A city that has undergone as much destruction and reconstruction as Berlin might be expected to be particularly careful about preserving its architectural heritage. But the task of rescuing some of the city’s most distinctive urban fabric has fallen to two women working entirely on their own initiative.
Graphic designer Barbara Dechant and curator Anja Schulze founded the Buchstabenmuseum in 2005 with a mission to preserve, restore and exhibit display lettering from buildings in Berlin and beyond. Following German reunification in 1990, Berlin saw a huge construction boom. The historic centre of the city, previously either scarred by the Wall or falling within the eastern zone, became the focus of major building projects such as the cluster of towers around Potsdamer Platz or Michael Wilford’s British Embassy on Wilhelmstrasse.
As the city smartened up, however, Dechant and Schulze noticed that much of its distinctive signage was disappearing into skips. They resolved to save it.
The Buchstabenmuseum originally opened in 2008 before relocating last year to its current site in an old GDR supermarket at Jannowitzbrücke. The main space features carefully selected examples of neon and other display lettering in an eclectic mixture of styles dating from various periods over the past 70 years. A gorgeous neon script display for an aquarium shop complete with blue fish competes for the visitor’s attention with four fat metal serif letters in peppermint green from a former factory. There are signs for paper merchants and leather goods, haberdashers and an East Berlin indoor market hall that was once a landmark of nearby Alexanderplatz.
In what was previously a cold store at the back of the supermarket an exploded view of a letter E reveals the manufacturing process of a neon letter. There are more explosions next door where the remains of a letter that featured in Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds are displayed: in a key scene from the film which the director has given the museum permission to run on a loop, the letter is seen spinning across a Parisian street as a cinema is blown up. Another space houses temporary exhibitions about lettering – currently on show is ABC-Objekt by Adam Slowik in which every letter of the alphabet can be derived from a single, twisted neon shape.
The collection spills out into the old loading bay outside, now jam-packed with hundreds of additional letters that have been collected by Dechant, Schulze and the museum’s volunteers from all over Germany. Here, grouped by colour, are letters that once adorned restaurants and bars, stations, museums and even the headquarters of the former East German state broadcaster Deutscher Demokratischer Rundfunk.
Without sponsorship or government support, the museum survives purely on entry fees and the €26 subscriptions paid by its members, many of whom also work on the door and help in acquiring new letters and signs when the museum receives one of its regular tip-offs.
One of the museum’s more prominent supporters, and Dechant’s former boss, is leading designer Erik Spiekermann. In the loading bay are several letters which formerly adorned the building of the Tagesspiegel newspaper. Spiekermann had helped secure them for the museum while also taking an E and an S for the offices of his Eden-Spiekermann studio. Panels around the museum document the rescue process, usually involving nothing more complex than a group of volunteers with a stepladder and trailer to transport their precious typographic cargo back to the loading bay.
The sheer variety of letters they have brought back, many of which use one-off, custom typefaces, makes the Buchstabenmuseum a wonderful resource for anyone who has a love of type and letters.
The Buchstabenmuseum is currently searching for permanent premises but can be found for the moment at Holzmarktstraße 66, 10179 Berlin. Nearest U- and S-Bahn is Jannowitzbrücke, open Thursday to Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. For more information, including an overview of the items currently in the museum’s collection, visit the website at buchstabenmuseum.de. Photos: Andrea Katheder