by Michael Arnowitt
What makes the “Cool Jewels” sign at the corner of State and Main streets the most complained about sign in town? The answer lies in the underappreciated art of typography, the field that studies the beauty of the forms of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the craft of selecting appropriate typefaces and properly spacing letters and words.
Montpelier’s business signs collectively play a large role in creating the town’s visual “feel.” As the strata of an archaeological dig can reveal cities built upon each other, a snapshot of a town’s signs taken on any one particular year can similarly reveal a cross-section of history, the tastes of the present intermingled with interesting styles of past generations.
Signs have personalities, and like humans, their personal quirks are best seen in the little things. As Montpelier has such a walkable downtown, let’s take a guided tour together of its main streets; I’ll cast some typographical bouquets and brickbats along the way.
Starting at the middle of town, the Cool Jewels sign has been much maligned for its gaudiness. The size of the sign, coupled with the business’ name, which reflects the slang pronunciation of 1970’s California teenage girls, already make it discordant in Montpelier’s landscape of 19th century New England architecture. However, size and culture clashes alone are not the real reason people have found this sign repellent.
The root of the problem is typographical: the sign’s letters are unusually wide, a style that has been out of favor for at least 500 years. Our Western culture’s sense of classic proportions is one where a vertical axis is primary. Of the hundreds of thousands of letterforms you have seen in your lifetime, nearly all have been tall and narrow. Pieces of paper are longer than they are wide, as is a page of a newspaper such as the one you’re currently holding.
The modern trend, in fact, is to accentuate this bias by “condensing” type to 90% of its correct width. An example of this are the letters UNITARIAN CHURCH on the sign outside the church at the corner of School and Main streets. Another example is the word MONTPELIER in The Bridge’s masthead, and indeed newspapers, who have long used condensed type to make headlines fit in small column widths, have greatly increased our visual acceptance of skinny letters.
The plump, super-wide letters of the Cool Jewels sign are jarring to start with, but the problem is compounded by the unfortunate typeface chosen for the two secondary signs to the left and right of the store name. The capital “W” in “JEWELRY” ispreads out like a huge car that hogs up two parking spaces. Typography buffs are familiar with the problems of letter-spacing capital W’s, and the plain typeface chosen makes things even worse, since the opening and closing strokes of the W and Y are at such a wide angle.
The irony is that the sign would have been far better received by Montpelier a hundred years ago, as America was then in the throes of a one-time love affair with wide-proportioned and overly decorative lettering. An example of wide lettering that most passersby miss are the words COURT HOUSE over the columns of the Superior Court building at the corner of Elm and State streets. For comparison, cross the street to the new kiosk designed to be a miniature mirror of the architecture of the Court House; the word INFORMATION shows a more traditional vertical lettering style.
A beautiful solution to the quandary of how to typeset intrinsically vertical letterforms in a horizontal signband was the old Chittenden Bank building sign at 43 State Street (now unfortunately painted over). The graceful and dignified simple roman letters were individually separated with large amounts of space against a brown background. Interestingly, this technique of adding spaces between letters of a word has become popular in certain artsy ads seen in glossy magazines of today.
There are many more typefaces today than in the 1440’s when Gutenberg became the first European to invent movable type and print a book (China’s first printed book dates from 850 and they invented movable type in 1040). Given the newness of the technology, it is quite impressive that many of the typefaces that we regard as the most beautiful today were designed in the first century after Gutenberg’s invention, by workers in Italy and France.
These “oldstyle” alphabets are unparalleled in their beauty and grace, and several Vermont newspapers have recently switched from Times Roman to Garamond, a typeface dating from the 1500’s. Another typeface from that century is Centaur, used on the sign outside Susan’s Kitchen at 209 Barre Street. The Ruth Pope Gallery sign near the foot of State Street was my favorite in town, featuring an elegant, flowing old italics typeface of a sort that has gone the way of the dinosaur in Montpelier signs in recent years.
Taking a walk down to the most beautiful and forgotten stretch of Montpelier’s downtown, the end of Main Street from School Street to Keck Circle, one can see several interesting signs. An oldstyle typeface can be seen on the sign to James A. Ritvo’s law office on 132 Main Street. The letter “J” is very distinctive, and the serifs (small strokes that are added to the tops and bottoms of letters) are angled to the right to make an interesting balance with the leftward tilt of the general axis of the letters, particularly visible in the letter “O.” A very similar, but not identical, typeface can be seen on parts of the sign outside the neighboring Unitarian Church.
