Barcelona: The City and its Lettering

<<Barcelona: The City and its Lettering>> image

Since its origins in antiquity, Barcelona has been open for the trade of the Mediterranean and has been a center of consumption and production. After having been chosen to host the 1992 Olympics Barcelona underwent huge qualitative improvements as well as a repositioning as one of the most interesting and creative European cities. The article, previously written for the book StadtAlphabet Barcelona, is a brief introduction about the development of commercial lettering in the city.


Evolution of the city and commercial signage

Since its origins in antiquity, Barcelona has been open for the trade of the Mediterranean and has been a center of consumption and production. During the Middle Ages guilds of merchants and craftsmen established themselves in certain city zones. The names of some streets of the “Casco Antiguo”, the old town, demonstrate this organization in trades: Assaonadors (tanners), Argenteria (silversmiths), Boters (coopers), Carders (carders), Comerc (traders), Tallers (workshops) etc.

To point out their trade in a largely illiterate society, these craftsmen and small merchants started using their product or a typical tool as an emblem for their business, either by displaying it in the street or by hanging it from the façade of their shops.
Later on, these items were replaced by stylized replicas made of durable materials, such as wood or metal. These iconic reference objects, which were visible at a great distance, finally acquired the value of brands.

Between the 16th and 18th century the city’s commercial structure underwent some major changes: the progressive advent of exotic products from the overseas colonies – mainly the Americas – was conducive to the creation of specialized shops, the so-called “ultramarinos”. Of decisive impact for Barcelona’s development was the beginning of the industrialization around 1830, the boom of commerce and the rise of the city’s bourgeoisie. At this stage the commercial signboard became crucial in order to define, distinguish and identify the huge number of new shops and firms.

In the middle of the 19th century demographic pressure as well as new social and economic realities forced a reconsideration of the city. Barcelona initiated its modernization in 1854 by demolishing its city walls and planning the expansion of the city according to a rational and modern grid plan. The Universal Exposition of 1888 finally marked the beginning of modern architectural expression in Barcelona: from historicist eclecticism, which in Catalonia – and particularly Barcelona – mirrored medievalism, to an autonomous and imaginative “Modernisme” (whose main representatives were Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner).

In the period between the two Universal Expositions in 1888 and 1929 Barcelona transformed into a modern city. At the turn of the century businesses were renovated too: small and dark shops and workshops turned into big, well-lit and spacious establishments with beautifully decorated display windows which corresponded to the taste of time. At the same time trade in manufactured goods boomed and commercial signboards became distinctive symbols of a modern and active city. It was the golden age of the commercial signboard. Various techniques and materials were applied: carved and/or painted wood, (reverse) glass paintings, engraved glass and particularly mosaics and ceramics. “Modernisme” did not make the usual distinction between the traditional fine arts and handicraft – it aimed at producing a Gesamtkunstwerk: from a building’s architecture to its interior design, the furniture.

During the first decades of the 20th century Spain witnessed profound social and political changes which led to further aesthetic innovations in the arts as well as in commercial signage: geometric shapes substituted the organic curves of “Modernisme”, signboards became more somber and minimalist and by following current trends Sans serif typography came into use.

During the years of the Second Republic (1931–1939), a period of political freedom and general openness, the ideas of the avant-garde could spread and be put into practice more rapidly, as the example of the printers and typographers Esteban and Joan Trochut, father and son, shows: both promoted the concept of modularity in typography, Joan Trochut developed the Super-Veloz type, which perfectly merged the ideas inherent in New Typography with Mediterranean decorativism.

After the (especially for Catalonia) disastrous Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), poverty and economic hardship during the “years of lead” under Franco (1939–1975) aided, in a way, the survival of many old signboards since they did not get replaced. In the creation of new signboards, Art-Decó styles were favoured initially; the advent of the 1950s finally brought the breakthrough of modern sans-serif fonts which originated from various catalogues of the printing press of this era. Also during these years, some manuals on lettering were published for commercial painters, publicists and sign manufacturers. The sale of stencils permitted the lettering of façades also to those who otherwise would not have had the money to do so.

With Franco’s death in 1975 and the subsequent transition to democracy, Barcelona began to rethink the design and structuring of urban space. On the one hand this process was partly responsible for several misuses and failures, on the other hand it also served as a trigger for a certain awareness regarding the existing structures and objects. By the mid-1980s vernacular graphic design experienced a similar rise of interest and, following revaluation, some designers also recognized the cultural significance of the commercial signboard. Finally, during the 1990s, a system of norms and rules regarding the renovation and alteration of façades was established.

After having been chosen to host the 1992 Olympics Barcelona underwent huge qualitative improvements as well as a repositioning as one of the most interesting and creative European cities. The new spirit could also be noticed in the signage of the new and old places of recreation and entertainment (bars, clubs, amusement arcades) and the rest of the commercial space. In recent years – and inspite of all efforts to counter this development – many of the old signboards have therefore been substituted by more modern creations; the use of plastic, vinyl or digital screens has almost totally replaced the traditional production techniques.

A mosaic of techniques

The techniques employed in producing signboards are diverse, with mosaic, reverse glass painting and wood carving being the most important (aside from the more modern approaches mentioned above).

