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London Street Signs by Alistair Hall. Guest review by London Historians Member Rian Hughes. 

london street signs cover200Alistair Hall’s beautifully-produced collection of London street name signs will delight typographers and historians.

Alistair has explored the capital’s highways and back streets, photographing street name signs in situ. Unlike the more uniform and utilitarian directional signs, which since opening of the M1 in 1959 have been set in Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s “Transport Alphabet”, street name signs exist in a profusion of styles and materials that reflect changing typographical tastes and technology.

Early examples were hand-painted directly onto the brick; as techniques developed, these might be supplanted by elegant serif capitals fired in vitreous enamel, or a condensed sans on opaque milk-glass. From 1933 signs tended to use the government recommended ‘MOT’ alphabet, which can be seen everywhere in the sprawling inter-war suburbs. David Kindersley’s serif alphabet was also popular, while more recent examples can be seen set in Albertus (in the City of London) Helvetica, Univers and Gill Sans.

These nameplates often reflect the character of each borough – resisting standardisation, Hampstead preserves its unique tiled nameplates, and new developments in Docklands use contemporary American faces such as Gotham or Lublin Graph, each reflecting the time it was built.

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The London Borough of Ealing, where I live, has seen a recent revival of its traditional black and white cast-iron nameplates. While certain spacing details mean they are not perfect recreations, it’s heartening to see that councils value their typographic heritage and are doing their best to preserve it.

Backing up Alistairs’ photography are the original technical drawings, sourced from Kew Records Office or Kindersley’s own archive. This accompanying paperwork gives insight into the discussions of taste and function of the time. As these reports were recommendations rather than hard and fast rules, councils were – and still are – free to ignore them as they see fit, sometimes leading to typographic aberrations – digitally compressed Futura to fit a long name into a short sign, for example – but the upside is that the tradition of reflecting the local architecture and culture continues.

Recommended for enthusiasts of London history and graphic design.
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London Street Signs, 191pp, by Alistair Hall, is published in hardback by Batsford with a cover price of £14.99

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Our reviewer, Rian Hughes, is one of Britain’s leading typeface and logo designers. He is also a comic book artist, commercial illustrator and has just published his first novel, XX, to immediate critical acclaim.

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