Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Cavendish Street, London

A kind of looking

This is a brick building on the corner of Great Portland Street and New Cavendish Street in central London. I’d passed it before, so rather than being a ‘Blimey! I hadn’t noticed that’, it was a ‘I really mean to look at that more closely and take a photograph’. On this occasion, I wasn’t rushing to a meeting, or to lunch, and I wasn’t in a hurry to catch a train, so I took the photograph.

Taking a photograph is a different kind of looking, and can work in several ways. One is the look that concentrates so closely on a specific detail – like the curvy, Art Nouveauish name panel on this building – that I don’t notice what else is in the frame: I remember with amused embarrassment how I once looked through my viewfinder with a sort of antiquarian tunnel vision at an archway and totally missed the man putting up a deckchair in the far right-hand part of the frame. On such occasions I remember some text I once edited for a book about taking photographs. The author, a professional photographer and teacher of photography, explained how the controls of an old-fashioned sheet-film camera with a bellows and a big focusing screen encouraged the user to work slowly, scan the image after each adjustment, and check many times before pressing the shutter. The cost of sheet film probably encouraged such a method too.

It’s all a bit different these days, when one holds up a smartphone, strokes the screen gently, and walks on. Often, I remember that bellows camera, try to slow down, and study my screen. And on this occasion, when I zoom out a little I see three different kinds of lettering, and frame the picture so that a good sample of the other two signs can be seen too, while still giving prominence to the one I’m most interested in.

So what do we have? On the left, a standard City of Westminster street sign. This design was created by the Design Research Unit in 1967–8 for the newly formed Borough of Westminster and is familiar to anyone who knows London.* Sans serif capitals in black for the street name, red for the postal district and, beneath a black rule, smaller red capitals for ‘CITY OF WESTMINSTER’. It’s simple, and conveys three levels of information clearly. No wonder this way of showing a street name is familiar all over the world. To many it means London.

Running along the bottom is the name of the café that occupies the ground floor. The letterform used for this sign is a far cry from the mostly very traditional typography of the books in which I’ve made my working life. I guessed that the letters were designed some time in the 1960s or after and they turn out to belong to a font called ITC Bauhaus. This font was designed in the 1970s.† It seems to say that it’s modern, a bit different, and easy-going, but that’s just my take on it. It looks of its time and it’s clear and different enough to stand out and tells us where we are.

Something similar might be said of the ‘Cavendish House’ name panel. The curvy path the letters take, and their similarly curvy double cross-bars are very much redolent of the 1890s. The curves suggest a hint of Art Nouveau, but the overall impression, from the classical form of the frame to the way the capital C embraces its neighbouring letter, would not, I think, have seemed especially outré, even in the previous decade – there’s a period feel, but it’s not specific. The separation of ‘AD’ and the date is a little absurd, and doesn’t quite achieve the balance that was probably intended, because the top-left-hand corner of the panel is a bit cramped. But I could go on all afternoon (about the N’s high cross-bar, the narrow V…). But anyone with a sense of proportion has moved on by now, stopped staring at their screen, and pressed the button. One way or another, they certainly know where they are.

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* For a further example, see another of my posts, here. The font in Univers.

† The link to the Bauhaus, the prewar school of design founded in Germany, is that ITC Bauhaus is based on (but rather different from) the ‘universal typeface’ designed by Herbert Bayer, who worked on it while he was director of printing and advertising at the Bauhaus in the 1920s.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I always get annoyed when specially preserved architecture is ruined by cheap and nasty advertising flopping all over the top of the bricks or the glass. People always say they have to have the ads because otherwise shoppers wouldn't know where to go. But this example shows that a name panel can be functional _and_ perfectly refined.