Have you ever wondered where old storefront signs go? Those iconic neon signs and huge letters that sit in public spaces until one day the building gets torn down or the sign is out-dated? Last week in Berlin I met two women (photo below), Anja Schulze, a museum curator, and Barbara Dechant, a graphic designer, who have been saving old letters from the dump for over 7 years. In fact, Barbara has been collecting letters since she was a little girl. The Buchstabenmuseum (meaning Museum of Letters in German) houses some 700 letters but is still missing an “ü” and a “ß”.
The Buchstabenmuseum is an NGO dedicated to preserving, restoring and exhibiting signage from Berlin and around the world. It is a place right next to the Alexanderplatz where the collected letters have a reason to shine again. They tell stories about times of the DDR, its people and businesses and also of previous materials, manufacturing methods and skills of a dying craft. The oldest sign spelling 'Lederwaren' (photo below) was produced in 1947 and still contains some of its original neon inside the tubes. The collectors keep all the signs as they are and do not intent to make them look brand-new. Barbara says that the dust sticking to them and their dents and marks are like wrinkles on an aged face.
One of their favourite is the 'Zierfische' sign with iconic fishes from a family-run business that sold tropical fishes in East Berlin. The Buchstabenmusuem commissioned the sign's designer Manfred Gensicke to complete the alphabet so that typography designer Dirk Heider could digitalise it. The font 'Zierfische' is now available at Veer!
If you are ever in Berlin, this curious place is definitely worth a visit. Barbara and Anja are always on the look-out for more signs to rescue from decay and landfill, and put a lot of effort into finding their owners and the stories behind the Buchstaben. Unfortunately, due to the current financial crisis a lot of letters become obsolete as their businesses go bankrupt or merge with other companies. It is nice to know that someone cares about the graphic history of things and tells the stories of the saved letters. If you cannot go to Berlin, have a look at the Buchstabenmuseum's online collection, even if it is not the same as stumbling over the real ones. Because, as the collectors say: “Through the systematic preservation and documentation of such historic artifacts, the Buchstabenmuseum is at once a pilgrimageoint for nostalgic typophiles and a laboratory for fresh thinking on language, typography, advertising and urban history.”