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Berlin Typography Project: a talk with Jesse Simon on his Berlin's type hunting adventure


f you wonder what is Berlin's relation to typography the Berlin Typography Projects has many answers to provide. “In terms of urban structure, Berlin has the same relationship with typography as any city” says Jesse Simon, director of the Berlin Typography Project to Typeroom's Loukas Karnis. “Words are an essential part of our quotidian existence – they are around us at all times whether we pay attention to them or not – and the visual form in which those words are expressed are essential in defining the character of a city. It should also be said, however, that Berlin has a good typographic community. For whatever reason there seem to be a lot of people here working in type design, so you could say that in Berlin, perhaps more than in other places, there is a built-in audience for the city’s typographic riches.”

Scanning the typography of a city as diverse as Berlin is a task we admire and BT is abandoned with urban design treasures, from the charming hotel signs of the past that capture the wanderer's eye, even though “the quirky neon and cursive scripts of the twentieth century are vanishing in the face of elegantly bland chains with unified corporate identities” to the bi-monthly 2019 series “Colours of Berlin” which examines the palette of this city's typographic elements the Berlin Typography Project is inspiring, to say the least. Recently Simon asked the Twitterverse of its insights in the prospect of a Belirn Typography Project edition. Following is Typeroom's talk with the creator of a typographic journal like no other. 

How did you decide to start the project? What inspired you?

Walking is always the best way to get to know a city, and when I moved to Berlin in 2012 I spent a lot of time exploring the different neighborhoods on foot. It’s impossible not to notice the great old signs, but it occurred to me only gradually how essential they were to the character of the street. The more I started paying attention to them, the more I wanted to do something with them. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but photographing them seemed like a good start.

As I became more focussed on looking for signs, I noticed that a lot of the older ones were disappearing at a rapid rate. Berlin has been catching up to the other major European capitals over the past few years in terms of gentrification, and a lot of the old city is being transformed into something more modern but less interesting. So the project shifted very quickly from a celebration of urban typography to an act of preservation.

When was BTP first launched?

The Twitter account was launched three years ago in October of 2016. The blog followed maybe half a year after that. For a while there was a sister project called Berlin Texture, which I really enjoyed but which never quite found an audience; it’s been on hiatus for about a year now. There is also a Berlin Typography Instagram account but it fizzled pretty quickly; the square format of Instagram simply isn’t right for the subject matter.

How would you describe Berlin's typography in five words or less?

Diverse and unpredictable.

Which is the oldest or iconic typographic element in Berlin?

As with most cities, Berlin has gone through numerous distinct eras in which certain typestyles and materials were especially popular. With the exception of some stone carving, much of what is visible in Berlin dates from after the second world war, and in order to get a sense of what the typographic character of the city was like in, say, the 1920s one is really limited to looking at old photographs. Neon was especially popular during the post-War economic recovery, and the older neon signs that survive conjure the curious optimism of that era.

Which are your own favorite typographic elements of Berlin?

Personally I like anything that offers a window into the past, a glimpse of what the city used to be. This can take many forms. Sometimes it can be an old neon sign, sometimes it can be some barely legible gold on an old piece of glass, or it can be an inscription in stone. But if you look hard enough, past all of the modern signs, you can find lots of text in Berlin that encapsulates the spirit of some previous age.

“Neon was especially popular during the post-War economic recovery, and the older neon signs that survive conjure the curious optimism of that era”​

Which neighborhood has the most interesting type elements in your city? Are there any differences between West and East Berlin in terms of type?

Much of Berlin’s most interesting typography can be found in the West. In a three or four hour stroll around Charlottenburg or Wilmersdorf, you will encounter dozens of fantastic signs from different eras, whereas if you spend the afternoon in Pankow or Weissensee you’ll find almost nothing. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that after reunification there seems to have been a desire in the East to distance themselves from the communist era. In practice, this meant getting rid of the visual reminders of the past, including most of the old shopfront signs. If you walk through the Eastern boroughs, a lot of the signage dates from the early 2000s. In the Western boroughs, where there wasn’t that sudden regime change, the evolution of the old shopfront signage happened in a more organic manner.

The Colours of Berlin is your latest bi-monthly series on your site. So what is the color of Berlin that rules them all?

Every color plays its own significant role in the city, and it would be impossible to imagine Berlin without the red of its Apothekes or the Green of its flower shops. I’m not the biggest fan of yellow in general, but there is something magical about the yellow that appears in Berlin’s neon signs. I’m currently trying to put together a series on the orange, and its proving difficult; most of the orange signs, which would have been popular in the seventies, disappeared long ago.

If you were a sign which one would you be and why?

I suppose we all wish we were a cursive neon sign from the sixties, but fear that we are, in fact, some nondescript plastic lit by LEDs.

Are you a graphic designer or typographer yourself? If not what is your fulltime job?

I spent many years working as a graphic designer in London before giving up and doing a doctorate in ancient history. I’ve continued to do some design projects for a few long-term clients — mostly in the world of music — and I definitely enjoy creating typefaces on an amateur basis. At present, I teach design and typography at an arts university in Berlin, so design is definitely a large part of my professional life.

Recently you asked the Twitterverse on the possibility of a publication featuring your collections. How many photographs have you amazed all these years?

The collection currently has about 5000 images … but I fear I’m starting to run out of the city. Every time I go to a neighborhood I find signs that have disappeared since last time. Probably about 20% of the pictures in the archive are of signs that aren’t there anymore. From the very beginning of the project, the idea was always to produce a physical publication containing the best Berlin had to offer; I think the collection is finally comprehensive enough to try and generate some interest from publishers.

Has the Tweerverse responded to your call for action?

People have been very positive about the idea of a book. The problem, as always, is getting a publisher interested. Despite the popularity of all things Berlin at the moment, typography is still something of a niche subject; the challenge is going to be to find someone who knows how to take that subject and make it accessible to a broader audience. 

“The collection currently has about 5000 images; I think the collection is finally comprehensive enough to try and generate some interest from publishers”​

What about crowdsourcing your own publication through Kickstarter or Indiegogo? Have you thought of this option?

This is a route in which I have absolutely no interest. Taking pictures and writing about the typographic trends found along the way is where the strengths of the Berlin Typography project lie. But when you’re making a book you have to think about design, production, printing, distribution, and sales. There are people out there who are great at that and they are the people we want to work with. If we tried to make a book ourselves it would be a disaster. 

Which would be the ideal soundtrack for a typographic trip along Berlin?

A good question. Music is central to my life, and there has never been a time when I’ve gone out looking for type without my headphones. I can remember about a month into the project when I was going out looking for signs in different neighborhoods, for some reason I ended up listening to Friedrich Gulda’s recording of the “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Book I” almost every day. Of course, there are a lot of great recordings of those pieces – Edwin Fischer and Sviatoslav Richter being among the best – but somehow Gulda captured the exact momentum of walking up and down the grey streets looking for words that stood out.

Explore more typographic beauties in the streets of Berlin here.

All images via Berlin Typography project, used under permission