Decisive for the creation of the professional niche of the commercial artist was Barcelona’s economic expansion in the late 19th century, which coincided with the peak of the artistic and artisanal “Modernisme”. Thus it were mainly painters and draftsmen associated with this particular style who were responsible for the spread and multiplication of signboards and their production techniques.

At the turn of the century typefaces used in commercial signboards were mostly (at least according to today’s knowledge) inspired by classic typographic models, with the later creations introducing shapes inspired by nature; a development that resulted in the organic and curvilinear lettering so characteristic of Art Nouveau (Astruc, Carrer de Montsió).

Reverse glass painting was one of the most common techniques for signboard lettering. The future backside of a piece of flat glass (the actual signboard) was painted so that the letters were not only protected from the outside, but attained shiny surfaces with flat, clean and opaque colours (Antiga Casa Xancó, Rambla). Once the work was completed, its backside was protected by a wooden board and placed inside a wooden frame while work continued on the exterior part of the façade.

The use of sheets of gold on a black or dark background (also behind glass) was another common technique in the late nineteenth century, these creations impressed through their ornate and distinct quality (Virreina, Rambla).

Glass was also used as the main component for the practice of engraving: by exposing the material to acid or sand baths (under high pressure), letters and patterns get “printed” onto the glass, creating a translucent effect (Colchonería Lider, Carrer de Joaquim Costa).

Typical of the Mediterranean region, ceramics and mosaics have been appreciated and used in Barcelona ever since. Especially the latter technique experienced a rise in popularity during the initial phase of “Modernisme” (one of the many high-quality examples: Farmacia-Laboratorio, Carrer del Bruc) which, being more eclectic and historicist, have been influenced by medieval/gothic use of stained glass and therefore promoted the creation of leadlights: small sections of glass (of different shape and colour) were supported by lead cames (e.g. in the shape of letters), which later on were inserted into the overall picture of the decorative object.

Already during the Second Republic enameled iron came into use, representing the then internationally dominant, rational and innovative Modernism (which must not be confused with “Modernisme”).

Wood was one of the most commonly used materials in commercial signage, either for supporting the boards on façades or serving as the prime material for carving (of letters or other decorative elements – José Sagarra, Carrer de Sant Vincenç), or simply as a support medium for painting (Encuadernaciones, Carrer de Joaquim Costa). Wood has been a relatively inexpensive decoration object ever since, accessible and easy to work with. Most of the still preserved wooden objects (boards and moldings) have been worked by professional carpenters and artisans.

The current landscape

The few signboards that origin from before the Civil War and that have been restored or have survived until today demonstrate the high quality and expertise that characterized this golden age of craftsmanship (and also advertising art). Especially “Modernisme” brought great interpretive freedom for the creation of (typographic) forms; letters could be deformed and distorted as well as adapted to a particular format (Almacenes El Indio, Carrer del Carme).


During the post-war period fonts were rediscovered that had already been popular during the years preceding the Civil War. There was a general interest in typographical aspects, curved or calligraphic letters were combined with the geometrically structured creations of Art Déco; many signboards are also reminiscent of the painted posters of that era: energetically curved, slightly stretched letters that contrasted with each other and had unconventional proportions. The choice of techniques and materials, such as the final execution, were characterized by the economic hardships of that time: some of the objects (usually painted wood or glass) are of low quality with letters painted without much skill (Fabrica de Licores, Carrer de Sant Vincenç).

In the sixties and seventies new materials emerged: neon tubes were adjusted to fonts that united Post-Deco and Pop-Art (Club Niagara, Carrer del Taquígraf Serra), logos were produced to light up the city at night from the tops of the buildings, grotesque sans serif types were placed on radiant plastic boxes and arabesque motifs marked the establishments of the city’s nightlife (Bagdad, Carrer Nou de la Rambla).

Today the municipal markets of Barcelona are a true garden of shapes and colours. They host a wide array of signage; objects older than 30 years are hard to find. The renewal of market stalls results in the redesign of signboards and in the increasing use of computer typography. It is therefore not surprising to see Times New Roman, Comic Sans or Brush Script next to each other in these places.

Despite the above described development, certain establishments nowadays try to achieve a “vintage look” by using traditional lettering techniques and/or by choosing fonts carefully. There are even cases in which a new business kept the old signboard and restored it, even though it had nothing to do with the old trade identified on the label. This phenomenon shows an increased interest in craft and, simultaneously, a somewhat nostalgic view of and into the past.

The alphabet is in the street

Signboards are only one of many elements of our streets’ acoustic and visual polyphony, most of them remain unnoticed or are hardly ever appreciated beyond their (superficial) referential function. Nevertheless, typography is able to transcend this basic message, the mere name of the company and its trade; typography seduces the observing flâneur through its shapes and brings to his mind a rich cultural heritage that has been created by many different hands: painters, craftsmen, typographers, illustrators – professionals and amateurs.
This heritage, at the same time endangered because of the current economic and technical realities but also subject to increasing appreciation, is characteristic for Barcelona; its letters, logos and phrases record the Catalan metropolis in their particular manner and inform about urban life in its fugacity.



Text: © Andreu Balius.
Images: © Martin U Kehrer.
This text was previously published in the book StadtAlphabet Barcelona, by photographer Martin U Kehrer - Sonderzahl Verlagsges publishers.

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