Lisa Mahar
The Monacelli Press, New York, 2002, English
Nonfiction, Graphic Design
ISBN: 9781580931199

From the Publisher. The roadside sign has become an American icon: a glowing neon symbol of the golden age of the open road. Yet signs are complex pieces of design, serving not only as physical markers but also as cultural, political, and economic ones. In American Signs, Lisa Mahar traces the evolution of motel signs on Route 66 in a distinctive visual approach that combines text, images, and graphics.

American Signs reveals the rich vernacular traditions of motel sign-making in five eras, spanning from the late 1930s through the 1970s. The motel signs of the early 1940s, for instance, reflect vernacular traditions dating back at least a century, while examples from the later years of the decade reveal a culture newly obsessed with themes. America's fascination with newness and technological progress is manifested in 1950s motel signs. Finally, in the 1960s, a turn toward simplicity and the use of new, modular technologies allowed motel signs to address the needs of a mass society and the beginnings of a national, rather than regional, aesthetic for motel signs.

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Rick Poynor

A rare example of a book about graphic design—in this case roadside signs and lettering—where the investigation is conducted visually by means of photographs, diagrams, and annotation, as well as in longer texts. In a typical spread about the formal etymology of a motel sign in Amarillo, Texas, each part of the sign is explained in words and pictures. Representing eight years of research, Mahar’s 2002 study is an obvious descendant of Learning from Las Vegas. Its exceptionally detailed and cleverly sustained analysis is more illuminating than a purely text-led discussion would be, making it a paradigm for future visually inventive design studies.

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