Cross the street and check out the office building at 141 Main Street, which contains a whimsical directory sign that exemplifies some of the fun aspects of the now out of fashion 19th-century American decorative style: the curlicues on the number 141 and many of the other letters and icons on the sign, and the shadow effects on the lettering of the Theriault and Joslin sign. A few blocks away, at the sign outside the old Jailhouse Common building on Elm Street, look at the lettering on the date 1820 for another example of the typefaces in style back in those days.
The modern trend is to the “sans-serif” typefaces, which are intentionally plainer but bolder in tone. The new numbers on the $10 and $20 bills are examples of sans-serif typefaces. There are many signs in Montpelier that are a strange hodge-podge of older serif-style fonts with more futuristic sans-serif typestyles, such as overhanging sign outside of Buch Spieler on Langdon Street. It is easy to see how completely new type for the words “CDs cassettes” was added later when those recording media displaced the original LP, which in its turn, had supplanted the gramophone that the logo refers to in its interesting serif typeface.
On the Main Street block between Langdon and School streets, one can see an interesting example of kerning, a typographic term referring to intentionally moving letters closer together than normal to remove awkward spacing of certain letter combinations. The otherwise lumpy and unattractive sign above the Times-Argus office does neatly kern the top squiggle of the lower-case “g” snugly over the serif of the beginning of the succeeding “u.” A nice touch, but no doubt this sign is slated for demolition as the newspaper recently changed their masthead to one with a typeface of all capital letters. Goodbye squiggle!
Each typestyle has a personality, and a business, through consistent use of a single typeface, can imprint a certain corporate image on the general public. Perhaps no Vermont company has done this better than Ben & Jerry’s, whose distinctive typeface, based loosely on old manual typewriter styles, communicates a warm and friendly feel.
Walking down State Street to the Federal Building, the 1950’s live! The block is dominated by the Post Office, which, although well acknowledged to be one of the ugliest buildings in Montpelier (one worker said even when it was built in his childhood, it was viewed as “a sore thumb”), partially redeems itself by the interesting typography on the building’s front. The alphabet used, reminiscent of architectural writing or Frank Lloyd Wright stylistics, has unusual features such as capital E’s with the cross-beam below the halfway point, and truly neat-o G’s. Without doubt, this typeface has personality.
Our town has three examples of a 1950’s typographical quirk that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Move a little further down the block to the Capitol Theater and look up at the marquee, and you will see the cross-stroke of the letter “A” in CAPITOL extends jauntily to the left beyond the first leg of the letter. Could this extremely unusual asymmetry is perhaps based on the writing script of a left-handed person? Across the street at J. Morgan’s, you can see the same feature on the R and A of MORGAN’S on signs in the inside corridor of the Capitol Plaza (the outdoor sign on the awning was recently changed to a more modern typeface). The old sign of the Somers hardware store also was in this interesting typestyle.
Going further down on Main Street past Somers, check out the sign above Emslie’s the Florist to see the clearest example in town of a business sign that is evocative of an older time and place. Although all three words of the business name are in different typesizes and styles, the sign hangs together. The “the” in the sign is particularly distinctive, suggestive of handwriting and related to the earlier 20th-century styles we saw on the Federal Building and at J. Morgan’s.
Hand-drawn signs can also have personality. The logo of Julio’s restaurant, all done in lower-case letters, takes the tail of the “j” and extends the end of the loop all the way to join up with the “s” at the end of the word. This creative flourish predates the Nike swoosh, and probably cost quite a bit less to develop!
Sign design goes much further than simply choosing an attractive typeface. Creating a pleasing layout of the words and lines of the text in the given area of the sign is a real art. Very few signs achieve greatness in this aspect of design. For my final bouquet, I would return to the Federal Building block of State Street to visit a sign I’ve always admired, the Vermont Mutual Insurance Company. Carved in a wood, a popular but difficult sign medium, it is a model of simplicity and proportioned beauty.
Signs in Montpelier are changing due to businesses’ desire to move toward modern typefaces that have been scientifically designed to be viewed from a car at a distance. Expect further changes in Montpelier’s signscape toward these more boring, bland letterforms. The advent of the personal computer has made the average citizen into a one-person printing press, with access to many typefaces. Interest in typography is making a comeback, and I would predict after a shake-out period, we’ll start seeing some interesting new typefaces for the 21st century that will have a beauty of their own and not simply be car magnets.
[Michael Arnowitt is a classical pianist who has lived in Montpelier since 1983. He has studied typography and graphic design over the past seven years.]