Extracts from Characters

extracts published The Age newspaper in September 2011.

Extracts from Stephen Banham’s new book Characters: Stories revealed through typography.

Frozen in type

First proposed in 1926 but not constructed until 1955,1 the Campbell Arcade (also known as Degraves Street Subway) was built just in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games to assist city commuters bypass crowds and readily access Melbourne’s main railway station, Flinders Street Station. It features black granite columns and pink granite flooring and wall tiles, and was admired at the time for its neat shops and show windows. Once a bustling thoroughfare, the arcade suffered a dramatic drop in patronage after the opening of the city train loop in the early 1980s. After decades of neglect, the arcade now offers a unique glimpse of what Melbourne looked like over 50 years ago.

This largely original mid-twentieth-century design environment also features many frozen typographic details. The elegantly curved, three-dimensional signs gesture towards an alcove where public telephone boxes once stood, a reminder of an era before the advent of mobile phones. As well as offering convenient train commuter access, Campbell Arcade was positioned directly underneath the Mutual Store, once Melbourne’s largest department store.

Remnants of signage gesturing to the store can still be seen curved around the salmon-coloured, tiled walls, pointing absurdly to a sealed blank wall. When it was first built the arcade’s large inset glass cases, running along half its length, displayed Mutual Store products as it led customers up a stairway into the magnificent grand emporium. These cases now have a new purpose – exhibiting art to the sometimes bewildered, sometimes receptive, flow of rail commuters who use this subterranean short-cut. With the decommissioning of the arcade railway booking office in the 1990s much of the hand-painted copperplate lettering was lost. More recent and equally appealing typographic expression can be found in the resourceful signage of the various small independent boutiques that now line the arcade. The sign announcing a price rise from $12 to $15 at the hairdresser, A Touch of Paris, is indicated in the most direct way possible – by simply turning the numeral upside down.

The story of the ‘lost’ bowling alley
For many years people have speculated that there is an old abandoned underground bowling alley accessible through the Campbell Arcade. Council records indicate that a bowling alley was indeed built in the basement of the Mutual Store in 1964 for a sum of £10,000. Creating leisure experiences in city stores was common at a time when the appeal and convenience of suburban shopping centres was starting to draw shoppers away from the city centre. Sadly, after only a few years the bowling alley was closed down and has since faded into city folklore.

Speed reading

For centuries shop signage was designed to attract the slow-moving passer-by, displayed at eye level and viewed at a casual walking pace. Signs were made to human scale. In the mid-twentieth century something completely changed this relationship – the automobile.

Many saw this development as ‘a rude assault on the conventional boundary between neighbourhood and street – neon company logos, massive advertising hoardings and catchy slogans all competed to catch the eye of the speeding motorist’. However, others saw it as a great opportunity, and so this new mobility was serviced by a rash of new suburban shopping centres, drive-in movie theatres, freeways and motels. The first motel to be built in Victoria, the Oakleigh Motel, was noted as much for its typographic signage as for the popular offerings it boasted, such as ‘Your car in your bedroom’ (meaning that guests could park their cars at their door for easy access).

The motel’s graphic immediacy was unashamedly American in influence – feeding scorn from architectural critics such as Robin Boyd, who derided this new colourful and often garish form as ‘Austerica’. The motel was the brainchild of Cyril J. Lewis, ‘formerly well known in the car-selling game’, who had toured throughout the United States, inspecting motels and gathering inspiration for building one in Melbourne to coincide with the 1956 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, delays in constructionmeant that the motel was not finished until 1957. This was a great disappointment for the entrepreneurial Lewis as he could not capitalise on its very deliberately chosen geographic location– the exact spot where the long distance Olympic marathon runners turned around to return to the city. Such public exposure would clearly have been great publicity for this statement of international modernity. After all, it was signage, especially illuminated lettering, that was so closely associated with modern design in postwar architecture, allowing shops and businesses to boldly advertise their location and function, day and night.

In the case of the Oakleigh Motel, the building itself was almost dwarfed by its broad and brazen billboard-style signage. Above the office area was a sloping panel with the words ‘oakleigh motel’ emblazoned in red letters, set forward off the wall and illuminated at night. After the initial construction, a further large rectangular neon sign was added to the roof with the word ‘motel’ and an arrow featuring the word ‘oakleigh’  down one side.

Despite its unique typographic offerings and its status as Victoria’s first motel, a battle waged for many years over whether to protect the Oakleigh Motel or demolish it. In defending the motel, the National Trust, stated: The Oakleigh Motel is the earliest, most famous, and remarkably intact example  in Victoria of the new ‘Motel Hotel’ concept. It is also an important example of the colourful, eye-catching roadside architecture typical of the 1950s. However, such significance provided no protection and in 2010 the Oakleigh Motel was stripped of much of its original features to be developed into townhouses. Currently only part of the façade remains, giving the viewer little insight into its earlier modern splendour

(Faux)nts of fancy

So seduced by technology were people in the early days of printing that it was said: ‘If it’s in print, it must be true’. A similar thing was even said of online information in its infancy. Even on our streets not every typographic environment you see is quite what it seems. Enter the phenomena of (Faux)nts – the false world of typography. Near the Abbotsford Convent in inner-city Abbotsford, stands a small building, its signage written in French. A typographically ornate set, it was designed for the film White Mouse (1987), replicating a French country town under Nazi seige during the Second World War. The film tells the story of the New Zealand-born Nancy Wake (1912–2011), who fought in the French Resistance under the code name ‘White Mouse’. Although not an authentic feature of the 1863 Convent, the faux signage has now been embedded within the building’s history by being protected by a strict heritage overlay whereby it cannot be altered or removed. Considered by many to capture a European nostalgia and romance, the signage now has a second life – as one of the most popular backdrops for wedding photography in Melbourne.