Street signs are everywhere in London. They dutifully lie on every corner, guiding us through one of the best cities in the world. As a creative, you might notice the different lettering styles but did you ever consider their history?
London Street Signs, published by Batsford, is a new book by Alistair Hall that gives us a visual history of these interesting nameplates – from the curious to the ornate – and opens our eyes to the remarkable archive of lettering, a unique collection of styles and forms that stretches right back to the seventeenth century. "They hide in plain sight, these modest labels; we use their information daily, but too often fail to really notice them. They are visual anchors, telling us where we are, but temporal anchors too, telling us where we've come from," remarks Alistair.
In August 2016, Alistair picked up his camera and wandered out onto the streets of London, with the idea that it might be useful and interesting to document the incredible variety of the city's street nameplates. "I started out with a list of around fifty nameplates that I knew of that were interesting or unique," he tells us. "I put together a Google map to mark up their specific locations, and then went out to photograph the signs, finding many more as I wandered between each of them. I used Instagram to document the project, sharing images and stories about the signs. People have been really brilliant, and let me know about their own favourites from around the city. Gradually my list of nameplates to investigate grew and grew."
Almost four years and over four thousand photographs later, he has pulled his pictures together for this book. He has selected the most significant nameplates, the most beautiful, the most curious. From enamel plates to incised lettering, from the simplest cast-iron signs to the most ornamental architectural plaques – here lies a visual record of this rather shaded corner of our collective history.
The book also tells some of the fascinating stories behind these unassuming treasures, revealing where they came from before being affixed to brick or stone for decades, sometimes centuries, to come – from the iconic nameplates of the City of Westminster to the stunning tiled signs of Hampstead, from the revival nameplates of Lambeth to the ghost signs of London's no-longer existent N.E. postal district.
"One of the joys of doing this project was the chance to dig through history at archives and libraries and piece together the signs' stories," Alistair adds. "The nameplates are interesting not just for their stunning lettering, but also for the wealth of stories they reveal about London and its inhabitants. Hopefully, by drawing attention to the signs, people will take a fresh look at them, and perhaps discover a little more about this wonderful city."
Alistair Hall is the art director and co-founder of a children's writing and mentoring centre, the Ministry of Stories, as well as its fantastical shopfront, Hoxton Street Monster Supplies. Alistair has been writing about design and visual culture at wemadethis.co.uk/blog for over ten years. He teaches at Central Saint Martins and The School of Art, Architecture & Design at London Metropolitan University and has given talks about his practice across the UK and overseas. Follow London Street Signs on Instagram or grab a copy of the book via www.londonstreetsigns.info.