East Broadway, a vernacular typeface in New York.
In 2018, I moved from São Paulo to New York in order to stay a year. Once there, among other things, I decided to take English classes, something I had never really done in my life. I ended up finding a place to study in one of the Public Libraries next to the East Broadway subway station, on the border of the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhoods, very close to where I had lived 6 years ago. Twice a week, after school, I was free to walk around the neighborhood looking for a place to have lunch — in the case of Americans almost dinner — or have a beer or coffee. It was a matter of time before I came across an urban vernacular typographic artifact. Suddenly, I was seeing these letters cut out of adhesive vinyl by hand populating shop windows of all kinds of commerce around the neighborhood. Roughly speaking, this mentioned artifact can be a letter shape, alphabet or lettering, made by an artisan without formal training in design, advertising and related areas. In the article “Learning from the Streets: typography and vernacular”, Prisicila Farias presents categories for incorporating vernacular artifacts in type design. That was certainly an urban typographic artifact that I would incorporate into my new font. I knew I had found something very inspiring within my world in the universe in type design.
The project for this new digital font could have started in 2012, when I was for just over 3 months in New York to take the Condensed Type Design course at Cooper Union. There are 7 intense weeks of training in the art of typography and at the end you have to deliver a digital font project. At the time, I sought inspiration for my project where I lived, on Clinton Street, on the Lower East Side. I followed the tactic of hunting letters on the streets, photographing everything I could and of course I ended up being bombed by Cooper Black, which is spread all over the city. Finally, the intense daily content of classes and visits to libraries ended up taking me to other research paths and to the design of a serif font that I have not finished until today.
In recent years, I talked a lot about vernacular typography in my Tipografia Libre workshop and also with colleagues who work in the area. I photographed many examples out there, but for the first time I was in front of an example that seemed intriguing. For a while, I went to find out who did that job.
Don’t take it the wrong way, the neat grocery store signs or the celebrated filetado porteño, Buenos Aires’ cultural heritage, remain one of the most valuable examples of vernacular typography, but unlike the letters pasted on the door above, they are naturally inviting to inspire new font designs. Not that beauty is anything to complain about, but in times of a new Renaissance for the arts of letters, with a profusion of new and talented lettering artists, calligraphers and sign painters, coming face to face with a strange letter that seems to have coming straight from the 90s to haunt, doughnut, ice cream & coffee shops windows was really cool.
Perhaps there is a beautiful irony in this project: the letters cut out of laser on vinyl, a technology widely used after the explosion of desktop publishing in the 90s, have always been considered the great villains of sign painting and with good reason. In the name of progress, they have mercilessly replaced a multitude of beautiful hand-made letters with fonts like Comic Sans, Impact and Arial. Over time, these would detach from their awnings, and then be reprinted and glued again. So a mutation of that vinyl letter shapes appeared on the Lower East Side saying, “I am here among you, I have always been and I was made by hand”.
For a while I tried to find out who would have made these letters — after all, what a work it takes to cut it all by hand and why? I went into some sign and print bureaus to ask and the answer was usually the same: “what a horrible font, we don’t have this, maybe something like that, we can do better”. That was not the point. It appeared to have been made by a human or in a crazy hypothesis, by an old machine, using an outdated font software, exporting defective postscript curves to a rusty laser cutter. I went on with my life and started to design my new font, from time to time commenting and asking someone in the area and feeling a slight contempt for this manifestation of vernacular design, nothing new, a common reaction already documented in books and articles out there. “No More Rules” by Rick Poynor is one of my favorites.
We can see from the pictures that the places where I found the letters in use are business that have been in the neighborhood for a long time, they always seem to be managed by immigrants, much of the population of the Lower East Side. They are Pizza Places and Smoking Shops of those that sell a little of everything, besides Tailors and Laundries, let’s say essential services. These places are already suffering the impact of gentrification that occurs in this neighborhood as in many others in the city. I went in to ask employees a few times about the authorship of these letters shapes but, again, it seemed like a pointless question. I received the standard answer: “nobody knows and nobody saw”. Several times I suspected that my authentic Latin American accent could be damaging the research. It happened to me a lot: if they don’t understand what you say, they try to get rid of you quickly. When it happens between two non-natives then the conversation falls apart much faster.
After a while I stopped asking and little by little the drawing was unfolding. It started from a Bold weight display font design for a family of 40 fonts and one variable. I couldn’t resist seeing the skill of this artist when squeezing and stretching vinyl shapes and I applied his method of stretching and pulling to digital typography. From Ultra Condensed to Ultra Expanded weight. It seems wasteful, after all it is a display font, very likely that it will not be used in long paragraphs, but there was no better excuse for me to finally be able to enter a variable font project. Now that I have released this source, I can already see the well-behaved version of it, the East Village, which according to wikipedia is a name created to enhance an original part of the Lower East Side region and to detach itself from the working class neighborhood fame, this chat is up to the locals to decide if it’s true or not. I think you can get this information on the unmissable tour at the Tenement Museum, which has the best stories and images from L.E.S and off course the shop. For my part, I feel that with this project I saved a piece of the graphic memory of this neighborhood, through a vernacular typographic artifact, which in a digital capsule must last a long time, unlike the original letters cut out of vinyl.
If you have no idea what variable fonts or vernacular typography are and you’ve made it this far, thank you. If you’re curious, take a look at the illustrated project I did for EastBroadway typography on behance. https://www.behance.net/portfolio/editor?project_id=100315885
A few days before returning to Brazil, I went to a photo exhibition in Soho, a neighborhood next to L.E.S. Near the gallery, I saw a small print shop and decided to go in and ask someone about the letters. I showed the photos and to my surprise I received the answer: “oh yes, I know who does these things, it is John, in fact he does not call John, that is his American name, he is Chinese and he comes here to take the leftover vinyl to cut out those letters there, we do a lot better at the laser “. Two days later, I was back in Brazil, John did not answer the phone they gave me, nor did he return a message. He lives in New Jersey.
I would like to thank my friends Sam @samorius, Faride @fmereb, Mirko @bghryct for the unforgettable, not just typographic, visits during this year in New York. Amazing teacher Ivana @ivana.ferguson.5 for encouraging me to talk all the time with everyone on the street to practice the language and Fabiana @fabianaruggiero for always making everything more simple and cool.