Signs of Beauty

A book review by Michael Webb

Form Graphique scanIn good time for the gift-giving season comes this enchanting anthology of the calligraphy that so enriches one’s experience of Paris. Having myself photographed traditional Parisian stores for a book that Balcony Press published 15 years ago, and recalling the frustrations and exhaustion that were the price of making discoveries, I stand in awe of Louise Fili’s achievement in Graphique de la Rue: The Signs of Paris. The range and quality of her selections are exemplary; it’s as though one were there, gazing down at the mosaic pavements of the passages or up at vintage neon (which Paris pioneered a century ago). Many of these signs adorn city-owned buildings—evidence of civic pride—and all are triumphs of craftsmanship.

For graphic designers, this is a must have; a menu of type faces, from classic script, through Art Nouveau and Art Déco, to the wildly eccentric styles favored, for some inexplicable reason, by hairdressers. The entire gamut of commerce and entertainment is on display, from the curlicued gold of of bakers and patisseries, bars and cafés, often highlighting their specialties. The offerings are mouthwatering: “frits confits…petits fours frais…Kugeloph d’Alsace.” Some are enigmatic: the flower-encrusted facade of Samaraitaine, a landmark store that is now to become yet another hotel for the idle rich, features “Travail, Chasse, Amazone.” Work on a hunt for Amazons? What can it mean?

Fili has ventured into underground lavatories and shady neighborhoods, as well as the fashionable quartiers in search of treaure—hidden, forgotten or simply overlooked. Her images are as sharp as her eye: tightly cropped so that each sign plays off the next. I missed a few favorites, including Pruniers, but at least half the signs were new to me, and I thought I knew the city pretty well. She spent 40 years shooting her previous book, Graphica della Strada, but there she had a whole country to cover. In Paris she could research her targets with Google Street View and explore the city by bus. Even so, it required many trips from New York, and one can only express one’s deep appreciation for this priceless record of an ephemeral art. Even Paris changes, as old businesses give way to new; this is a visuial guide to a world of exquisite details that enrich and humanize the monumentality of everyone’s favorite city.

Graphique de la Rue: The Signs of Paris, Louise Fili, Princeton Architectural Press; $40.

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