Signgeist 7: Signature Urban Objects

The latest installment of Signgeist investigates the everyday “un-signs” of cities like Paris and New York.

Many years ago, I purchased the book Storyteller Without Words by Lynd Ward. Aside from the cover and a few pages of front and back matter, there were few words in it—just page after page of small black and white drawings, perhaps six to eight on a page. Each picture required careful visual analysis in order to understand the action depicted and how it related to the images before and after. Each story was different yet told in the same way—black and white drawings, no words, just a story title.

Cities and towns are much the same as the stories in Ward’s book: each has the same basic components. In the case of urban environments, the basic components consist of roads, buildings, traffic signs, vehicles, shops, sidewalks, etc. You get the idea. Yet, out of the same kit of parts come urban environments with unique personalities and distinctive signatures. Often, a single element emerges to become the signature urban object among them.

While not EGD specifically, signature urban objects are integral to placemaking. Grand examples are easy to find—the Empire State Building, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Sydney Opera House. But these are architecture-based signature objects. Let’s come down in scale. Smaller examples are the telephone booths of London, the Paris Metro Station entrances, the gaslights in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Again, these are well known examples. Let’s step off the curb for a moment and look around from street level. In New York, a veritable smorgasbord of options and objects abound—the yellow taxis, the color-coded globes of the subway entrances, the sidewalk subway vents, and the ubiquitous Greek meander pattern on take-away coffee cups (since replaced by the green and black mermaid cups). And for a time in the city, yellow storefront canopies appeared on nearly every corner bodega throughout the boroughs. They have since gone the way of the pay phone.

The yellow taxi cab is one of Manhattan's ubiquitous signs.

Courtesy C&VE

Same goes for New York's green-painted subway entrances, which, while not as ornate as the Paris Métro signs, mark the city's streets in a seamless, but fundamental way.

Courtesy C&VE

Designed by an American business executive and Holocaust survivor, Anthora coffee cups were once seen in nearly every bodega in New York.

Courtesy Dan Bluestein via Wikimedia Commons

And, of course, the bronze bull in lower Manhattan has its own subtle signature comprised of one very shiny part of the statue’s realistically rendered anatomy. Hint: It’s not the nose.

The Charging bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica in Lower Manhattan

Courtesy Ingfbruno via Wikimedia Commons

Each urban area possesses its own distinct set of signature urban objects. Some are obvious, like the cable cars in San Francisco, whereas others are more subtle and intimate, like the bright white and blue colors of the houses along the Greek coast near Santorini.

Blue and white houses dot the coastline of Santorini.

Courtesy Linda Jones

We’ve even created our own version of them. For the City of Detroit and the communities along Woodward Avenue, Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE) imagined a series of illuminated towers called “Tributes” that depict indigenous aspects of a given neighborhood along the route. Four of the Tributes (eleven are proposed) have already been installed and are gradually becoming part of the urban experience. Like all signature urban objects, the Tributes will take time to become symbolic of their home city. As Detroit rebounds, additional Tributes will be installed to become part of the urban landscape.

Pontiac Tribute, one of four "tributes" C&VE have installed in Detroit neighborhoods. The design of each marker draws from each quarter or district's imagery and historic symbols.

Courtesy Curt Clayton

Oddly and wonderfully enough, signature urban objects, for the most part, are not designed with the intent of becoming a branding element. Yes, the arch in St. Louis is a terrific example of intentional objectification, but the coffee cups, subway entrances, telephone booths, and taxis of the world quietly work their way into the lexicon of urban dialog that makes our cities and towns so delightful.

NYC subway mosaic

Courtesy C&VE

David Vanden-Eynden, AIGA, FSEGD, and his partner Chris Calori, AIGA, FSEGD, lead Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE), an internationally recognized, New York-based design firm specializing in the planning and design of signage, wayfinding, branded environments, identity, and user navigation systems. Chris literally wrote the book on the subject—Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems—which was recently published in Chinese and will be issued in a second English edition in 2015.

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