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Stephen ONeill on the beauty of decaying typographic signage


s a chap who likes type, I’ve put together an ever growing collection of typography in beautiful disrepair from the back streets of Andalucia to crumbly blue Chefchaouen in Morocco via anywhere else that takes my fancy” says Stephen ONeill. “I’m always on the look out for the vernacular and spectacular, documenting beautiful old letters and signage before they disappear” writes the man whose typographic project by the name Typechap is a call for action. “Through my photographs I want to provide inspiration for designers, sign-writers and photographers to keep these wonderful old letterforms alive” he told us. “I studied typography at the London College of Printing (now The London College of Communication) which was a fantastic course. The chance to tap into years of knowledge from such great tutors and learn about typography AND have access to the frankly mindblowing library was a wonderful experience” he says. Working in the field of advertising with a strong background in design today proved an insightful experience on the impact of typography.

“It’s interesting to see how positively clients react to type. One very dry financial client I worked for, were totally sold on some letterpress ads (very much influenced by the great Alan Kitching) and it became their house style for about 3 or 4 years – something of a miracle in an industry swamped with weak stock imagery” he adds. This is the story of how Typechap came to be a point of typographic reference.

“I love old signs and lettering – always on the lookout for the vernacular and spectacular. When I was a student I ’ve been traveling to a little city in Andalucia called Jerez de la Frontera, for quite a while now (my wife is from there). In this part of the world I always loved the old signage, most of which is in a state of beautiful disrepair. Once you factor in the bright and harsh Andalucian light, these broken letters look amazing and every crumbly detail looks crisp and clear. So what may have been planned as mundane everyday objects, are transformed into something special.”

“For example ‘Typechap buys matchsticks in Andalucia’, a bright red matchstick dispenser with a beautiful old condensed font, has been distressed over time, but still isn’t as old as the weathered ice cream signage on the tiled wall behind it. A completely by chance placement of objects, letters, geometric shapes, colours and textures that creates a fascinating collage. Or ‘Typechap in Morocco’. In Chefchaouen, up in the Rif mountains of Morocco, I discovered lots of old water hydrants, which used arabic, but had stenciled english numbers on top. Factor in the rich blue colour and distressed metal work and yet again, another happy accident, typographical collage.”

“I document letters and signage wherever I go, and I’ve increasingly found that the more mundane the subject matter, the more interesting things there are to find. So while the cinema signage in ‘Typechap at the cinema’ look just wonderful, I love the accidental collages created by the old unused advertising hoarding in ‘Typechap in the car park’ and the odd rickety hand pained lettering in ‘Typechap at the garage’ (complete with another sign just randomly stuck on top).”

“What is vitally important is documenting these old signs and letters before they vanish”

“The Typechap project started a year or two back when I realised I had a ton of images that I should share to a wider audience. I initially created a couple of tumblr blogs ( and which picked up a fair bit of attention in Europe, China and notably the US when Coudal Partners very kindly featured it. This summer I finally got round to getting a site together with galleries of images. I’m going to keep adding to this of course, but hope to get some ‘type safari’ style books published – a typographic guide to Jerez would be my type of guide book! While doing this I’ve shared my images, and been a bit stunned to receive some very positive feedback from some of my own design heroes such as Arnold Schwartzman, (who has already documented old signage in his great book ‘Designage,The Art of the Decorative Sign’) and House Industries’ type legend Ken Barber.”

“As for the importance of old signage... I think I’m not alone in loving old signage and documenting beautifully crafted letters before they get replaced. What is also interesting is signage in other languages where the letters stand out. ‘Cerillas’ for example. I had no idea what that meant, but the letters looked fantastic. Interestingly too, the arabic in Morocco, may be the equivalent of Comic Sans – but when paired with the brutal stenciled english letters completely opposite styles come together in a great accidental crumbly typographic collage.”

“The cinema sign, the matchsticks machine. They are interesting bits of social history that need preserving before they disappear”

“Today I was just thinking about the photographs as I was going back to Andalucia. An effect of the harsh light, and any other extreme weather (when it rains, it rains!) is that the walls have crumbled and painted letters have faded on them, like old frescoes. So the colour of signage and painted wall become one. In other cases when you factor the decayed old buildings with remaining partial letters of old signs, purely by luck, random collages appear.”

“I read recently that for the lettering in Spain, a lot of the sign-makers and sign-painters, took inspiration from the old letraset catalogues that were available in the 60s through the 80s. So we’re seeing the direct influence of typographers from time gone by, in the hands of sometimes unskilled designers, then being treated to an aging process, to create something wonderful”.