Merseyside Neon: Jake Tilson’s signage for the Everyman

Liverpool’s Everyman theatre reopened earlier this month following a £28 million rebuild by architects Haworth Tompkins. The new signage was designed by artist and graphic designer Jake Tilson, who also created two typefaces for the venue.

Liverpool’s Everyman theatre reopened earlier this month following a £28 million rebuild by architects Haworth Tompkins. The new signage was designed by artist and graphic designer Jake Tilson, who also created two typefaces for the venue.

Tilson was asked to create an illuminated sign for the new façade and after meeting with the architects, decided it should reference the theatre’s original neon signage.

The brief was to create a basic lowercase a-z font with numerals but Tilson designed a full typeface, Merseyside Neon, based on the characters in the old sign, below.

“Designing a typeface from just a few characters is something I first did back in 2003 in the book 3 Found Fonts,” says Tilson. “The process is like a piece of forensic anthropology, reconstructing…from a few bones.”

To create the font and accompanying bold version, Tilson photographed each neon character from “every conceivable angle” under various lighting conditions before drawing and scanning them and researching similar typefaces.

“It became apparent that the design of the neon characters wasn’t an existing typeface, but came from the hand of a neon sign maker. So when I transposed the thin neon tubes into a typeface I kept the short line lengths and what looked like serifs, [but were actually] glass-cased electrodes,” he says.

Rather than create an exact replica of the existing neon sign, Tilson then worked with Haworth Tompkins and the signage firm to create an LED lit channel sign with a red perspex face.

“The original sign was bare neon tubing but it cast a significant glow, which made it appear larger. The new sign when seen from a distance looks almost identical, as the channel sign occupies the same physical space including the neon glow. [The LEDs are] a greener choice with lower operating costs,” he explains.

Keen to ensure the character of each letter would be preserved in the large-scale design, Tilson used cardboard prototypes and life sized print outs to determine final line widths and proportions.

“A full scale working prototype was made of the “e” to test onsite,” he explains. “From the bar and balcony (see above) the back of the sign would be visible so an extra element was added – a character, matching the old neon typeface, was cut out in holes to reflect red light back into the building…the reflection in the glass behind is of the old sign, a thin neon line,” he adds.

The new typeface has also been used inside the building, including the theatre’s basement bistro, and the glowing ‘e’ appears on labels for Liverpool Organic Everyman Ale, says Tilson.

The project is one of several collaborations between Tilson and Haworth Tompkins: he was also commissioned to create external signage for Battersea Arts Centre and is currently working on signage and way finding for the National Theatre.

Tilson used a stencil typeface to create BAC’s glass signage (above). He also worked with the centre to create a new logo, visual identity and internal signs inspired by the different architectural styles around the building. The sign for the grand hall, for example, is inspired by the frieze around the dome above it, while existing toilet signs have been retained.

“The main reason for creating different signs…was to reflect the way Battersea Arts Centre use their spaces for performance,” explains Tilson.

“As well as rooms they’ll use corridors, staircases and the surrounding streets as part of a performance. In many cases the rooms bare their original names, such as Council Chamber, Town Clerk’s Room, Porter’s Mess – so a generic design seemed inappropriate.

“I wanted to add to this sense of fiction and theatre, as if the building had been abandoned and taken over by a theatrical group. There were five styles of sign added to the existing signage that we left in place,” he adds.

National Theatre signage is a work in progress, but will be inspired by the original steel signs designed by Ken Briggs, who passed away last year. Tilson trawled the National Theatre’s archives in South London and has photographed and collated boxes of old signage as well as correspondence between the sign manufacturers and architect, Denys Lasdun.

“It’s a huge project: [we’re] re-designing the internal way finding, place naming, amenities and back of house signage and adding external signage to the building for the first time,” says Tilson.

“Both the Everyman and the National Theatre signage projects are as much about stewardship as they are about design. It’s not a piece of conservation, it’s more about preserving visual spirit,” he adds.

See more images of Tilson’s work on his website.

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