‘Gràfica de les Ramblas’: Capturing Barcelona’s disappearing signs

Signage isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Barcelona, but it seems we’re all missing a trick.

Graphic designer Louise Fili celebrates some of the most stunning Modernista and art deco signage from the Spanish city in her new book “Gràfica de les Ramblas,” with impressive results.

It features a compilation of nearly 400 images of stained glass, mosaics, carved stonework and wrought iron signage from restaurants, hotels, farmacias and even department stores.

Fili has been photographing signage for over 30 years, but says there’s something incredibly special about those in the Catalonian capital.

“What’s so wonderful in Barcelona is the architecture, that’s the first thing that strikes any visitor there, but I do find that the signage is equally mesmerizing and unique,” she says.

After producing similar books on Italy and Paris, Fili settled on Barcelona as the focus for her next project when she came across a newspaper article that discussed how historical shops were being forced to close because of escalating rent in the city.

“I really felt a sense of urgency to photograph the signs before they disappeared entirely,” she says.

Vanishing act

“I had begun to notice [while photographing for previous books] that once I started going back to reshoot things, fewer and fewer of these signs were left.

“When I came across that article, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get over there [Barcelona] before it’s too late’.”

After setting off with a camera, a telescoping pole and a handmade map, the first sign on her list appeared at the front of a photo studio named Fotos Lopez, which she’d only ever seen in pictures. But Fili was dismayed to discover it had been taken down shortly before she’d arrived.

She expressed her disappointment during a newspaper interview and later received an email from the grandson of the founder of Fotos Lopez, who offered to remount the sign temporarily.

“I went back in about a month and the whole family came out for this event and they remounted the sign,” says Fili.

“Gràfica de les Ramblas” includes a photograph of the Lopez family standing alongside the sign and the book is dedicated to them.

Unfortunately it’s one of many that are no longer on display. Fili admits that a number of the signs captured in her book have since disappeared.

“It’s very sad,” she laments.

However attempts are being made to preserve some of the city’s Modernista signage, which the first chapter of “Gràfica de les Ramblas” focuses on.

Preservation attempts

In 2015, 228 historic stores in the city, including a candle shop, a cafe and a herbalist, were given a special preservation status in a reform to protect Catalan heritage.

“A lot of these shops are now protected, so the signage will have to stay, which is a wonderful thing,” she adds.

“It seems like every pharmacy you go into in Barcelona has a beautiful Modernista sign, whether it’s in mosaics or stained glass. These signs will be preserved — hopefully. “

Grafica also honors the art nouveau architecture of the Eixample, the area between Barcelona’s old city and what were once surrounding small towns.

Fili says she was struck by the affection Barcelonians have for their signage.

“When I did the Italian signage book (“Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy”), all of the reviews pretty much said, ‘Gee, we walk past this signage every day and it took an American to come here to make us appreciate it.'”

Barcelonian pride

“But there’s already a great appreciation for it here. Barcelonians are very proud of it, just like they’re proud of the Antoni Gaudi architecture.”

While Fili is unsure of which destination to choose for her next signage project, she’s wary that that the clock is ticking.

“As cities go, Paris and Barcelona were obvious choices, but a lot of people have been telling me to go to Porto and Lisbon now.

“Whatever I do, I’ve got to do it quickly. Because no city, no matter how much they love their signage, is going to hang on to it.

“It’s an unfortunate thing. But they are disappearing. It’s not like all of these signs will go into museums. They’re there for us to see and photograph – then they’re gone.”

“Gràfica de les Ramblas: The Signs of Barcelona” is available from Princeton Architectural Press.