I´ve been asked this. So here is a bit of background on the Jane´s Walk Vienna 2018 festival. These walks are named for Jane Jacobs, who was an American-Canadian journalist, writer, and activist who had great influence on American urban studies, sociology, and how people thought about urban development in the 1950s and 60s. Without her activism, there would be no Washington Square Park in New York today — she fought against plans to demolish it for a highway, something that had already destroyed and torn apart other neighborhoods in New York. Jacobs famously wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) in which she introduced concepts such as “eyes on the street” and social capital.
The golden city
The walk I joined on 5 May 2018 was led by the very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Tom Koch. It was one of several volunteer-led thematic walks on offer during the festival weekend and featured the elegant gold-plated shop signs that complement the gilded statues and ornamental rooftops (think of the iconic Secession dome) that abound in Vienna.
Tom is a communications expert with a special interest in lettering and signs, and he knows a lot about shop sign history in Vienna. He took us on a whirlwind three-hour thematic tour through parts of the eighth, sixth, and fourth districts. (After the official end of the walk some hardy participants walked on to the first to see some more signs, but sadly I was not able to join them due to another engagement.)
Shiny and prestigious – shop portals around 1900
Most of the hand-painted gold-lettered signs that Tom showed us were quite historic. Such signs were all the rage around 1900 and established Vienna’s reputation as the center of the art of sign painting. Surprisingly many that were created between 1890 and 1920 have survived to this day, but not all of the golden signs you see nowadays are old. Many newer ones are imitations printed on foil and, unlike their original hand-painted ancestors, won´t last for decades. Unfortunately it would not be affordable today to produce signs the way they once were.
One of the oldest pharmacies, originally founded in 1782 and now operating at its 1911 location, is the old Löwenapotheke (Lion´s pharmacy) in the eighth district. Apart from beautiful golden letters, it also has a replica of a gas light that was installed in 1816 – the first of its kind in Vienna – and of four facade panels painted by the famous Austrian painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, whose works are now found in museums.
Another highlight was a visit to a really old-fashioned hair salon on Piaristengasse – one feels back in the 1950s in there. The cheerful hairdresser offers perms and other services in a quaint setting with private booths for customers who value their privacy. Astonishingly, apart from the portal, there is also an original cupboard designed by Alfred Loos.
On the way we passed the Alte Bäckerei (old bakery), which still has some gorgeous original hand-lettered signs, though some of them have been replaced with imitations. None of the advertised goodies are likely to be available there now – these days it houses a bar – oh well.
Tom then took us to see the facade of the old Stelzhamer (actually Stelzhammer) piano manufacture in the sixth district. When the sign was made, the sign painter made a spelling mistake and left out the second m – and thus it remained. The Stelzhammer family had originally come to Vienna from Upper Austria, where Valentin Stelzhammer was registered as an independent piano maker in 1852. In 1948 the Austrian film “Der Engel mit der Posaune” was made using this building as location. Have a look at the angel figurine above the doorframe!
Some other shops we passed on the way:
The eye had something to look at
Sign painting was a real art back then – it is also an almost lost art nowadays. As a special treat, we were accompanied by Josef Samuel of the Samuel Sign Painter shop, the last of four generations of sign painters in this family. Around 1900 there were 300 sign painters working in Vienna – according to Mr. Samuel he is the last one.
For me the real highlight was the visit to his former workshop (now a museum), where Mr. Samuel explained the tricks of his trade, showed us different qualities of gold leaf, demonstrated how he ground colour powders by hand and mixed them into long-lasting paints. Painters learned how to make their own colours, got special art lessons, and had to know about the chemical properties of the paints.
We learned that the colours used to contain lead, which made them very durable and UV resistant. Signs used to last 40-50 years before, Mr. Samuel says, but nowadays lead is banned, and the new industrially produced paints are not as durable. “Back then the eye had something to look at,” he added wistfully, looking at some of the old hand-painted signs in his museum. “Now everything is so plain and simple.”
By the way, in 2017 there was a whole Sign Week, “a week to celebrate Vienna’s heritage
of shop signs and urban typography”, which unfortunately I missed. The aim of the Sign Week was to sharpen the eye for the beauty of manual typeface design and for the aesthetics of Viennese shop signs to ensure their conservation. Luckily, one of the exhibitions created for that week, 135 Years of Sign Painting Samuel, at the above-mentioned Schildermalermuseum is still on view (prior appointment necessary). The Schildermalermuseum is quite near Naschmarkt and makes for a fascinating glimpse into a now lost trade.
Tom Koch has also explored another fascinating aspect of old signs, or rather their remains: ghostletters. These are the left-over pale marks of signs taken off or faded long ago that you can still see above some shop portals and on walls. In fact, Tom has written and illustrated an entire book on the subject (info below).
This walk opened up a completely new view on old signs for me. Thank you, volunteer team of Jane´s Walk Vienna, Tom Koch and Josef Samuel for this very interesting insight into a lost craft.
- Tom Koch´s book project Ghostletters Vienna
- Better Letters – an interesting blog on lettering and signs, which I found when researching background information for this post
- Schildermalermuseum – call Mr. Samuel at 0664 936 79 43 to visit
Jane’s Walks are volunteer-led walks that focus on exploring neighborhoods and conversation while walking. The walks can deal with a particular district or with a special theme. Every year, Jane’s Walk takes place on the first weekend of May in memory of urban activist and thinker Jane Jacobs. Since 2014 Jane’s Walk is also in Vienna. The next festival weekend will take place on 3-5 May 2019 – but walks are available all year round!