Greater City Providence

Opinion: Hopefully Recession Kills “Signless Retail” Trend

loiefullerafterLook hard… Can you tell what’s in the building in the photo to the left? What it’s used for? Well, if you’re a regular reader to this blog, you actually probably do know, in fact, that it houses Louie Fuller, one of the most popular new restaurants to open in the city in years. But you know that, like you know about this blog, because you’re in the know… You follow trends, you know what’s what, you’re following chatter on the web and in outlets such as the Providence Phoenix… You don’t really need something as blunt as, oh, a sign on a building, let alone any kind of outward indication of a business’ function, to know what’s going on… You’re in the know!

Such is what I consider to be one of the more pompous and annoying urban retail trends to mark our recently departed economic bubble, and I’m very hopeful that the recession will start to convince business owners of the importance of people actually knowing they exist. As long as its done with some restraint, our streetscapes can only benefit.

What’s your candidate for “Business Most in Need of a Good Sign?” Do you think this trend of minimal signage will wane in the recession?

Comment by clicking above or read more by clicking below…

Now, I’m not a marketing or graphics design professional. In fact, I know very little about either, and I have no idea if this “minimal signage” trend had a formal name. But I was enormously frustrated to watch our urban cores be reborn and thrive only to have their very own retail occupants purposely play down the fact they were there… Who could have imagined that the Phoenix-like rise of Westminster Street would go for more than half a decade with almost no signage visible from most sidewalks? Who could imagine that Wayland Square, at some points in the last few years fully occupied with thriving businesses, would have creaking and leaking awnings that dated, both materially and in style, from the mid-1970’s? Who could have imagined new world class restaurants in all of our city’s neighborhoods that almost required GPS’s to find given the subtlety of their signage?

One thing economic downturns do is focus the mind and the pocketbook, and hopefully business owners will relearn the thousands-of-years-old lesson that that attractive signage can pull in paying customers. Providence needs to help neighborhoods (especially downtown) do this by somehow streamlining the process of advertising while simultaneously clarifying what is and is not acceptable (and why).

Some good examples of good signage are already popping up around the city… We at GC:PVD will try to track some of the better efforts in future posts.

Bret Ancowitz


  • Actually, that front is an easily read “sign.” Any member of the class of people likely to consider venturing in can conclude upon sight:
    This is a fashionable restaurant, unhurried, probably the priciest meal on this street.
    Heck, signs are expensive!

  • I think LF is not the best example of the problem. Being signless is part of LF’s (and Lili Marlene’s and his other properties) cachet. Little bit about being someone and knowing that it is there without needing the sign to prove it.

    However, I am all about signage and we need more retailers to have them. And the city needs to not be getting in the way of good signs so much. I heard Gourmet Heaven was actually cited for their’s because it was installed before it was approved. Though it is gorgeous and there is no doubt it would be approved.

    I think minimalist signage is on the way out. Big graphics are coming in, although that trend may be rounding a corner too, not really sure what’s next in line. All the boutiques on Westminster are a few seasons out of date.

  • I don’t see the point of being against ‘signless retail’. These are businesses after all. If the owners thought it would help to have signage, I’m sure they’d have some.

    Other signless businesses: The Avery, The Scurvy Dog, Mike’s new oyster bar (name?). FYI, Loie Fuller isn’t owned by Mike anymore but point taken, it’s mostly businesses that he had a hand in that are signless.

    I’d much rather have no sign than a big ugly one.

  • I’d much rather have no sign than a big ugly one.

    Me too. But the city is kind of schizophrenic about sign regulations. In the Downcity, it basically takes an act of Maude to get a sign or an awning or any external indication that a building has a business in it, which likely conrtributes to the derth of signage. In the rest of the city it is the wild wild west, in which we get people throwing up whatever gaudy signs they like.

    In some areas, like Atwells Avenue, businesses put up good signs because it is in their interest to do so (although there is an exception to every example, I’ll have to snap a pic of the gaudy backlit Rentprov sign on Atwells to show that).

    I think one business Downcity that has a great sign is Cuban Revolution. Would anyone not in the know (i.e. a visitor or recent transplant to our fare city) ever venture down Aborn Street to find Cuban Revolution were it not for their sign? I think not.

  • My favorite signs downtown are Cuban Revolution and Local 121. I don’t get the minuscule signs on Westminster. You need a magnifying glass to see them.

