Book Review: Characters by Stephen Banham

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My blog Blue Pencil has become infamous for no-holds-barred critiques of books. This is not a Blue Pencil takedown. Instead, this is a welcome opportunity to praise a book that is exemplary in nearly all respects. The book in question is Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed through Typography by Stephen Banham (Port Melbourne: Thames & Hudson Australia Pty. Ltd., 2011), published in association with the State Library of Victoria. It is a book about signage in Melbourne, Australia.

Signage and vernacular lettering has fascinated artists and photographers for decades. Although most famous for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his Depression-era collaboration with author James Agee, Walker Evans, recorded American signs and advertising from the 1920s until his death in 1975. His friend Ben Shahn, also took an interest in vernacular lettering and during his time at the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s he photographed examples of it throughout the American South. Decades later, he eloquently expressed the passion that letters can evoke in Love and Joy about Letters: “Letters are quantities, and spaces are quantities, and only the eye and the hand can measure them. As in the ear and the sensibilities of the poet sounds and syllables and pauses are quantities, so in both cases are the balancing and forward movement of these quantities only a matter of skill and feeling and art.” Lee Friedlander, a photographer in the Walker Evans tradition, focused “on the everyday presence of the written word in the random letters, words, signs, slogans and outcries” that dot the American landscape.

In recent years graphic designers have joined in with a series of monographs on signs and vernacular lettering. Both Signs of the Times (1996) by advertising type director Klaus Schmidt and Designage (1998) by the Anglo-American graphic designer Arnold Schwartzman are collections of photographs accumulated over decades during travels throughout the world. In contrast to the gorgeous photography of Evans, Friedlander, Schmidt and Schwartzman there are the down and dirty Polaroid snapshots of Ed Fella on display in Edward Fella: Letters on America (2000) by Lorraine Wild, Lucy Bates and Lewis Blackwell. Slimmer counterparts to these expansive texts are my own essay “Looking for Letters in New York: A Tale of Surprise and Dismay” (2006) and Signs of New Orleans (2008), Tom Varisco’s beautiful and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, poignant survey of his native city.

Finally, there is Signs: Lettering in the Environment (2003) by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, a comprehensive look at signs in terms of their lettering and typographic styles, materials, purposes, and placements.

At first glance Characters looks a lot like these other books. But closer examination reveals a book with much more depth. Characters is more than a cool collection of images, an occasion to wallow in nostalgia for the past—a time before the internet, computers, franchises and chain stores, international corporations, and globalization; a time before Helvetica. It is a collection of stories about signs that go beyond the aesthetics of color, design and type to reveal the cultural, social and economic changes that have happened in Melbourne over the course of a century. Banham, owner of Letterbox, a “type studio” in Melbourne, has researched the history of how the signs were conceived, designed and manufactured; what has happened to them over the intervening years; and what they have meant to different generations of Melbournians. Thus, Characters is a book about place as well as about time.

The signage and public lettering in Characters is familiar to anyone who has looked at any of the books mentioned above, been on one of my ‘type tours”, or perused the many Flickr sites dedicated to urban “typography”: neon signs (lots of them), Art Deco inscriptions, quirky letters that function as architecture, amusing vernacular forms, street and transportation signage, hidden letters, uncoverings (Banham’s term for ghost signs) and so on. This is the world of 20th century Melbourne, of the city as it once was.

Melbourne, the second most populous city in Australia, was founded in 1835. Thanks to the Victorian Gold Rush that began in 1851, it was the richest city in the world by the 1880s. Its growth slowed dramatically after the Australian banking crisis of 1893, though it remained Australia’s financial hub until the 1970s. From 1901 until the completion of Canberra in 1927, Melbourne was the capital of Australia. Many of the signs in Characters reflect the city’s past manufacturing power and political importance: MacRobertson’s White City, Allen’s Sweets, Slade Knitwear, Pelaco, Nylex Plastics, Newspaper House and the 888 Monument. Others are a reminder of its changing ethnic make-up: a scrawled tale of a malfunctioning toilet on the wall of a North Melbourne apartment building, the “Aqua Profonda” warning at the Fitzroy swimming pool, the neon signage of Borsari’s Corner (hailing cycling champion Nino Borsari, the King of Carlton Street), and the alphabetical facade of Leo’s Spaghetti Bar.

