– Once you start paying attention, you see them all over the city: old company names and lettering. Author Jesse Simon has a thing for letters – especially when they’re neon.
How pretty the pharmacy lettering is. How old-fashioned the “Express-Reinigung West” looks on the facade, how sophisticated the “Paris Bar”. Or the “Delphi”, from times when cinemas were still called “Lichtspiele” or “Filmpalast”.
Once you start looking at a city the way Jesse Simon did, you see letters, words, logos, company names, and lettering everywhere. And with a bit of luck, the old neon tubes from the post-war period, which Simon is really enthusiastic about.
Walks with the camera
The author, lecturer and design expert has published a book on Berlin typography and shows on Twitter how entertaining letters can be in everyday life. Simon likes to go for walks with his camera, whether in Finsterwalde in Brandenburg or Ludwigsfelde, in Düsseldorf and Nuremberg. Or in Cologne, too, where he spotted the huge “Kölnisch Wasser” logo in the main train station.
“I can’t think of anything better than traveling through Germany with my camera and just looking for signs,” he says. Simon (45) likes the process of discovery when working on his books, just taking a chance or following a tip he got on Twitter.
The meeting point for the interview is the Konstanzer Strasse underground station in the old west of Berlin. Significantly more old lettering hangs there than in the east, where many traces of the GDR era disappeared after the fall of the Wall. The subway station glows in orange, a very welcoming color in the 70’s that has since been much reviled. It often gives way to gray these days, Simon has observed. “It’s not boring, but it’s predictable.” According to the motto: It should look modern, so let’s go with grey.
Orange are also the handwritten letters of the “Konstanzer Apotheke” that Simon shows. Anyway, pharmacies. Simon has identified a surprisingly wide range in design. For his book “Berlin Typography” (Prestel) he had about 30 different pharmacies to choose from. They’ve often been in business for a long time, which allows some shop labels to survive.
The inscriptions of flower shops also characterize facades, often in yellow and green. There is sometimes a small tick above the “u” to distinguish it from the “n”. The squiggly “Café Sibylle”, which is a listed building, has survived on Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin. The second half of the 20th century is the heyday of neon tubes, as Simon explains in the book. The “hairdresser”, the ice cream parlor (“Italian ice cream”) or the undertaker advertised it.
As he tells it, Simon usually has an initial gut feeling when he goes for a walk. When he approaches a shop, he looks to see what kind of shop it is: maybe steel goods or a bakery. Then he looks at the material of the letters, whether it’s neon or chiseled writing. Right before that, he looks at the letters themselves: are they old or do they just pretend to be old? Then he’s a little disappointed. With neon he checks whether it is still intact, then he will also photograph it glowing in the dark.
Sometimes the lettering remains long after the shop has closed. That awakens nostalgic feelings. These “ghosts in the form of letters” also always tell of the city’s past, which one has never experienced oneself, as the journalist Christoph Amend writes in the foreword to Simon’s book.
Retro and chic like grandma’s teak furniture
It’s a race against time, because small shops and their signs often disappear, replaced by chains and LED technology. “It’s hard to say how long the old shop signs will remain in a rapidly changing city like Berlin,” writes Simon. Everything has it’s time. By the time people discover that neon can be just as retro and chic as grandma’s Danish teak furniture, it’s sometimes too late.
Simon, who holds a PhD in history, says: “We’re in very interesting times – and this is happening with everything, typography, colours, design: things that were popular 40 or 50 years ago reached the point 10 years ago when they were least were popular. And now they’re coming back.” So it can be that a lettering like “Fleischerei” finds fans again and survives, even if liverwurst has long since stopped being sold in the shop.
Jesse Simon, who has a British-American background, particularly likes the eszett (“ß”) or the typical German umlaut. Are they marked with an additional “e” or with dots or dashes? What do the dots look like and where are they? So many possibilities that can be different with each of the three umlauts. If he had to name a favorite among all the signs, it would be “Betten-König” in Lichtenrade. This is the large lettering that started his Berlin typography project in 2016. He finds it really beautiful. Especially the spelling of the “ö”. The umlaut dots look like a small lightning bolt.
Simon’s experience: Berlin can overwhelm you as a city. But you can start paying attention to certain things, post-war architecture, the subway stations or the letters on the shops, street signs and apartment buildings. The little things help to find one’s way around the big picture. Actually a tip that is suitable for many trips.