Like all urban explorers, we’re pretty obsessed with historical signage and typography. From our recent profile of Alphabet City, to Thomas Rinaldi’s documentation of New York’s disappearing neon signs, we love everything font-oriented. The app Fontly falls within this vein, allowing users to geo-locate photographs of signage they come across around the world. Users can “like” other photos, similar to Instagram. There’s also a desktop site.
Fontly was created by designer and entrepreneur Brendan Ciecko. In 2008, Ciecko appeared in an Inc. Magazine feature, Cool, Determined, Under 30. Well-known in tech circles for being a web-design wunderkind, he was designing websites for bands like Dashboard Confessional and the Get Up Kids by his early teens, later for The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Lenny Kravitz.
In 2009, Boston Magazine reported on Ciecko’s mission to revitalize his hometown, Holyoke, Massachusetts. Inspired by his travels in Europe, he began to see the promise of the town’s underutilized buildings–some designed by McKim, Meade and White, another by C.B. Atwood who was involved with the Chicago World’s Fair. He bought 21,000 square feet of space, started renovating and making plans for a business incubator.
Fontly seems a logical step in Ciecko’s dedication to design, arts and architecture. When Fontly launched, we talked to Ciecko about the app and his interest in typography:
It might be easy to link your background in design to your interest in fonts, but I see more to it, that you’re capturing moments in history for perpetuity. Can you tell us more about the origins of the idea?
The inspiration for Fontly came from my desire to share historic instances of signage and found-lettering with my friends and fellow designers. Throughout my travels, I found myself taking tons of photos of interesting signs that conveyed the history, character, and aesthetic of each city, neighborhood, or country. I’m very passionate about typography that was hand-produced in the pre-digital era and that is a part of the built environment around us. Whether these be faded ghost signs, metal Art Deco building numbers, artistic Victorian glyphs cast into a terracotta block, or gold-leaf lettering set on a shop window… these offer more than just inspiration. They give us a connection to the past.
What do you see (or have seen) as possible projects that could come out of the Font.ly‘s database?
Fontly has the potential to impact communities by sparking more interest in the history of place and changing the way we value historic signage. It’s an effective tool for documenting and finding densities of specific types of lettering. As the database grows and clusters start to become more apparent, I believe we can make a compelling case for the preservation and protection of these historic assets. I’d also love to see city departments making use of the data and perhaps adding another layer to their tourism marketing, walking tours, and mobile apps.
What does the retaining of old signs/faded ads say about a city? Or a city’s sense of its own identity?
Old signs inform us of a city’s past industry, cultural and commercial ecosystems, and the various groups that settled there in the past. Each and every city has a unique story and often their identity is influenced by history. It’s vital to protect the fabric of places that matter — cities that make a conscious effort to do so, tell the world that they value all aspects of their identity.
What are some of your favorite cities for signage?
One city that has had a tremendous impact on me is Valletta, Malta. The array of decades-old signage in the city’s historic center is unparalleled. You’ll find instances of hand-painted signs for old shops, beautifully patinated verre églomisé (reverse glass gilding), and more. Who would have guessed that haberdashers and ironmongers would have such great signs! Typophile or not, you’ll want to keep exploring until you feel as if you’ve seen every single sign scattered across Valletta’s streets and alleyways.
My heart also goes out to Holyoke, Massachusetts, the “Queen of Industrial Cities” — there, you will find numerous faded ghost signs from its former industrial glory. You’ll find about 60+ instances of old typography within a ½ mile radius of her City Hall. If you find yourself in that neck of the woods, Holyoke is worth a visit!