We have talked previously about how type can transport us. Some typographic genres seem to belong to cities and neighbourhoods helping to reinforce their identity. Allistair Hall (of We Made This) ongoing research into the vernacular of London’s Name Plate signage investigates and archives the voices of the city. "A unique collection of styles and forms that stretches right back to the 17th century." While walking and cycling the city Alistair photographs all the most interesting, curious, significant and beautiful examples, which he is curating for an upcoming book and also publishing on this instagram page.

Noting these street name signs 'hide in plain sight' they are read daily for navigation as visual wayfinding anchors but not often seen. Especially by locals, Allistair’s project is about looking at these signs critically to understand where they have come from and what narrative they may tell of his city. The project is drawing peoples attention to the signs - with a growing following of graphic design, typography and lettering enthusiasts via instagram but also to people who encounter the nameplates first hand on London's streets.

Wimpole St (W1, City of Westminster) cartouche in lead with stencil lettering and an enamel blue blacking.

Wimpole St (W1, City of Westminster) cartouche in lead with stencil lettering and an enamel blue blacking.

 

So far (over the last several years) Allistair has collected more than 2000 examples - "from the iconic nameplates of the City of Westminster to the stunning tiled signs of Hampstead, from the revival nameplates of Lambeth to the ghost signs of the no-longer-existent NE postal district. From enamel plates to incised lettering, from the simplest cast iron signs to the most ornamental architectural tablets" As he increases the communities awareness of the signs they better understand each nameplates historical, cultural and aesthetic value.

Alistair's research goes beyond a visual archive as he digs through libraries and interviews the people involved in the design and production to discover the stories behind these unassuming visual treasures! With a more specific type bent - Allistair follows threads of information and conversation to learn more about the lettering styles which adorn them. Diving deep into an elusive angled terminal Alistair hopes to uncover the origins of the genre and has asked the community to weigh in on what they know of the style. (Read more about this investigation and similar type specimens here).

“As part of that research, we’re trying to track down the origins of a rather elusive lettering style. It’s a style that you see frequently on enamel street nameplates and advertising signs, though also on other types of sign, such as milk-glass ones. The most notable features of this lettering are angled terminals (the ends of each letter) on a few characters: C, G, J and S. In addition, the R tends to have a flared leg. The G sometimes has a bar, sometimes doesn’t. The central diagonals of the M tend to sit onto the baseline, but don’t always.”

“As part of that research, we’re trying to track down the origins of a rather elusive lettering style. It’s a style that you see frequently on enamel street nameplates and advertising signs, though also on other types of sign, such as milk-glass ones. The most notable features of this lettering are angled terminals (the ends of each letter) on a few characters: C, G, J and S. In addition, the R tends to have a flared leg. The G sometimes has a bar, sometimes doesn’t. The central diagonals of the M tend to sit onto the baseline, but don’t always.”

 

I particularly love the Victorian examples, and found much delight in the masterful copyfitting tricks the sign painters/producers use. Next time I am in London I know I will enjoy finding my way through the city in a whole new light thanks to this project. Be sure to follow the londonstreetnameplates instagram account for a richly seeded source of lettering inspiration. And if you have any information about the trail of the angled terminal please reach out to Alistair directly!

We Made This is the graphic design studio of Alistair Hall, specialising in thoughtful, simple, beautiful communication. Alistair studied at Central Saint Martins before setting up his studio in 2004. Based in Clerkenwell, London, the studio’s output includes print design, books, branding, copywriting, packaging design and various other bits and bobs. Alistair has been writing about design and visual culture at wemadethis.co.uk/blog for over ten years. 

“In 1899 the London Government Act divided London into twenty-eight  Metropolitan Boroughs, which lasted until 1965 with the creation of  Greater London and the thirty-two London Boroughs which we know today.  Signs from the Metropolitan Boroughs still exist in many parts of London  though, such as this Borough of Chelsea sign. Postal districts were  created in 1857, but weren’t numbered until 1917. So it seems likely  that this sign dates from between 1899 and 1917. The lettering of the  street name and postal district is of a style that seems quite specific  to signage, especially enamel signs (though this sign is milk-glass not  enamel). It’s a condensed sans that features angled terminals on certain  letters – the C, G, J and S – but I haven’t yet found out where it  originates from.”

“In 1899 the London Government Act divided London into twenty-eight Metropolitan Boroughs, which lasted until 1965 with the creation of Greater London and the thirty-two London Boroughs which we know today. Signs from the Metropolitan Boroughs still exist in many parts of London though, such as this Borough of Chelsea sign. Postal districts were created in 1857, but weren’t numbered until 1917. So it seems likely that this sign dates from between 1899 and 1917. The lettering of the street name and postal district is of a style that seems quite specific to signage, especially enamel signs (though this sign is milk-glass not enamel). It’s a condensed sans that features angled terminals on certain letters – the C, G, J and S – but I haven’t yet found out where it originates from.”

“A fine pair of signs here on the 1930s extension to the Grade II* listed  Royal Geographical Society. The incised stone plaque presumably dates  from the construction of the extension – the lettering style is very  elegant, though the spacing is slightly uneven. Below it sits a  (slightly superfluous) example of Design Research Unit’s enamel  nameplates for the City of Westminster, designed in 1968 by Misha Black  and Christopher Timings. These feature a bespoke alphabet based on  Univers, designed by the practice specifically for use on the signs.  Unfortunately, recent signs produced for Westminster have started to  appear using Helvetica Condensed instead.”

“A fine pair of signs here on the 1930s extension to the Grade II* listed Royal Geographical Society. The incised stone plaque presumably dates from the construction of the extension – the lettering style is very elegant, though the spacing is slightly uneven. Below it sits a (slightly superfluous) example of Design Research Unit’s enamel nameplates for the City of Westminster, designed in 1968 by Misha Black and Christopher Timings. These feature a bespoke alphabet based on Univers, designed by the practice specifically for use on the signs. Unfortunately, recent signs produced for Westminster have started to appear using Helvetica Condensed instead.”