We asked John Downer, an American specialist in sign painting, to comment on several pictures taken in our home city of Malakoff, a surburb of Paris. This article was initially published in 2000. In 2004, couple of the original signs are gone. Its why we decided to update the article a little bit.
We asked John Downer, an American specialist in sign painting, who designed many French signs for the Paris Hotel & Casino in 1999, a miniature version of Paris on the Las Vegas Strip, to comment on several pictures taken in our home city of Malakoff, a surburb of the real Paris, the capital of France.
Liqueurs, Vins de marques
Generic, sans serif signage letters — especially common in France. Molded plastic letters mounted on window with adhesive. Formerly, (in the past two centuries), many window signs were made this way. Such letters would have been molded from white glass, porcelain, or metal that was then glazed with a coat of enamel in the olden days, before the advent of plastics. Layout and letter sizes are authentic. (2004: This building doesn’t exist anymore).
Free-flowing, well-proportioned, signage script. Cut as a whole word from a single piece of material and mounted on a building fascia panel. Dot above the i is missing. (The natural effect of being detached from the rest of the cutout originally — insufficiently mounted, evidently.) (2004: Not anymore a shop).
Blanchisserie D. Fontaine
Monoweight Art Deco letters in relief, showing geometric abstraction and stylization, in A and S especially. Note the French preference for a dot above the capital I. This quirk is seen elsewhere in Europe, too. (2004: Close to be destructed).
A contemporary Paris Metro sign typeset in PTF fonts commissioned for the purpose, without paying tribute to traditional signage letterforms. These letterforms are well within the genre of typographic signage by Adrian Frutiger, and Edward Johnston before him. Neither were expert sign painters. They simply tried to adapt their skills to the job at hand.
191 Malakoff Augustin-Dumont
A contemporary Paris bus stop sign showing PTF fonts commissioned for the purpose, without paying tribute to traditional signage letterforms. Use of lowercase permits the name fit on one line in the limited space, but would read better if the type size were doubled, the words were set in capital letters, and the two words were stacked (one above the other).
Late 19th- or early 20th-century municipal warning sign. Condensed letters have traces of the same sort of distortion seen in computer- manipulated, electronically-squeezed letters: upright strokes become thinner than horizontal strokes. (In this case, the computer was not responsible. Distortion was planned by the designer of the letters.)
Hand-fabricated, plastic-faced letters in extruded aluminum channel, shaped to fit. Recent sign, loosely based on a casual script style made famous by the late French type designer, Roger Excoffon. (2004: This shop is not anymore the same).
Avenue du Président Wilson
Post-WWII, baked enamel on metal. Squarish, condensed sans serif, in the tradition of French signage which began late in the 19th century. It spread throughout the world. The É in PRÉSIDENT (attached acute) is a 20th-century convention. The rectangular S and O in WILSON identify this sign as being younger than the sign in photograph No. 9. Note that in No. 9, the S and C are round at the top and bottom. Panel shape of the sign in No. 9 also supports the conclusion about chronolgy.
A primitive attempt to create the feeling of Art Deco. Exaggerations of style in letterform construction abound. More style than substance.
[No comment about the Futura letters in white] CREMERIE is a base-mounted, three-dimensional sign in a sans serif style that was very popular, worldwide, in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
An attempt to copy signage designed by Hector Guimard, including signs for the Paris Métro, early 20th century; and by Henri Bellery Desfontaines (see essay on Anisette by Blanchard). Also, there have been many French poster designs with this style of letterform freely interpreted by others. (2004: This building doesn’t exist anymore).
Effective use of capital letters in signage. Large copy in an Art Deco, thick & thin letter style. Small copy in an Art Deco lineale letter style. Note that the word PARIS shows two fundamental mistakes: flopped A and bisected spine of S. Compare this S with the correct ones, which begin the words two lines above. The backwards A, however, appears in both lines. Also, FORCLUM has a flopped M. These mistakes are more often made by sign painters & graphic designers than by type designers.
A popular misconception about the Art Deco thick & thin relationship is that the left stroke is thick and the right stroke is thin. Not so. The characters with an upright left stem, but without a diagonal stroke, do conform to the left-thick, right-thin scheme. But characters which have a diagonal stroke follow a different scheme: a scheme that’s more important. Any diagonal stroke from upper-left to lower-right is thick. This is the first rule. Any diagonal stroke from upper-right to lower- left is thin. Any upright stokes in a character that has a diagonal stroke alternate with the diagonal(s) so that the order goes: thin-thick-thin-etc.
Art Nouveau lettering glazed on porcelain tile and mounted on a facade.
Reverse painted. Metallic (silver, palladium, aluminum, or white gold) leaf on glass. Amateur attempt at sign design; professional execution. A failed effort, both stylistically & technically, to imitate Art Deco. Again, the flopped A’s peg the designer as one who lacked professional understanding of the prescribed thick & thin stroke relationships. (2004: This building doesn’t exist anymore).
One of the La Poste cars, nicknamed “Renault Kangoo.” Jean François Porchez, who designed the La Poste logo, owns a blue version of this Renault vehicle.
John Downer (1951) type designer, sign painter, author. ATypI member. Iowa City, USA. Images by Jean François Porchez. Copyright 1999-2004 John Downer and Jean François Porchez.
John Downer typefaces to date (1999):
1989, Chicago Tribune Mag., Roger Black.
1990, Triplex Italic, Emigre.
1990, Roxy, Font Bureau.
1991, Iowan Old Style, Bitstream.
1991-92, Ironmonger, Font Bureau.
1992, Gonick, Larry Gonick.
1993, Roxy, Ironmonger, SamSans, Font Bureau.
1994-96, Simona, Design Lab (with Jane Patterson).
1996, SamSans Italic, Font Bureau.
1998, Simona Swash Italic, Design Lab.
1998, Airy, Design Lab.
1999, Brothers, Council, Vendetta, Emigre.
Street signs and lettering elsewhere.
Originally published in 2000, updated in 2004.