“I’ve been photographing signage for as long as I can remember,” graphic designer Louise Fili told Hyperallergic. The latest book of her signage images — Gràfica de les Rambles: The Signs of Barcelona — is out now from Princeton Architectural Press. In the introduction, she describes the “sense of urgency” that compelled her first two European signage publications — one on Italy, another on Paris — as their distinct mosaics, wrought iron, neon, gold leaf, stained glass, and other historic signage were disappearing.
In fact, one of the signs she’d planned to document in Barcelona vanished just before she arrived. Instead of the silvery, looping text above Fotos López there was just a silhouette of the now missing typography. “I was beside myself because I felt like I had missed the removal of this by a matter of minutes,” she said. “The next day I just happened to have been interviewed by a journalist for the newspaper El Paìs, and I was still so upset about it, and I guess he must have asked me where it was. Two days later the article came out, and a week later I had just returned back to New York, and I get an email from the grandson of the original founder.”
That grandson, Angel López, said that he and his family were moved by her interest, and offered to remount the sign for a photograph. Although the photo studio had closed, they still owned the building and the sign, which had been removed out of concern for theft. “I went back as fast as I could,” Fili said. “The whole family came out for the event. It was really wonderful.”
Photographs of the family with the sign lead Gràfica de les Rambles, which is divided into sections like Art Deco, monograms, mosaics, and cursives. Most of these photographs are close-ups of the lettering, although a few zoom out to take in a whole façade of a pastry shop or fabric store, capturing how the signage is part of the architecture. Before she visits a city, Fili spends hours on Google Street View exploring potential sites, but by the time she arrives, the signs are sometimes gone. Once a business closes, its placards and decorative flourishes often disappear with it.
“There are never going to be signs as beautiful as these,” she said. “All the materials they worked with and all the typography they worked with, and there’s no other way to preserve them other than just keeping them on the building.”
Fili is known for the use of typography in her graphic design, both in her work as the art director at Pantheon Books, and with her own studio, Louise Fili Ltd., that since 1989 has created logos and food packaging involving elegant lettering. Signage has long been an inspiration. She still has her 35mm slides and point-and-shoot photographs from previous trips to Barcelona, which she first visited in the 1970s, and used this archive as a starting point for the book.
“These were always meant to be for my own reference and enjoyment,” she said of the photographs. “As technology improved and I finally started shooting digitally, I realize that there was a possibility of putting them into a book. At the same time, it was the same technology that was making a lot of the signs disappear.” A hand-painted letterform from the 19th century might be replaced by a printed digital sign, a neon script, once extinguished, might be exchanged for LEDs.
“For years I would always travel to Europe whenever possible and I would go to flea markets and bookstores for things to inspire me in my work,” she said. “When the dollar was not strong and the flea market was drying up, I still had the museum of the street. The great thing about the typography and signage is nobody is using a font. It’s always hand lettering, and there are always going to be new surprises.”
From the numerous sculpted and wrought iron monograms on the residential buildings of the Eixample district, to the gilded pharmacy signs in the distinctly Catalan style of Art Nouveau known as Modernista, Gràfica de les Rambles is a rich collection of Barcelona’s vernacular signage. “I think every city has its own distinctive signage,” Fili said, and her photographs argue that’s something worth preserving.