The Pleasure of the Sign(s)
Updated: May 5, 2018
It would be a bold assertion if any designer stated they could replicate the visually tumultuous, yet spectacularly successful assembly of signs on 15th Avenue East. With no sign resembling its neighbor, it is in fact the signs' varieties of shapes, colors, and sizes that contribute to 15th Avenue welcoming public realm. The signs add a transparent and varied - even enveloping - secondary scale within which pedestrians and seated patrons can take comfort. That they have accomplished their raison d'être with ease and even a bit of dash doubtlessly has to do with their organic and intuitive arrangement. The patina of age, be it faded paint or a bit rust add to the signs' many charms, as well as to 15th's historic narrative. Furthering this narrative are the varied fonts, colors, and artistic flourishes of the signs. Despite this variety of attributes, no single sign draws undo attention - an intriguing show of unity through dissonance. Hopvine Pub, Angel's Shoe Repair, and Jamjuree are but a few of 15th's well-loved contributors.
A favorite among my many favorites on 15h is Coastal Kitchen's sign. A seafood restaurant, the sign's one constant is the orange (sea bass?) menu offering at its top. The lower lower half of the sign indicates where the chef is leading the current culinary tour. Although I do not frequent the Kitchen due to my culinary preferences (vegetarian), I do enjoy seeing which coast the patrons are bound. Regardless of the port of call, I look with anticipation every time I pass under its banner, and enjoy the current city's or region's painted vignette.
I do, however, drink coffee, and Victrola is a favorite stop. How could it not be? With it's warm, walnut paneled interior, superb cappuccino, and its period appropriate sign. A good deal of creativity went into its conception and crafting. For those (ages 14 - 23 and 47 and over) who remember vinyl records, Victrola was an early and successful manufacturer of turntables and LP's, and the holder of the famous 'his master's voice' trademark. Harkening back to the early days of recorded music, including the swing era, our Victrola's sign has a jazz age feel and requisite art nouveau/art deco vibe. The first time I saw that sign, I knew it was love. And because of that sign, I will return forever more.
Just a few steps down from Victrola is the Wandering Goose's homage to sign craft. To experience its full whimsey, one needs to visit it for dinner when the goose's neon-animated waddle is on full display (if you look closely at the goose's feet you will spot just a promise of the evening's performance). Unusual too (some may even say bold!) is the sign's complete reliance on a figure to convey its establishment's location. But when you have a special sign, words are not be needed.
Adding yet more accolades to the many it has rightfully earned, Melrose Market's sign-offerings are no less superb outside than in. Conceived of as a single project, the Market may not quite have the serendipity and organic qualities of those on 15th Avenue, but that street's lesson in sign-craft was not lost on the Market's tenants. Each sign has a design quality befitting the Market and of the purveyor it announces. An exceptional sign is that for Homegrown (is that a radish?) which captures the restaurant's offerings as well as it values. A difficult feat to achieve with aplomb in such a compact form.
Vying for the honor of the Hill's best sign, coffee shop, and, dare I say, coffee shop sign, is Caffe Vita's on Pike. Of a completely different character than that of Victrola's, its inspired design is yet another homage to the sign maker's craft. The clown figure raising his cup while ascending (something?), the break-up of text from vertical to horizontal, and the shifting palette of red neon and white neon from text to figure and back to text, make Vita's among the most complex yet well composed offerings we have on Capitol Hill. It is also one of the largest on Pike, but its being simultaneously squeezed by street trees and canopy make it fade into the background. It's neighbor's sign, Big Mario's Pizza, is almost Vita's opposite: prosaic to the point of banal; mass-produced, little in the way of customization -- but it works splendidly! If it were on a corner, fully exposed in its ordinariness it would risk failure; however, it too is nested in the tree canopy and partially obscured by it larger neighbors. Its 'cocktail lounge' text is a fitting moniker from the time such signs were the norm. It's perfect because it is exactly where it is.
Walking back home on this most excellent day of sign exploration, I return to the quietest example. The signs at 19th and Mercer Apartments are solid signs, of the sensible, everyday variety. Good fonts, nice proportions, mixed with some trendy colors, they announce several of 19th's favorite establishments including: Hello Robin, Cone and Steiner, and the Herbalist. Here it is not only the signs that provide the welcoming scale, but the building's overhang and setback that organizes them and dictates their height. A fine example of the integration of sign and building. It is impossible to imagine the quality and character of the sidewalk environment being nearly as successful without this unity. And is not the character, spatial enhancement, and visual delight the very reason why we love to live on the Hill? And should we not expect our signs to be significant component of building's execution? I think so, and I hope you do to.