Take the SVA Train: Louise Fili's Homage to New York's Subway Signage

For decades the School of Visual Arts in New York City has been famous for the unstinting excellence of its promotional efforts. The most visible of these works have been subway posters notable for their blend of memorable copywriting and arresting imagery. The latest example is an eye-catching simulation of the mosaics that are virtually synonymous with the subway and thus with the city itself. The poster is the work of Louise Fili Ltd. Louise Fili not only designed it but also wrote its copy. The complex production of the poster was carried out by John Passafiume and Dana Tanamachi at Louise Fili Ltd. Anthony P. Rhodes was the creative director and Michael J. Walsh the art director.

Louise Fili Ltd.

Fili was initially approached by Rhodes to do a poster for the school in early January. As usual with SVA, designers are given a virtually free hand with such projects. The only caveats were from the MTA: “No adult images, vulgarity, transit-bashing (even if tongue in cheek) or text in a form that could be construed to be graffiti or promoting graffiti will be accepted.” But Rhodes reminded Fili that the poster had to be bold. It had to hold its own with the other posters in the subway system. Her first thought was to do something with mosaic tiles, a longtime fascination of hers. “They are classically and iconically New York,” Fili declares. “I was surprised that no one had ever referenced the subway or the mosaics in SVA’s impressive legacy of these posters.” But the mosaic idea was only half of the job. She had to find appropriate text to go with it.

In the past the most memorable lines on SVA posters were written by Dee Ito. “It was daunting to come up with something that would be such an important element of the poster,” Fili says. “I recalled George Eliot’s ‘It’s never too late to be who you might have been’, which I quite liked, and took that as my lead.  ‘It’s never too late to get where you’re going’ is of course more relevant to the subway visual.” Fili presented four or five other directions with different copy lines to Rhodes and Walsh, but they agreed with her that the mosaic idea was the best. Then the hard part began: making mosaic letters.

Louise Fili Ltd.

Louise Fili Ltd.

Fili chose to base the letters of the poster on those of the oldest portion of the subway system, the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) lines. Although IRT stations—which date as far back as 1904—have mosaic sans serif as well as serif letters she felt that the seriffed capitals were “much more classical and elegant, especially in light of how much copy there was.” To the non-New Yorker, they are definitely more recognizable as the letters of the subway. But they are also more complicated to replicate.

Tanamachi photographed tiles at many different stations in both Manhattan and Brooklyn for preliminary reference for every letter needed. Then Fili hired photographer Kelsey Foster to travel around the subway system with Tanamachi to shoot photographs of specific tiles that would be used later for Photoshopping. (The rich red background tile for the poster came from the Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College station (nos. 2 and 5 trains) that I recommended to Fili. The olive green border tiles are from the 23rd Street station on the no. 1 line. The arrow appears to be inspired by those at the Morgan Avenue station on the Canarsie (L) line. One of the aspects of the final poster that is so astonishing is that, like the subway mosaics themselves, no two letters are alike. This means the single-weight smaller letters as well. However, none of the letters in the final poster are direct copies of specific ones in the system. Incredibly, they were all created from scratch instead.

Detail of arrow at Franklin Avenue (nos. 2, 3, 4, 5) station. Photo by Paul Shaw.

Detail of Louise Fili Ltd. poster in 23rd Street (no. 1) station. Photo by Paul Shaw.

According to Fili, “The process was actually very straightforward. Our goal was to stay true to the quality and textures of the original tile samples that we had initially photographed. The poster was created in Photoshop but did not employ any fancy filters or tricks—it simply took time and painstaking attention to detail—very much like piecing together a puzzle.” Passafiume and Tanamachi began by making outlines of letters based on their many photographs, using the existing tile letterforms as reference. “But the majority of the letters,” explains Fili, “were built from sampled white tiles—putting each letter together one tile at a time—somewhat like the way I would imagine that the mosaic artists must have done it.” This tedious method is crucial to the success of the poster. The letters appear so real that, even though they are in a range of sizes never found in actual subway mosaics, passengers do a double-take when seeing the poster in the stations. I even saw one man carefully touching a poster to see if it was really made of tiles! “To catch someone’s attention (legally) in the subway is a not an easy feat,” marvels Fili.

The accompanying images show part of the painstaking process that Passafiume and Tanamachi went through to create these “mosaic” letters. In this case they are the more demanding smaller letters that are only one tile wide. The hardest part Fili says was segmenting tiles to fit letters with curves. Once they had pieced together the “tiles” from those in their photographs, they had to smooth over inconsistencies in tile size, grout appearance, and serif construction. One aspect of the mosaic letters that often goes unnoticed is the importance of the outline or border row of tiles which is in the background color but is essential to the visual heft of the final design. As can be seen in the artwork for “GET”, the studio fully understood this critical element.

Mosaic station name at Flatbush Avenue–Brooklyn College (nos. 2, 5) station. Photo by Paul Shaw.

Mosaic directional sign at Morgan Avenue (L) station. Photo by Paul Shaw.

The final challenge of the poster design was figuring out where to put the credits for the school and Fili’s studio. Doing them in mosaics was out of the question given the size of the tiles. Her solution was to add an anomalous brass plate at the bottom. It provides a second tactile element, yet reassures viewers that they are not looking at a real subway mosaic. It is also a sly suggestion that the poster and the subway mosaics that inspired it are both “museum quality”—which they certainly are.

The School of Visual Arts is selling copies of the poster in two sizes: 46”x30” and 27”x17.5”. They are $35 each and are available at SVA’s CAVA Computer Store, 207 East 23rd Street, NYC, or through CAVA’s Online Catalog. Fili recommends buying in person. Or you can view them in the subway itself. They are posted on every line in every borough with the exception of SIR on Staten Island.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Well done. The clumsy ravings of luddite doomsayers notwithstanding, artisanship is plainly alive and well. And Leah: Photoshop is not “a vector based computer programme.” Perhaps you’re thinking of Illustrator?

  2. I don’t understand…advertising for a School of the *Arts* and not one person in that team could come up with an artist to excute a real mosaic but had to rely (and waste time on) the artificial: a vector based computer programme. Disappointing but, alas, a sign of the times that perhaps true artisanship is dead.

  3. I agree that this poster is a brilliant evocation of style & place. It’s a fun visual pun as well. The article by Paul Shaw is laudable, too, for exploring the level of commitment the artists brought to this poster.

  4. Pingback: Graphic designers and the perfect subway ad « Against Dumb