Urban typography

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The graphic artist Martin Ulrich Kehrer spent three years taking pictures of letters and lettering on Viennese shop fronts, thereby creating a documentation of well over 2500 examples of urban typography from all 23 districts of Vienna. A small selection of these is currently shown in an exhibition at the Wienmuseum Karlsplatz, along with 26 concrete blocks showing individual letters from selected typefaces.

Kehrer describes the purpose of his project as twofold: on the one hand, to document obsolete typefaces, some of which have survived only in traces or fragments, and on the other, to point out changes in formal and material aspects of original typography (i.e. not the cheap, uniform, globalized kind used by multinational chain stores) over several decades.

kehrer.jpgAbout 200 of Kehrer's photographs were recently published in a book entitled Stadtalphabet Wien, which largely focuses on examples from the 1950s through the 1970s. The book is available from Amazon.de.

Martin Ulrich Kehrer: Stadtalphabet Wien. Wien: Sonderzahl-Verlag, 2009. ISBN 978-3-85449-300-6. € 18.

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I read this when it appeared, and wondered vaguely what would cause a person to have a high degree of interest in typefaces. But as so often happens, one hears about something, and shortly thereafter, hears about it again. So it came about that a couple of weeks ago I was reading the “#1 New York Times Bestseller,” “Scarpetta” by Patricia Cornwell, a murder mystery that I would recommend only to those who are already familiar with Ms Cornwell’s work, when I was again given reason to think about typefaces. From page 315 in the paperback version:

“ ‘For your purists in the word-processing world, Arial has a very bad rep.’ … ‘It’s
been called homely, common, lacking in character, and is considered a shameless
imposter. There are plenty of articles about it’

“ ‘It’s considered a rip-off of Helvetica, which was developed in the nineteen-fifties
and became one of the most popular typefaces in the world,’ … ‘To the untrained
eye, there’s no difference between Helvetica and Arial. But to a purist, a professional
printer or print designer, Arial’s a parasite. The irony? Some young designers think
Helvetica is based on Arial instead of the other way around.’ ”

I was motivated to do some research to see what typefaces are used by online publications. The London Times and The Press Enterprise use Times New Roman, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Buffalo News use Georgia, as does this blog. And for the online version of Der Standard, it’s the despised Arial. Or, maybe it’s really Helvetica and my Word 2003 can’t tell the difference. ;-)

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