In a nation that excels at beauty, aesthetics, and craft, it's no surprise high design can be found on seemingly every corner or side street in Italy, whether one is touring a massive metropolis or rural village. In many cases, according to a new book about the country's unique graphic design, you simply need to look above the doorways. Signs of Italy (Lazy Dog Press) by James Clough chronicles gorgeous examples of hand-painted and vintage Italian signs from across the country. A professor of typography and graphic design who's lived in Italy for 43 years, Clough says he's probably "more Italian than British" at this point, and has come to appreciate the nation's particular history of graphic design. One of the first thing he noticed when he arrived was the outdoor lettering and hand-crafted signs, and how they displayed more verve and character than the standard signage found on British High Streets.
"When you're in England, you always know what to expect," Clough says. "Here, it's so much more inventive and daring. You're always surprised no matter where you are."
Clough attributes the high level of outdoor lettering in Italy to the Art Nouveau wave that swept over Europe in the late 19th century, which had an especially big impact on the nation's design. Great poster artists such as Leopoldo Metlicovitz and Marcello Dudovich, who influenced scores of Italian designers, worked in the northern city of Trieste, a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an ideal place to pick up inspiration from the work of artists such as Koloman Moser. In the midst of differing inspirations and styles, these styles, and a lack of formal manuals, gave sign writers plenty of freedom, according to Clough, who took the opportunity to invent their own letterforms and styles.
Old painters, as well as graphic designers and architects, did exquisite work in the early part of the 20th century. Clough points to Turin, a city with roughly 40 different types of lettering found on its street signs, as a place with particularly fascinating typography. He also suggests type hounds take notice of manhole covers, since older examples often contain unique Fascist logos or Art Deco lettering.
Clough's obsession with Italian signage began when he started snapping photos of eye-catching signs 25 years ago, about the same time he started teaching. He'd share with his students, and as word spread to different teachers, he began to be recruited to do presentations for other classes. Eventually, he was asked to do a series of articles on the subject for an Italian magazine in 2006, which he did monthly for about a year. Those pieces formed the genesis of his new book.
Clough, who also gives tours on the topic and runs "urban lettering safaris," hopes Signs of Italy raises awareness of the beauty of Italian typography and helps preserve significant and vintage signs (a number of those featured in the book have already disappeared). He wants to start a digital archive soon to preserve this work before it's too late.
"The future of this sort of thing is uncertain, of course," he says. "Every year, some beautiful examples of lettering gets scraped away. There's a heritage that's disappearing."