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I could spend a lifetime recording Los Angeles typography, and I probably will.
But is there a typographic vernacular unique to Los Angeles? Of course, I don’t disagree that locations look different and that typography plays a role in that, but is there one singular style that can sum up a city or any location? Can there even be one is this globalised time, could there be? Should there be?
Type is used as part of an effort to stand out and call attention, to blend in is, in many cases, to fail, thus any type that is representative of a city or locale becomes so by accident or by default, it certainly helps if it is part of an infrastructure, like the Tube, Vignelli’s Subway, Le Métro, or indeed Los Angeles’s freeway signs. Ubiquity doesn’t mean identity or culture, nor do icons. The Hollywood sign is literally the metonym for Los Angeles,… except for everyone living in Los Angeles, for which it might be the antonym. The sign is more like the Statue of Liberty – and currently about as meaningful.
Similarly, or conversely, it is meant to standardise, the Starbucks logo looks the same in Los Angeles as it does everywhere else (except Saudi Arabia), which has led to the term generica to describe cities (or parts thereof) in the United States that are indistinguishable from another. A strip mall in Los Angeles doesn’t look much different than one in Phoenix or Columbus.
Los Angeles is unique in that it may not want to look like itself. For outsiders, the Hollywood sign, famously real estate advertising, Rodeo drive, the Beverly Hills, Bel-Air Hotels, and maybe the LAX sign/sculpture are some examples of typography used in narratives to indicate location, but these are symbols for outsiders, beacons for the non-Angeleno, but for locals, they do not represent Los Angeles, so what does? What has become iconic, is already a cliché. They are symbols that have been stripped of their former meaning that are now mere signposts in a profit-driven narrative.
Another thing that makes Los Angeles somewhat unique (again many US cities are like this) is its reliance on the automobile for transportation around the city, meaning signage has to appeal to individuals who are further away and moving faster. The large symbols, arrows, neon and bulbs of liquor stores on seemingly endless streets are – in my mind – very Los Angeles, but these are contrasted with the small single-story independently-owned stores that line the streets of Echo Park, Atwater Village, Los Feliz, and Eagle Rock with hand-drawn lettering.
Los Angeles is also horizontal and vast, stretching from the ocean to the mountains and desert with almost all nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities represented in enclaves in-between. And yet, that can be said about many cosmopolitan cities. The Interstate Gothic on the concrete, diamond-cut freeways are part of Los Angeles, but these are seen all over the United States.
All these cars also need parking lots, for which paradise was paved. Los Angeles is perhaps notorious for its lack of respect for history; there is little sentimentality and nostalgia here – unless it can be sold, unless it has monetary value. Any old typography that remains was left because it was cheaper to keep it than to throw it away. Even that old white sign in the hills fell into disrepair and was barely saved from destruction.
As prominent as The Italian designer’s Swiss typeface might be, I don’t think all New Yorkers think of a map as a typographic representation of their city; too varied and numerous are its inhabitants. Every city probably has a unique typographic DNA, its own unique eclecticism, a specific and ever-changing flavour and spice mix, but I don’t think many places have one specific style that sums them up for all inhabitants or visitors.
Maybe typography can’t say anything about a whole city or its culture, but perhaps it can say something about a specific neighbourhood at a specific time. The typography of the suburbs will be different than that of a retail district or industrial district. It could also function as a barometer of change, a neighbourhood in flux will perhaps show different types of typographic approaches, or reveal strata of its history, like layers in archaeology. I mention all this as any of my images were taken in what is known as Downtown, or DTLA, a neighbourhood that has made the change from banking, and theatre district 100 years to residential and nightlife centre via dereliction, rejuvenation and gentrification, with all the distinct and brief periods in between. A look at its current typographic incarnations can perhaps tell a story of a neighbourhood that is shaking off parts of its recent past, celebrating, restoring, and even glamorising/reinventing/reimagining its original style that lies further back while adding new and contemporary elements that have more global influences. An awkward typographic puberty perhaps, as gentrification claims another victim.
And what about the non-stationary type, the typography on clothes and buses that are constantly changing. There are a lot of Lakers jerseys around these last few days, and public transportation is joining in too. This is not necessarily typographic, it is content-based, Kobe was a beloved part of Los Angeles and its identity. Fashion might be the fastest-changing of the design disciplines, while architecture is perhaps the slowest, with graphic and product somewhere in between the two – no city exists without people and buildings, and objects and graphics. Does typography define the identity of a space, or is it vice-versa, do the location and its inhabitants create their unique typographic language?
As for the whole of Los Angeles, I am struck not by the typography itself but by the infrastructure and armature that holds it up. Most of it is raised well above eye-level to be viewed from far away, be it freeway signs, billboards, murals, terrazzo, mosaics, decorative dingbats, or neon liquor store lights, the typography of Los Angeles is part of its architecture.
It’s only been a week, I have concrete freeways, not concrete answers.