Codex on Characters

reviewer Phil Baines Published Codex Magazine (2012)

Stephen Banham is quite clearly in love with letters, and with the city of Melbourne in which he lives and works. In Characters he shows the reader the city’s lettering: the carved and the cast, the hand-painted and home-spun, the only-just still visible ghost signs and the curious recent uncoverings, and the scaffolding and neon tiara of advertising signs which adorn the skyline. But not content with recording and showing us how these things look, Banham has used the city’s archives to show how they once looked, and like a detective he has uncovered their stories, and in some cases, the stories of the people who erected and maintained them.

It is this human touch that sets this book apart from the picture-led ‘isn’t it nice’ approach of many a blog, Flickr or Tumblr page on the one hand; or from overviews such as Nicolete Gray’s Lettering on Buildings (1960), Alan Bartram’s Lettering on Architecture (1976), or mine and Catherine Dixon’s Signs: Lettering in the Environment (2003) with their emphasis on letterform, and its relationship to the actual physical building. Not that there isn’t an element of each approach here. The images here are of exceptional quality and shown to advantage; and the discussion, where necessary, does discuss formal concerns. Melbourne, was Australia’s second city, was founded in 1835. and is It profited greatly from the gold rush of the 1850s and its importance was such that from 1901 until Canberra was finished in 1927 it was the capital. Such size and importance is reflected in many ways. In the main Banham tends to keep away from formal architecture or lettering and concentrates on the slightly more transitory letteringused to promote the city’s businesses. So the chapters of the book read like a roll call of company names – ‘MacRobertson’, ‘Borsari’, ‘Apex Belting’, ‘Allen’s Sweets’, ‘Slade Knitwear’, ‘Pelaco’, ‘Nuttelex’ – orslogans and characters associated with particular brands or places – ‘aqua profondo’, ‘Skyline Sam’, ‘Little Audrey’. Banham is fascinated by change and what time reveals, the faded painted examples, and the forgotten rediscovered. Each is discussed concisely and yet feels complete. There is an appraisal, a history, and where appropriate a reflection. The reflection is particularly important as Banham discusses not just the appearance of the sign or what has happened to it, but tries to explain the emotive power of each to Melbournians. 

Much has been lost and people’s reactions to those threats are explained, and so too are the various attempts to save some of the larger signs. Banham is frustrated by the ignorance of builders and developers who wantonly destroy for the sake of it, but realistic about what can be done. The real problems and costs of preserving the neon examples are particularly frightening. As an outsider you might expect this to be parochial but it seldom is. As it states in the first chapter “This book reveals how the life of a city can be viewed through its letterforms, and more specifically, the most public of all 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. Rather than presenting the new, I hope to offer a new way of looking at the vernacular.” Having been dipping in and out of the book for nearly a month now – and leaving aside the use of the word typography for a moment – I find it impossible not to agree.

I have only two misgivings about the book. The first concerns the use of the word typography. In English this is more specific than in other languages. Typefaces are letters fixed in space heightwise (point or body size) and widthways (by sidebearings), and made for repeatable use; typography is thus their use. So typography is a subset of a very broad discipline within lettering, alongside, calligraphy or epigraphy for example. Some of the content of this book, particularly the more recent examples, is typography, but most is not. It is lettering using forms drawn up for specific purposes by largely anonymous craftsmen responding to a clients needs, the peculiarities of place, purpose and material. Sign painting and making when largely an activity of eye and hand rather than computer screen and plotter had its own set of influences and its own distinct identity. To refer to the whole subject area as typography seems on the one hand lazy, and on the other hand demeaning of the skill and efforts of those who created them. The second concerns the size of the footnotes that are, as a friend of mine said, “hilariously tiny”. Neither misgiving however should deter anyone from buying this book: it is a real treat.