    While I appreciate the intention of the Loie Fuller’s and Lili Marlene’s lack of signage, it seems a bit arrogant to me. I’d rather they just put up signs. They just seem uninviting, while Julian’s has minimal signage, but it’s a very inviting storefront with the tables, the horse, and the big awning.

    I’m a big fan of the restaurant signage on Atwells, especially the flashy ones of Cassarino’s and the Old Canteen.

  • Murphy’s sign is hung inside the bar. It pains me everytime I see it. It is a nice sign, it should be on the outside of the building.

  • The issue for signs with me (which, rereading my post, I realize I might not have made very well) is the idea that we want to create more of a shopping “experience” with our retail centers. The streetscapes (which includes the signage) of an Atwells Ave or Thayer St enhance the experience and make you feel like you are someplace special. The same is true on a Newbury St in Boston, a Chapel St in New Haven, or at a Newburyport, MA. You are standing on the sidewalk, looking down the street, and there’s visibly a lot going on, a lot to entice you to keep going and explore. Westminster is almost completely lacking in that visual enticement and it feels less special as a result…

    … And in an a future where 95% of Americans get everything from their local AmazonWalmartCostcoTargetStaplesWholeFoods branch, specialness will have to be what keeps neighborhood retail afloat.

  • Gourmet Heaven was installing awnings about an hour ago when I was down on Weybosset. I love Gourmet Heaven and it isn’t even open yet.

  • Personally, I’m in favor of discrete signage, or even ‘no signage’ for certain establishments. Time was when building typologies clearly announced the building’s function. Few people would mistake a spire for anything other than a church. And Catholic churches (for example), used a different form of spire than a protestant church. Readability was contained within the architecture.

    Then along came highway-sized signage that broadcast a store’s name to people living in the next zip code. The problem got worse when clowns like Peter Eisenman or Daniel Libeskind started throwing out pretentious formalist “architecture” that claimed to be a “sign” itself. This of course was underpinned by the sort of quasi-intellectual rationalizations favored by first-year architecture students and imbeciles, but in practice, the theory was really “unreadable”. And this self-centered approach to urbanism only made streets a canvas for one architect’s enormous ego, frequently having the effect of overwhelming actual signage on other buildings and creating a lopsided streetscape.

    Walkable cities actually used by pedestrians mitigate, to some extent, the need for all but minor, appropriately-scaled signage. A person walking by a store window with pastries on display will probably figure out it is a bakery, and may not even see a sign above the first floor level.

    So I am in agreement with you about the need for modest signs, but the absence of signage can also work where an intelligent architect is involved.

  • Part of the problem with no signage is that pedestrians don’t know if it’s the correct bakery. Having a sign perpendicular to the street is easy to see by anyone and makes for a much more inviting streetscape. It has nothing to do with ego, it has to do with making a place more inviting and more easily navigable. I don’t think we need ginormous signs, but something bigger than the trend on Westminster (Tazza, for example, has a horrible, easily missed sign, and Eno Wines isn’t any better).

  • In a well established retail zone, cupcakes in the window are good enough to indicate bakery. But if one looks down a block from afar and sees no sign of a retail district, than one will never get to the window to see the cupcakes.

  • Horatio, are you sure you aren’t Victor Hugo?

    I understand the point you are making, but we live in the world where architechture is no longer the primary form of recording history and function.

  • To play devil’s advocate, the other side of this is of course hideous signage. Take Blaze on Hope Street for example. Oh my god, that sign makes me never want to try the food there, which I have heard from most people, is pretty good.

    That being said, I am an advocate for “good” signage. One of the projects I am currently involved in is sign based, but not retail. Its for the City of Pawtucket, in an effort to label buildings within its Historic Downtown District as significant. This I like. Informative, classy, and may give the casual passer-by a little more pride in their city.

    A good retail sign can do the same.

  • I think you touched on it earlier when you said that Providence makes it difficult to get signage up. I am unfamiliar with local regulations, but perhaps part of the battle is getting Providence to rethink it’s policies and make it easier for businesses to get their signs out. I mean, if public streets can’t get signage around here what hope do the businesses have?

    Also, I agree with J. I will never eat at Blaze. Suck it, Papyrus.

  • This is an older GCPVD post, but I’d like to nominate DownCity Food + Cocktail.

    Needs less Gordon Ramsay and more solid marketing.

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