar (735 8th Ave., Manhattan, made c. 1930) - dig that chamfering, too!

Frank's Fish Market (formerly at 4230 Broadway, Manhattan, made 1949) had all the elements of classic neon streamlining - round-topped "A" and "M", "C"-shaped "E", lovely arced legs on "R"s and "K"s, and - my favorite, the lower-case "N" promoted to a capital, used to great effect at:

...Broadway Wines & Liquors (38-09 Broadway, Astoria, Queens, made c. 1945 - delight also in the cup-bottomed "W", "3"-shaped "E", and deco thick-and-thin action).  

Another lower-case N at Waverly Wines & Liquors (formerly at 135 Waverly Place, Manhattan, made c. 1955).  But wait, there's more, at:

M&M Pharmacy (1901 Avenue M, Brooklyn, made c. 1945).  Let's pause here to admire some of my absolute favorite lettering anywhere in NYC: 

The lower-case "N" appeared also at the Cheyenne Diner:

Formerly at 411 Ninth Ave. - this one actually seems to have been drawn-up sometime in the mid-1980s, a very good riff on letterforms of old.  Cheyenne has decamped, but one can still admire the lower-case-upper-case N at: 

...Smith's Bar & Grill (701 Eighth Ave., Manhattan, made 1954 by Da-Nite Neon).  Let's use this one to segue to another favorite - can you guess?

It's also seen here, at the former Austin Theatre - now the Kew Gardens Cinema (8105 Lefferts Blvd., Kew Gardens, Queens, made c. 1935) - I refer of course to the slinky "S", that we find also at:

...Seward Park Liquors (398 Grand St., Manhattan, made c. 1960) - and, at:

...Catania's Shoes (3015 Westchester Ave., in the Bronx, made c. 1945 by Globe Neon).  Let's take a moment to admire them in detail: 

A rather different "S", no less likable, we find at:

...Fuller's Drugs (2688 3rd Ave., Bronx, made c. 1957).

Changing gears a bit, let's segue toward some lower-case love, starting with:

...Louis Zuflacht, a long-vanished Lower East Side purveyor of "Smart Clothes" (154 Stanton Street, Manhattan, made 1942).  Gorgeous letters from curly-topped "L" to slanty-cross-barred lower-case "t" - oh, but wait...

Here, perhaps, the ne-plus-ultra of New York's neon letterforms, at the Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Ave. South, Manhattan, made c. 1949).  A replica of the original sign - whoever made this did a superb job reproducing the original letters.  That "d"!  That "r"!  That "n"!  Those "a"s!  And oh, that "g," maybe my favorite letter in town.

Some rather boxy, very midcentury lower-casers, at the Palomba Academy of Music (974 East Gun Hill Road, Bronx, made 1956 by the Grauer Sign Co.).  These letters appear to have cousins, at:

Goldberger's Pharmacy (1200 First Ave., Manhattan, made c. 1960).  

Going back to caps-lock, but staying with the boxy theme, behold:

Ganin Tires (formerly at 2360 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, made c. 1960), and these: Midtown's self-proclaimed Famous Oyster Bar (842 Seventh Ave., made c. 1960).  Then we find these bolder versions at:

Rose Wine and Liquors (450 Columbus Ave., Manhattan, made c. 1954 by Midtown Neon).  By way of a little contrast, let's admire:

...these Futura-ish letterforms, formerly at JL Wine and Liquor (formerly Goldrich Wine, at 60 E34th Street, Manhattan, made 1950).  Alas, these have recently yielded to LED replacements.  Happily, we still have these: the beloved Block Drugs (101 Second Ave., Manhattan, made in 1945).  If Block's geometric sans-serifs don't sufficiently suit your taste for the pre-Helvetica, try these on for size:

Very rare surviving pre-War thick-and-thins, at the Boulevard Tavern (575 Meeker Ave., Brooklyn, made c. 1935) - please, someone re-light this!!  And then there was this:

The late, lamented Lenox Lounge (formerly at 961 Lenox Ave., made c. 1945).  

In a slightly different vein...

I like to call these letters "brushstroke," though that's not really a technical term - seen here at Gringer's (27 First Ave., Manhattan, made 1953 by Salzman), and here at:

...Caskey's Tavern (6869 Fresh Pond Road, Ridgewood, Queens, made c. 1956), and lastly at:

...Cambridge Liquors (594 8th Ave., Manhattan, made 1952).

Finally, let's round-out the tour with a few exemplary one-offs:

Ah, D'Aiuto, how I love your letters!  (D'Aiuto Pastry Shop, 405 8th Ave., Manhattan, made 1960 by Grauer.)  From that wing-topped "A" to the loopy "O" at the end.  

Lovely letters here, at the former Plan Travel (72-22 Austin Street, Forest Hills, Queens).  These appear suspiciously similar to the letters used at this long-gone, Morris Lapidus-designed Rival Shoe outlet, formerly on 125th Street in Harlem.

Lovely letters here, too, at the incredibly great Clover Deli (621 Second Ave., Manhattan, made 1956 by Globe Neon).

I was much enamored of these unique thick-and-thins, at the now-gone Manhattan Furrier (685 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint, Brooklyn, made c. 1953).  And last but not least:

... one of my absolute favorites, at Katz's Drugs (76 Graham Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, made c. 1955 by Silverescent).  We can likely thank Silverescent's layout man Charlie Klein for this tour-de-force of porcelain enamel, stainless and neon, with some classic script-block contrast, and - best of all - those "R"s, "G"s, "P"s, "N"s and "C"s. The subtle originality of New York's midcentury letterforms, at its best. 

1 comment:

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