Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Last Stop; Last Word

Speaking of elegance at an advancing age, the aptly-named larger-than-life MASSIMO Vignelli was the the most theatrical, confident, and riveting presence at an an all-star AIGA/NY event called Navigating the Labyrinth. Organized by Paul Shaw with invaluable collaboration from Abby Goldstein, the panel consisted of maestro Vignelli, Michael Hertz, Peter Joseph, Doris Halle, Jan Conradi, Tom Geismar, and Lance Wyman.

There's already been much ink and ether about the NYC subway system, standards, Standard (the typeface), Helvetica (the comeback-star typeface), and past, present and future signage (all of it fascinating). For me, there are three things from the eve that are most memorable:
1. The subway signs on narrow columns. The wacky hyphenation had most of us in the audience tittering and reaching for our iPhones and digital cameras. Talk about a niche audience!

2. The subway signage was changed from black type on a white background to white type reversing out of a black background because of dirt and steel dust. Steel dust! Keeping the signage pristine was a job too big for any urban Mr Cleans.

3. After the main discussion—and slams at the sign shop described as "medieval" by design all-stars, a man who'd been rocking and fidgeting in his seat throughout the panel discussion a few rows ahead of me bolted up and said he was the man at the MTA responsible for all the signs. Introducing himself (and his much of his staff, who also attended the event), John Montemarano said his shop followed graphic standards but occasionally adjusted them just a little when they felt they had to do so. Mr. Montemarano also pointed out what most intrigued me: Massimo Vignelli is from the North of Italy. John Montemarano's family is from the South. So, the discussion became a lively game of opposites: North vs. South. Planner vs. Artisan/Fabricator. As goes life, so goes design. There are opposites to reconcile. Design co-existing with production; ideal colliding with real.

For me, the last word comes from Paul Shaw in a response to my congratulatory email:
"I prefer Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk) to Helvetica (and Massimo vice versa)but both are really acceptable for a sign system as long as the rest of the system is done well. Some of the horrible signs the sign shop made in the past are fine because they work within the Unimark system. Those that are not fine are the ones that ignore the system."

Systems—subway or signage—exist for a good reason.


Suzanne Dell'Orto said...

I love that the signmaker came to the talk...I always wondered what their side of the story was after reading Paul Shaw's exhaustive essay on Helvetica/Subway signage.

Figures it's a North/South always is!

Beth Tondreau said...

Great, eh, that the signmaker AND HIS STAFF all came. They seemed a pretty cohesive bunch (they a few rows ahead of me, so I could see that there was a collective reaction occurring during the main part of the panel). They were clearly proud of their many years with the MTA and with their craft. I imagine that it must have been odd, years ago, for the guys at the Bergen Street shop to get marching orders (or the sign-making equivalent thereof) from a fancy designer from Europe. That said, I agree that the overall vision is what . . . er . . . drives the process.

Beth Tondreau said...


John Montemarano and his staff are not from the Bergen Street Shop and they are not sign painters. They are the MTA Graphics Unit located in lower Manhattan. Montemarano became head of the Unit in the early 19902. They design the signs using computers. They send files to the Bergen Stree Shop where they are photo silkscreened for transferral onto porcelain enamel or other materials (such as foamcore for temporary signs). This is no longer the craft process that Massimo recalls from the 1960s.

Note from Beth:
Our blog seems inhospitable to commenters, even if they have Word Press or a URL. Any tips?

Suzanne Dell'Orto said...

Found a lot of people complaining about the same problems posting comments. (I had the same thing happen when I tried to comment on our blog on a computer other than mine).

Anyway, here's the complaint, complete with some solutions. For our part, I've disabled inline comments, so it should be easier/better/possible to comment from anywhere, anytime from any account.

Beth Tondreau said...

Thanks, Suz. Now all I have to do is figure out how to edit comments to fix the typos (NOT Paul Shaw's) that I introduced when I retyped his email to me (our blog wouldn't let me paste his error-free note).

Anyhoo: Mr. Montemarano became head of the Unit in early 1990, not 19902. (If James Cameron set a movie in 19902, would the subtitles still be set in Papyrus?).

Also the Bergen Street Shop is missing a "t" at the end of the "Stree."