Each of the chapters in Characters is devoted to a single sign or example of urban lettering. Banham provides the cultural, social, economic and, sometimes, political background of each one, describing its origins, life and, in most instances, decay and death. He tells these tales with admirable brevity and some wit, yet without forsaking important historical facts and contextual information. The misspelled “Aqua Profonda” warning—the pool manager confused Latin with Italian—at the Fitzroy swimming pool was added to the English “Danger Deep Water” after an influx of Italian immigrants to Melbourne following World War II. The White City, a collection of thirteen buildings devoted to the manufacture of confectionary products overseen by an enormous “MacRobertson’s” neon sign, embodied the “total designed system”. Skyline Sam, the little stick figure representing the Skyline chain of drive-in theatres, was “one of Australia’s first home-grown graphic identities.” The Temperance & General (T&G) and Manchester Unity (MU) Buildings, built in 1928 and 1932 respectively, showcased “the virtues of collective strength and reliabi
lity” embodied by the modern insurance industry. And so on.

Among the best stories in Characters are those that deal with loss, a common subject in books about signage. This is because Banham manages to balance regret and outrage with the realization that change is inevitable and an awareness that nostalgia can be debilitating. The 9-page chapter on the dismantling of Allen’s Sweet’s sign in 1987—which includes a fabulous close-up of a large S, a sequence showing the different parts of the sign as they blinked on and off, a drawing explaining each layer (the Allen’s Sweets base message, the sky rocket overlay, the Kool Mints overlay and the Anticol [Cough Drops] overlay) of the neon sign, and a timeline of its history from the 1930s on—provides Banham with a chance to reflect on the difficulties involved in preserving the signs of businesses that no longer exist. “The preservation debate around the Allen’s sign typifies the complexity of custody—the neon company owns the sign, the advertiser leases it, the sites are owned by developers and while many arms of government see merit in their preservation,” he writes, “they are often hamstrung by bureaucratic processes and politics.… And then there are the ever-shifting definitions of what is historical and what is not.” In the chapter on the Nylex sign, Banham reminds us that preserving old signs can be expensive. He quotes the current owners of the building as saying, “We’d dearly love to turn it on, but we can’t afford the costs [estimated at AU$20,000–30,000 per year].” One sign that was saved was “Little Audrey”, a girl skipping rope originally made for Skipping Girl Vinegar in 1936 and saved from destruction in 2009 through an appeal led by the National Trust (Victoria) and the Heritage Council of Victoria. However, another “girl”, made for the St. Moritz Skating Rink in 1939, was removed from its site and is now in storage in the “dungeons” of the St. Kilda Historical Society.

Despite Banham’s understanding of the obstacles involved in saving urban lettering, he does not hide his anger over instances of unwarranted destruction, though it is often cloaked in understatement. “Real estate development can be unkind to signage.” is the opening sentence of “A is for apartment, B is for butchering”, a chapter about the brutal severing of “Dominion House” by balconies in the building’s conversion to apartments. Of the beautiful Art Deco signage of J.L. Callanan Chemists he observes that it “still exists on the original façade, preserved under a brutal metal hoarding.”

Rather than dwell on the signs lost, Banham ends Characters with several chapters focused on what has been recovered and saved. The reappearance of old painted signs—called ghost signs in the United States, but “uncoverings” by Banham—elicit excitement. “Reintroduced into a contemporary environment, these uncoverings offer a rich reading of an area and the lives of the inhabitants, perhaps indicating the lower social status of areas now gentrified, the aspirations of emerging lifestyles and technologies, or directions to a place long gone from the public consciousness,” Banham says. “But above all, uncoverings highlight the ephemeral nature of signage, advertising and corporate identity. Design is not just seen as part of our environment, but is part of us. This precarious lifespan reflects our own human anxieties of ageing, decline and demise.” But uncoverings pale next to the miraculous survival of the bright red script Astoria Taxis sign, rescued from demolition the day the building it rested on was taken down and then, nine years later, pulled from a fire at the nascent Gange Taxi Museum. Singed and blackened, the sign is lovingly reproduced over the course of four consecutive pages.

Illuminated signs are at the core of Characters. Nineteen of the tales Banham tells have to do with neon or light bulb signs, most of them huge structures on the tops of buildings. Collectively, they define Melbourne. He describes the current skyline as a “logo constellation”. And interspersed throughout the chapters of Characters, Banham inserts several reminiscences from signmakers about erecting signs as well as stories about finding odd things—such as airplanes and musical instruments—amidst rooftop signage. Here is Nevin Phillips of Delta Neon remembering the experience of installing a Ford Falcon with Don Fraser on a one hundred tower outside the Ford factory in Broadmeadows: “So we’re both on the top of this bloody great tower, that when you climbed up in it, if you shook it, it kept going for about five minutes before it stopped. We put this revolving Falcon, a great big thing, lowering it down. It was beaut. But the moment the air from the [helicopter] blades hit the top of the tower, the Falcon started to spin erratically. Nearly knocked us off. We both flattened ourselves and crawled down inside the tower.” These interventions, along with photographs such as the MacRobertson’s sign with a tiny figure silhouetted next to the final s, remind the reader that many of the letterforms profiled in Characters are enormous structures whose installation required engineering ingenuity and physical derring-do. They have far more heft than letters on paper or screen.

