|Motel in Flagstaff on old 66|
That comment stayed with me because I wasn't sure if the goal of overcoming the rectangle was one of those high artistic concepts which Tom Wolfe lampooned in The Painted Word, or if that was an interesting insight into the way art represents or does not reality. I appreciate contemporary art more now than when I first read Wolfe's small book. But the comment came back to mind when I discovered a book recently, which has been out for a while: Lisa Mahar's American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66 (New York: The Monachelli Press, 2002). There is a vernacular story of overcoming the straightforward, rectangular form, in the history of motel signs.
|Motel in Centralia, IL on US 51|
|Motel south of Decatur, IL on US 51|
Mahar's book is divided into periods: "Symmetry, Geometry, Rigor: 1938-1947"; "Theming and Regional Symbolism: 1945-1960"; "Abstraction and Self-Expression, 1950-1957"; "Specialization, Modularity, Segregation: 1957-1965"; "Intensive Simplicity, 1961-1970s." In the first period, signs were more straight-forward. In the post-war period, the simple geometry and efficiency of the earlier signs "no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business form the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs." (p. 77). Thus, not only did signs show more visual interest in their shapes (for instance, incorporating designs like tails and arrows), but also more imagination in their names: one saw fewer motels simply named for their owners--"Clark Motel"---and more memorable names like "Desert Hills" or "Ozark Court" or (as above, in Flagstaff) "Flamingo."
During the 1950s, one also saw many more novel signs and asymmetry, and what has been called the "googie" style related to the Space Age. Personally, I like these kinds of signs the best; during my parents' 1960s vacations, plenty of those 50s signs still beckoned travelers along highways. The signs seem quaint and nostalgic now, celebrated in picture books about Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, and striking where they still exist.
In the later period of Route 66's existence, the 1960s and 1970s, one saw a return to more simple signs, often made of much cheaper materials than earlier signs. Part of this greater simplicity was due to cost savings, but also the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and the accompanying feeling that we shouldn't clutter natural environments with gaudy signs and advertisements. I think the postcard above, from Decatur, Illinois, is from the 1940s but it does show the original, simpler design.
It is hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of motel signage. Mahar discusses the many geometric innovations, patterns, and styles of signs, including materials, structures, and fonts, as well as years when a popular form (like tails---as in the above postcard of the Holiday Motel in Centralia, IL---arrows, and formal similarities to the motel's architecture) were developed or dropped. She is influenced by material culturalists in the structuralist tradition, like Henry Glassie, and also Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, which "combined the science of rigorous analytic method with a faith in the power of ordinary objects to reveal larger truths" (pp. 24-25). I've always appreciated a book coauthored by my friend Keith Sculle: The Motel in American Life by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For good treatments of this aspect of American culture, I'd recommend that book plus Mahar's detailed account.
It makes me wonder if there is a story of church signage over the years: any ideas?