A Collection of Photographs

Many typographers photograph
architecture lettering. For a long
time, it opened a fascinating
alternative to the printing type
typographers were using in
their everyday life: letter designs
carried out in a few characters
only (mostly capital letters),
generous and functional forms,
extreme letter sizes, even three-
dimensional construction, colours.

Here are some of my photographs.
They originate from more than
forty years and relate to scenes
passed as well as novelties sprung
up during a period of change.

Clicking on a picture opens
an enlargement with detailed

Architecture and Lettering

The relationship between lettering
and building can be characterized in
three different ways:

The facade contains empty space
reserved for the purpose of lettering.

The lettering forces itself on a
facade never intended to be lettered.

The lettering finds a part of
the facade providing adequate space.

Architecture Forming Letters

Some lettering design is determined
by the shape of the building element,
upon which it is situated.

Particularities of the surrounding
architecture can force the compression
or distortion of letters, or suggest
the choice of a special letter style.

Pillars, corners, and other narrow
building elements suggest writing top
to bottom instead of left to right.

But: letters which work well when
set as compact text lines do not
necessarily form optically coherent
vertical columns. Successful examples
of lettering arranged vertically are
composed of letters specifically
designed to be written from top to

Basic Techniques

All methods of putting letters on
buildings can be summed up in three
fundamental techniques:

Directly on the wall (in paint or relief

On sign boards (built in or detached,
rectangular or expressively shaped,
two or three-dimensional)

As individual letters (attached or free
standing, two or three-dimensional)

Material and Treatment

The form of three-dimensional
letters can be influenced by the
material, out of which they are made.

Lettering made of wooden beams
retains the straight forms of the
timber. Right angles are determined
by the way the beams are fixed

Lettering formed out of wire
or metal strips retains the ductile
formal quality particular to the
material. Corners are generally
formed by joining two pieces together.

Letters formed out of a block-
shaped raw material generally retain
the rectangular form of the primary

Mosaics and Patterns

Signs assembled from mosaic stones
can be found on buildings as ancient
as the Roman age.

The opposite principle seems to
be of more consequence for
the present day: dividing a form up
into small equal modular elements.

Usually to facilitate copying,
modular letterforms are based on a
pattern of squares. Then, only
vertical and horizontal lines follow
the pattern; diagonals and curves
cut across the basic grid.

Digital design requires that all lines
of an alphabet and all counter
forms consist of the same elements.


A primary way of setting one particular
building off from its surroundings is
painting it in an unusual colour.

The true specialists of architectural
lettering were the sign painters.
In addition, they executed advertising
projects on hired facades.

In their everyday work, sign painters
generally followed a designer’s
sketch. They rarely executed their
own design.

Still, there are original letterform
creations by sign painters. Some
of them have inspired the design of
new printing typefaces.

Letterform Creations

In their long professional tradition
sign painters have developed some
letter designs of their own.

One type of letterform seems rooted
in the painters’ equipment:
square letterforms straightened to
curves. Such forms can be drawn
on the wall with the aid of a ruler
in a way much easier than painting
conventional curves by hand.

Stencils are another technical help
to assist painting a form. Letter
stencils have to include little bridges
from the background to the counter
forms within the letters. These
bridges split each letterform
into several parts,
resulting in a
characteristic, rhythmically
interrupted overall appearance.

The creation of illusions has
presented a challenge to painters
of all times. In sign painting, the
three-dimensional effect is a favourite
illusion. A side view or a view
from below attached to each letter
makes a piece of painted lettering
appear elevated from its surface.

Printing Type on Buildings

The entry of computers into today’s
sign making technique opened the
way for printing type to conquer the
house wall.

Printing typographic originals
in giant sizes not only facilitated all
lettering projects but also met
the requirements of corporate design
perfectly. At last, it had become
possible to print the same typeface
on a letterhead as on the facade.

In recent years public perception
appears to have narrowed:
increasingly, “lettering” is referred
to as “type”, suggesting a fixed
industrial product with a brand name.

Today, we witness the supersession
of architecture lettering by printing
type. Soon perhaps, only photographs
as in this series may remind us of
letterforms, which originated from
the building trade. They became
well in a constructed environment.

Hans-Christian Pulver

Born in 1941, lives on the
outskirts of Basel, Switzerland

Trained to be a typographer
during the time that
lead composition was in use

Designer, teacher of
letterform design and typography
at the Basel School of Design,
also at design schools in Germany,
the US and in India


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