One Beach Town’s Lost Types, Another Man’s Treasure Font

An affectionate look at lettering from an era gone, but not forgotten.

To jumpstart the summer, and baseball season, I took a recent trip to the Sunshine State’s Riviera Beach earlier this year — to surf, run, soak in some much needed southern sunshine, and to bask in the glory of fonts.

Unimpeded by the pressure to keep pace with modern and relevant trends, I’ve always appreciated how beach designs have license to do as they will with their signage. Plus, the good type aficionado (read: nerd) inside me knew I needed to capture this not so buried treasure and bring it back north.

While most take in the sights of Florida’s glorious shores during their morning bike ride, I spent mine scanning the familiar scenery of typographic remnants from forgotten eras. The beaches that line the U.S. east coast are infused with a rich history and dated aesthetics of typography, ranging from endearing to totally cheesy.

Here are the lettering gems I discovered while cruising through this sunny little beachtown:

Classic brush lettering from mid-20th century. A popular choice throughout the past half-decade, but rarely executed well. The jaunty “APTS” letters underneath helps — a bit.

Imagine someone wrote “La Doral” with ink on paper, increased the copy size by 5,000%, and fabricated it out of metal. That’s what we’re looking at. It’s called “expansion” lettering, which uses a pointed pen to expand and contract the weight of lines based on the amount of pressure on the pen.

This is my favorite from my Palm Beach collection. Mid-century modern letters were the embodiment of modernism and the rejection of ornament from the 1800s. As much as type designers wanted to create utopian letterforms with strictly geometric shapes, it only worked as long as concessions were made with proportions and stroke widths. The result? Imperfect circles and a forward-leaning “S” — a beautiful mess of irregularities.

This is a radically low “x-height” approach that only works with large, display type. The name references the height of the letter “x”, but any other letter could be as high as 20 ft. Not quite five feet, this hotel sign makes the most of its uppercase lettering and stretches the“b” to the sky. The “r’s” give me pause but the brick work fuels a Don-Draper-in-Havana vibe.

Ok, this sign is a bit of a joke. It clearly draws inspiration from an 80’s art deco reboot. Although it feels a bit cheesy in Riviera Beach, this genre has more sophisticated cousins living in South Beach, Miami.

What draws me to these examples is their distinction as “lettering” (individually drawn letters), not fonts (prefabricated, repeatable letters). Limited to one word titles, these beachfront properties cared enough to customize their signage — down to the letter.

The next time you’re at the beach, keep an eye out for custom lettering and outdated design trends. You may find a diamond in the rough.