The stories in Characters are short but often smart, eloquent, funny and poignant. Banham stresses the importance many of the signs have to Melbournians, not just to graphic designers and typographers, as part of the city’s cultural identity and visual history. “This book reveals how the life of a city can be viewed through its letterforms,” he writes at the outset, “and more specifically, the most public of its typography, its signage. However, this lens could be focused on any city, in any country, anywhere in the world. The places, experiences and stories related here are unique to Melbourne, Australia, but the ‘way of seeing’ signs is as universal as the human appeal of storytelling.” Much of what Banham has to say should resonate with residents of other cities on other continents who are dismayed at how the relentless pace of modernization and globalization has increasingly stripped places of their identity, their uniqueness, and their personality.

At the outset of this review I described Characters as near perfect. (After all, it has a detailed bibliography.) But it lacks one thing—a map of Melbourne, something that those not from Australia could use to visualize the topography of the city’s typography: the location of the Yarra River, the Eastern District, Flinders Street and other places cited by Banham. A map would deepen the appreciation of a well-written paragraph such as this one: “Now reduced to its static form, the Elsternwick Hotel skysign joins the other two significant Victoria Bitter signs on the same thoroughfare. The largest of the three sits on top of Richmond’s Barrett Burston silos, alongside the renowned Nylex sign. A third sign looms large over the intersection of Toorak and Punt Roads, provocatively extolling the virtues of alcohol consumption to its neighbour across the road, the local Anglican church.” The only other complaint about the book is that the running heads are extremely tiny. Overall the design of Characters, by Banham’s studio Letterbox, is excellent as is the quality of images. Alongsi
de excellent archival photographs, drawings and newspaper clippings are contemporary photographs by his colleague at Letterbox, Lan Huang.

Several months ago I wrote an excoriating review of Just My Type by Simon Garfield for Imprint. I condemned it for its snotty putdowns, imperious pronouncements and lack of typographic knowledge. The book has since been defended by many on the grounds that its light-hearted, witty style has made the esoteric topic of typography accessible to the masses. My response is to ask people to read Characters. Banham’s stories are as engrossing and amusing as any in Just My Type, yet at the same time they are more informative (as well as factually correct) and more probing. Banham is critical without being snotty. And he raises knotty questions about the preservation of signage and other “typographic” remnants of our built environment. Characters is an enjoyable—and reliable—portal to the world of letters and type for a general audience as well as for committed typomaniacs. It is just my type of book.


  1. Signs: Lettering in the Environment by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon (London: Laurence King/HarperCollins, 2003)

  2. Lettering in Architecture by Alan Bartram (London: Lund Humphries, 1975)

  3. Walker Evans: Signs with an essay by Andrei Codrescu (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1998)

  4. Letters from the People by Lee Friedlander (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1993)

  5. Lettering for Architects and Designers by Milner Gray and Ronald Armstrong (London: B.T. Batsford, 1962)

  6. Lettering on Buildings by Nicolete Gray (London: The Architectural Press, 1960)

  7. Words & Buildings: The Art and Practice of Architectural Graphics by Jock Kinneir (New York: Whitney Library of Design/Watson-Guptill, 1980)

  8. Signs of the Times by Klaus Schmidt (New York: Amphoto, 1996

  9. Designage: The Art of the Decorative Sign by Arnold Schwartzman (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998)

  10. “Looking for Letters in New York: A Tale of Surprise and Dismay” by Paul Shaw in Letters from New York 2: A Book of Lettering and Related Arts (New York: Society of Scribes, Ltd., 2006)

  11. Love and Joy about Letters by Ben Shahn (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1963)

  12. Signs of New Orleans by Tom Varisco et al (New Orleans: Tom Varisco Designs, 2008)

  13. Edward Fella: Letters on America by Lorraine Wild, Lucy Bates and Lewis Blackwell (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000)

  14. Among the many websites devoted to urban lettering and signage New York Neon by Thomas Rinaldi is worth singling out since it covers a topic that parallels much of the content of Characters. Rinaldi has also written a book on the subject that is scheduled for publication later this year.

Resources Recommended by Imprint

  1. Available now: Print Magazine’s Guest Art Director Digital Collection

  2. Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic give a live DesignCast on The Design of Dissent. Register now!

  3. Get an inside look at logo design from Chermayeff & Geismar

  4. Design TV: Improve your design skills with help from experts in the design industry.