Typographic horror at Hallowe’en

Caffè Artigiano, with multiple locations in the Lower Mainland, has a wonderfully well thought-out design. It’s elegant, welcoming, and stylish and it carries through all aspects of their interior and exterior. I love these outside signs:


and everything else is in harmony: the colours, the furniture, the lighting, and the rest of the signage. Imagine my horror last week when I drove past the one on Hastings Street in Burnaby and saw this abomination over the entrance:


I slammed on the brakes and came close to having an accident. Some would see this as overreacting to a change of typeface, but, while I have nothing against Helvetica* — an excellent typeface with many appropriate uses — you can probably see how the stark, blocky, white on black sign when I was expecting the usual Renaissance red and gold and sensual curves was a bit of a shock.

I suffered every day for a week, wondering what was going on. Under new management, maybe? But why would they mess with a good thing?

The story ends happily: it appears it was a temporary aberration. The day before Hallowe’en, new illuminated signs went up. My design sensitivities are soothed.


*Later: Anonymous (see comments) pointed out that I had not looked closely enough. The temporary sign was in fact done in Arial, the version of Helvetica widely used in word processing. See the difference in the “a,” below.


Mourning lost coffee places

lazybay22I fell in love with the Lazy Bay café and bakery when I first went there about ten years ago although, at that time, I was living in Vancouver. On the strength of the Lazy Bay alone, I decided that I could easily live in Deep Cove. The café had its own chef, who among other things made bread, the world’s best muffins (the Low Fat Plumberry transcended its name) and the world’s best chocolate ganache torte (definitely not low fat and every mouthful caused me to have to suppress undignified moans of pleasure).

I enjoyed countless cups of coffee and took the torte to many a birthday celebration over the next several years. The pasta salads were irresistible, and I often took home a container. The ginger tea, served hot in winter and iced in summer, was delicious. Sitting outside on a sunny day was a delight. You could even sit outside under cover when it was raining and that was a West Coast sort of pleasure of its own.

I think it was a couple of years ago that the neighbouring Safeway added a Starbucks outlet. At that point, it became only a matter of how long the Lazy Bay would survive. Then in late 2007 the local Bean Around the World was looking for a new location, as the building they were in was about to fall victim to the creeping condo madness that is making so many neighbourhoods mediocre. Soon, the Lazy Bay had departed and the Bean moved into the vacated premises.



On Sunday, I proposed to my friend Q that we go to Citroën on lower Lonsdale. I was looking forward to introducing it to her. Citroën had been there for  a few years. They had good coffee (Saltspring organic) and delicious food. Since I am a coffee and muffin person, my favourite was the Morning Glory muffins baked in miniature flowerpots. But what made it special was that the interior was done with great flair. The colours were warm and rich. The owner, Dene Croft, is a superb painter and his original works adorned the walls. There were art deco figurines. And I particularly loved the typeface chosen for the name.

We drove past and I was surprised to see that it looked dark. I got out to check and confirmed that it was closed and all the fixtures had been removed.

Alas: another great coffee shop gone. Let us observe a few minutes’ silence as we sip our coffee this morning.

Air India Memorial

Memorial1The Air India memorial was installed in Stanley Park on July 27, 2007, twenty-two years after the disaster. I was vaguely aware that the installation had occurred. You scan a newspaper article or catch a few words on the local radio news and mentally auto-file some skeleton version of the information, so it was not entirely a surprise to come upon it on our Saturday morning walk.

The stone memorial is in the shape of an arc, calculated to represent the trajectory of the flight. The names of the dead — all 331 of them — are etched, one after the other in alphabetical order, in rows. There is a stone from Ireland inset in the wall at the upper end of the arc. The words:

Time flies
Suns rise and shadows fall
Let it pass by
Love reigns forever over all

on the front of the arc are the same words found on the sundial in the Toronto memorial and the Ahakista memorial in Ireland. The words are said to have come from a Latin inscription found by the sculptor who created the Ahakista memorial.

Memorial3It’s moving and beautiful and the weight of names makes you angry that so many people died and the investigation was mishandled in such a way that the perpetrators were never even brought to our watered-down version of justice. Kim Bolan’s book Loss of Faith details the painfully slow and problem-ridden process.

After the initial emotional reaction, I found myself wondering about the whole process of designing and creating the memorial. Maybe this is just another example of how humans manage and compartmentalize the unthinkable: we turn to practical aspects. We start planning a funeral service and concentrate on the details; we draw up lists; we create a website; we become advocates for a cause.

We think about design and how to create something generally acceptable but not trite. We select materials and think about the logistics of layout. How would you choose the typeface: one that would be simple and classic and legible and would make best use of space? Fitting all of the names neatly into the area available must take careful calculation. The site must be dignified but also appealing and accessible, so that visitors to the park are drawn to it. It is next to a children’s playground that is intentionally an integral part of the site, as many children died in the tragedy.

TimeFliesI think it would be a challenging assignment, but one that would create a sense of accomplishment. You would be performing a service to the victims and the bereaved families by using your talents to create something permanent that stands to remind us of past wrongs. Not many of us have such meaningful work.

The memorial was created by Lees & Associates, landscape architects.

Something retro, II

Helen Arnold closed her store, Helen’s Children’s Wear, on Hastings Street in Burnaby, in April this year.

HelenHelen’s was a wonderfully old-fashioned store. Italian mamas shopped there for frilly, white confirmation dresses for their daughters. The mannequins were from another era—and those old-style child mannequins are strange and rather spooky things, with lacquered hair and painted faces. But the store’s crowning glory was the Helen’s neon sign, featuring a girl on a swing. Installed in 1956, the sign has been a landmark in the area ever since.

oldhelen.gifOne day this past week, the sign was taken down and was lying forlornly upside-down on a truck before being removed to a warehouse. Locals and others interested in heritage issues hope that the City of Burnaby and Sicon Group, the sign’s owners, can reach an agreement that will see the sign restored and relocated close by in the Burnaby Heights shopping area. The plan is to replace the word “Helen’s” with “Heights,” but to use the same typography. It might work, although those who remember the plan to retain the Bowmac sign on West Broadway in Vancouver while covering it with a see-through “ToysR’Us” logo may be dubious. However, it’s worth a try. The Lower Mainland building boom has rendered many formerly unique neighbourhoods sterile and homogeneous, so I applaud those who try to save some of the idiosyncratic things that add character.

Footnote: Helen is married to Elgin Arnold, who owns the Oasis Car Wash.

Something retro

oasis3.jpgThis is the logo of the Oasis Car Wash in North Vancouver. Everything about the Oasis gives you that time warp feeling: the unglitzy, one storey building surrounded by an unlikely profusion of palm trees ; the dated typography on the signs; the grey-haired cashier who calls customers “my love” or “my dear;” the orange and brown moulded plastic chairs with chrome legs in the waiting room.

The Oasis car wash staff wear orange overalls. They are men of few words (“Wax?”), who concentrate on energetically vacuuming, scrubbing, and polishing the cars that go through day after day.

oasis1.jpgYou can watch the cars going through the automatic wash and rinse from the waiting room (or “viewing area”). There are arrows with red and white flashing lightbulbs that draw your attention to the wax dispenser.

At the end, the car is unhooked from the conveyor belt; a staffer drives it out into the parking lot. It’s clean and shiny, with water still dripping from the underside: another fresh start.