Signs of the time

Few modern day signs live up to the visual appeal of their ancestors as shown in a new book on decorative signage, says Matthew Valentine

It would be interesting to discover how many designers were originally inspired in their choice of careers by signs. In the modern world you can’t escape them – and probably wouldn’t want to for fear of getting lost.

Modern signage, it might be argued, is more effective than ever. We should all know where we are going whenever we are shopping, travelling or just browsing. But few modern signs are as good to look at as the Art Deco classics briefly uncovered when the local cinema is demolished.

Designage – The Art of the Decorative Sign, by Arnold Schwartzman, is dedicated to the historic signage still in use, or at least still on display, around the world. It divides its subject up not by the period of its manufacture or its location, but by the materials used to make it. From Australia to Moscow the book takes a look at signs made of metal, glass and neon, wood and paint, mosaic tile and brick, and stone and brick.

Designer and film-maker Schwartzman does display an obvious affection for certain periods in his choice of signs, with the majority having been created in between the 1880s and the Thirties. Each is illustrated with a crisp photograph, and a caption providing location and date of manufacture.

There is little other information, apart from a one page introduction to each chapter. More local background would have been welcome. And some idea of how the signs managed to survive this long would also be worth hearing.

Many of the signs featured are found on shop-fronts, or outside pubs and bars. It is hard to think of any facias made during the current decade which will still be around in 50 years for anybody to photograph. Take some pictures now, or your grandchildren will never know what they missed.

Designage by Arnold Schwartzman is published by Chronicle Books for 12.99

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