People are just beginning to notice the tall, skinny orange-and-black “Baltimore” signs that have cropped up on the city’s borders.
Squinting at the one standing on a busy stretch of York Road near the county line, Wanda Johnson made the obvious connection with the colors of the city’s baseball team.
“Now that you mention it, it’s nice,” Johnson said, pausing before getting into her car. “It looks like something to do with the Orioles.”
Online, meanwhile, the commentary was a good bit sharper about the slim new sign – one of 15 new “gateway” markers being erected by the city on Baltimore’s perimeter.
“Does the back say ‘Gurl/Boy, Bye!’?” cracked a woman posting on Facebook.
“How about ‘Home of 300 Murders’?” another observer said, suggesting a motto for the civic entrance signs. (“That’s helpful!” came one woman’s sarcastic reply.)
The city already has de facto welcome signs at its periphery, argued another person: “When Smooth Roads Turn Into Pothole Pavement.”
“Is it just me, or is it a little guillotine-ish?” observed still another commenter, seizing on the sharply angled bottom part of the sign that others likened to a box-cutter.
City Councilman Bill Henry suggested on Facebook that the slant might simply be an allusion to the city’s angled southern border.
“It is!” said Ryan Patterson, public art administrator at the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA), with obvious relief, going on to recite the project history.
Refreshing and Unifying
Speaking with The Brew, Patterson said he almost hated to step in and “sign-splain” what turns out to be an organized “Baltimore Gateway Sign” project carried out toward the end of the Stephanie Rawlings-Blake mayoral administration.
“I was enjoying hearing all the gut reactions,” Patterson said. “This is what art is supposed to do, inspire a dialogue. People obviously care about this.”
In 2015, he said, the mayor pulled together BOPA and the Department of Transportation “to refresh and renew the city’s gateway signs.”
The existing signs, in three distinct styles, were in disrepair and needed an overhaul “that would produce a unified style for the city that does not feel like a new branding campaign,” Patterson said.
After a design competition attracted local firms like Post Typography and out-of-town outfits such as Miami’s R&R Studios, the job went to Baltimore-based Ashton Design.
The project – budgeted at $250,000, including stipends for the five finalists – is still in progress, according to Ashton’s creative director Alexey Ikonomou.
Of the 14 small pylons, six have been erected so far, he said. The splashiest sign – a 35-foot-tall pylon-type “Baltimore” sign on Interstate 83 – won’t be installed until January.
“That’s going to get people talking,” Ikonomou predicted. (DOT officials were still at work late today verifying these details.)
Back to the Futura
If the signs have a familiar feel, there’s a reason.
The rough template for the new signage is, it turns out, old signage. The project called for the designers to retain and coordinate with existing orange metal “Baltimore” signs dating back to the 1970s.
Patterson said the city was committed to retaining the two horizontal signs on east and west Route 40 and a vertical sign on the city’s southern border on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (I-295).
“They were drawn by hand at a drafting table by someone in the Planning Department and then cut by hand by somebody at Beth Steel,” Patterson said. “You could never afford today to duplicate the quality of those materials.”
Ikonomou, meanwhile, said he is still researching the signs’ provenance and may end up attributing them to someone at Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Coordinating with those old signs was a design challenge, Ikonomou said. It meant using an updated form of their font, which Ashton described in its proposal as “a quirky and unique” version of Futura.
Some typography aficionados online sniped: “A stencil font extended beyond what a real stencil would require, with no aesthetic payoff for the trouble!”
In its design proposal, Ashton said changes were needed “to increase readability, align with fabrication methods and add a new take on this typeface Baltimore has taken ownership of.”
An Orange City?
On color choice, the designers decided to stick with the original rusty-reddish-orange color of the signs from the 70s. Ashton’s rationale is explained at length in its proposal.
“There is no mistaking that Baltimore is orange,” they write. “While the city government has embraced yellow for its seal, flag, vehicles and even its recycling bins – Baltimore identifies with orange.”
They go on to mention Baltimore’s reddish-orange rowhouses, the orange hue of steamed crabs, the glowing script of the Domino Sugar sign at the Inner Harbor, and the orange-and-black of the Baltimore Orioles mascot bird.
(Back in the 1960s and 70s, Baltimore’s atmosphere was truly orange, courtesy of the “red dust” kicked up and reflected across the southeast sky when the steel furnaces were working at full blast at Sparrows Point.)
The color scheme has seemed to get some affirmation online.
“At least it is not yellow-and-black, which is too much like Pittsburgh’s colors,” one wrote, churning up ire for the Baltimore Ravens’ hated rivals, the Steelers.
And as for that pointy tip, a 30-degree angle, Ikonomou said, no guillotine reference was intended. Indeed, the design theme was meant to evoke the city’s flag and its physical boundary.
“These things can look simple,” he said, “but a lot of thought went into them.”