Urban conservation: meet the creatives turning Soho’s crumbling street signs into typefaces

While the gentrification of London’s Soho may be inevitable, a collective comprising creatives from the likes of M&C Saatchi has begun preserving the district’s street signs – not through architecture, but through typeface.

Seven new web font sets have been created under the banner Lost and Foundry, which was originally devised by former M&C Saatchi’s former head of design, Simon Warden.

The designer was still working for the agency when he was briefed to create a set of posters for a development near the charitable House of St Barnabas on Greek Street, leading him to begin a process of research on the typefaces on show in the locality.

“It became obvious that there was a connection between these very distressed street signs and the work that the House of St Barnabas does, which is to help homeless people,” he told The Drum. “It became a very natural fit that I would find these typefaces – initially we found two, that I used for the posters in the alleyway – and then expanded into the full range of seven typefaces that we could then sell as this entity.”

The names of the fonts are taken from their respective signs: Berwick comes from Berwick Street, for instance, and Century comes from Twentieth Century House on Soho Square. Boutique type foundry Fontsmith came on board to turn the run-down lettering from the likes of Marlborough Street and the St James’s & Soho Club into fully usable fonts for the next generation of creatives.

“They had to be beautiful pieces of typography and ... they had to be commercial – people have to use them,” explained Warden. “There was no point in me finding a sign, however beautifully distressed it is, if it’s set in Helvetica. I was finding signs that were unique and if we lost those signs through redevelopment ... then we would somehow preserve them for the future.”

Skyrocketing rents, stringent nightlife laws, relentless property development and the abandonment of Soho’s iconic buildings have meant the rich, madcap spirit of the area is slowly disappearing. Even the creative industries, which have propped up the area’s bars for more than half a decade, are now upping sticks for West London or the East End.

But the profits from the typefaces – as well as the seven artworks that were commissioned to promote Lost and Foundry – are not going to urban preservation movements such as Save Soho. The collective is donating the cash directly to the House of St Barnabas’ Employment Academy, which helps those affected by homelessness get back into the job market.

The decision not to reinvest the cash back into saving the area Lost and Foundry is preserving is not an uncharitable one by any stretch. But it does demonstrate a belief that Soho’s future as another homogenous London district is inevitable.

“Soho’s one of the very few communities left in central London – it’s still got that vibrant, buzzy edge to it, but just about,” said Warden. “I think it’s interesting that via different art projects you might preserve the identity of a locality. For instance, Berwick Street Market is very quaint still, but that can’t be there much longer.

"It’s a shame to see some of that stuff go, so [it’s good] if we can preserve it – or at least keep it alive in memory."

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