Jay Rutherford: archi-type
Words on the Wall
My interest in lettering began early. My mother taught me to read and write at quite an early age and I covered my toys, as well as the walls of our house, with words in crayon, pencil, my mother’s lipstick, whatever came to hand. This activity didn’t always meet with approval. My early attempts at ‘art’ in primary school often included large, descriptive texts – everything from the sun, to flowers, to the houses to the people in my childish paintings and drawings was clearly labelled so I wouldn’t have to explain every time. I always thought the pictures should account for themselves and words seemed to me the best way at the time.
I discovered typography in my teens in the public library. The oversized books were all in the same place and I came upon Aaron Burns’ large volume Typography while looking for something else. I took it home and pored over the explanations of hanging punctuation, matching typefaces to messages, and combining them for concord and contrast – these and many other arcane and obscure facets of advertising typography. My uncle Peter was a graphic designer and the black sheep of the family. I felt quite close to him and this probably also helped lead me into the ﬁeld I decided to study after high school.
My interest in words on the wall goes back to about the mid-1980s when I began photographing the fading advertising lettering on neglected façades. I ﬁnd the textures of the flaking paint, the letterforms themselves, the sometimes layered effect of multiple applications, quite fascinating. Many stories are told at each location – what did they sell here (and when); how did lettering styles change over the decades; how professionally was the lettering done (an indication of the prosperity of the owner); why was this building not renovated for so long (an indication of economic and political developments in the town, city or country where I found the examples).
I have photographed hundreds of these façades over the years in cities from Paris to Toronto to Prague to Milwaukee. Many of them no longer exist – buildings are renovated, empty lots are in-ﬁlled, time marches on and human beings just can’t sit still. One such location in Weimar (since renovated – Modehaus Schmidt, Teichgasse) inspired me to originate my Words on the Wall project.
The idea was originally developed in connection with Kulturhauptstadt ’99 in the Fall of 1998. When funding from this source fell through, I put the idea on the back burner. I couldn’t let it go, however. Every time I walked through the city, locations seemed to suggest themselves to me and I began taking photos of buildings and walls I thought would lend themselves to having quotations painted on them. At the same time I began collecting appropriate sayings and aphorisms.
In 2000 I applied to the Forschungsausschuß (research committee) at the Bauhaus University and was successful in receiving seed funding for the Words on the Wall project. My next step was to hire a local planning ofﬁce familiar with the ins and outs of permissions for public projects. Without this step, the whole project would never have come to fruition. Tectum Planung organised meetings with the required ofﬁces (historic buildings and monuments, city planning, art and culture, construction regulations, etc.) as well as the owners of the buildings.
The most difﬁcult part of the process was reaching agreement with the building owners. People who are in the position of owning a building often tend to be relatively conservative, perhaps even more so in a city like Weimar. My original intention was to use more provocative, maybe even subversive quotations. Texts such as ‘Weimar ist eigentlich ein Park an dem ein Stadt liegt’ (Weimar is actually a park, with a city on the side) are to me a bit like cotton candy – they don’t stay with you very long and don’t challenge the status quo, something I believe should be continually done.
Several owners suggested texts which I found too soft or not provocative enough. We either found a compromise I was happy with or I backed out. The expressions have, in almost every case, something to do with the building itself or someone who once lived there.
The owners also had to ﬁnance the implementation costs – the sign
painter, scaffolding or ‘cherry-picker’ rental, and materials (each for
their own building), as well as a small contribution to documentation
costs. I am still amazed that we managed to ﬁnd 14 locations where 1) I
was happy with the surface and its location, 2) the owner and I could
agree on a suitable text and, 3) they agreed to ﬁnance the application
(or help ﬁnd a sponsor). On top of this came approval for the project
as a whole from the various aforementioned city departments.
All of this took over two years. Once the whole thing was ﬁnalised, we only needed to wait for good weather. Most of the actual sign painting was competently carried out in relative short order by Norbert Gladis, Weimar’s last surviving professional sign painter.
I often ﬁnd myself trapped between art and advertising. Most of what I do is neither of these, and also not a compromise between the two. Clear, efﬁcient communication is at the heart of my work as a designer – pure artistic self-expression has as little place here as does mere commerce. The WoW project is quite ironic in that it was inspired by advertising but ended up being public art, two areas of endeavour that I usually have little to do with.
Jay Rutherford was born in Canada. He studied graphic design and music, ran his own design studio in Halifax, and taught off and on until 1992, when he was invited to work at MetaDesign, Berlin. Having caught the German bug, he then managed to swing a cushy professor position in Weimar where he is today.