William Drenttel | Essays

Move It Down . . . A Little to the Right

Detail, Guggenheim Museum facade under renovation. Photograph by Chris Kasabach, 2006.

One of the great artifacts of American architecture is being renovated in New York City. Scaffolds are up, and paint and surface stucco are being removed. And what do we find?

That some years ago, some poor sign installer went to put the first letter of the name of the museum up on the wall, and someone screamed, "No, you idiot! Lower! Much Lower! Get it down close to the edge. And a quarter-inch to the right."

That the building is the Guggenheim Museum, and that the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright, makes this photographic detail especially interesting.

Detail, Guggenheim Museum facade under renovation. Photograph by Chris Kasabach, 2006.

Tying letterforms to the soffit edge — emphasizing the horizontal line — was clearly Wright's intention early on, as evident in his drawings. I could be wrong, but I don't think he ever floated text. Wright tended to use text in an "active" way to emphasize building lines and datums; or packed in a square panel, expressing a planning module. (Mies van der Rohe would float signage, but generally preferred to have none.)

Guggenheim Museum, perspective drawing by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1951.

I'm not sure that it was Frank Lloyd Wright who art directed this correction. It could have happened years later. (Perhaps an architectural historian or typographer among our audience can shed some light on this.)

As they say, though, design is in the details. These are the kinds of little decisions, one at a time, hundreds cumulatively, that make a great building great.

Posted in: Architecture, Cities + Places, Design History, Museums, Typography

Comments [10]

What a find ! From the evidence preserved, it seems Wright knew all the time where he wanted to place the type, but just wanted to test a little higher, just to "get it out of his system" and make sure he was making the "Wright" decision.

Just an observation. Thank you for sharing.
Rocco Piscatello

i love this site. i was working on a project about wright and his typography when i decided to come here for a little inspiration and lo and behold, this is the headline post! crazy!

apparently wright created a whole mess of fonts throughout his lifetime, not just for his drawings but as a kind of hobby. the most famous is eaglefeather, it's the one from the museum:

from what little i've learned about this guy, i'm betting it was wright himself who made the change, and i'm also betting it was no test. either way, if you've never looked into wright, he is truly fascinating. his "Art and Craft of the Machine" speech may be as pertinent to design today as it was to architecture in his day. here is a link where you can download a pdf of the speech. www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/conference.html
try reading it with "computer" or "internet" in place of "machine" and tell me it ain't eerie.

p.s. i say down with capital letters.
Michael White

Please excuse me for this radical tangent: Kasabach's photograph above reminds me of anything Siskind would have photographed. And as for "little decisions", I would place Wright and Siskind in the same sentence regarding such matters.

Jason Tselentis

What do you expect, when they were working without the benefit of Hoefler & Frere-Jones's Verlag?

Michael Bierut

Eaglefather is indeed a beautiful typeface, and it's a very interesting side project from Frank Lloyd Wright.

However, while the Guggenheim lettering is very similar to Eaglefeather, there are some subtle differences. In Eaglefeather, the capital H has two crossbars and the capital S is slanted sharply, but neither of these features are evident in the Guggenheim letterforms.

Great topic and fantastic photos!

a little bit of topic but funny:
Do not forget that it was mies van der rohe who said: God is in the details.

Be logical.

Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't "testing" different ways of placing the letters on site.

That's what paper is for.

(If the "paper" theory holds true, it probably accounts for the letters ending up exactly where they are in the drawing)

It's pretty simple.

The upper "T" is for horizontal reference, not a mistake by the sign installer.

The vertical spacing can be easily measured directly against the wall, but not the horizontal start point. The horizontal start point is the surveyor's ONLY priority from his viewpoint across the street.

The worker's scaffolding probably was blocking the sight line of the intended vertical location of the letters because the sign installers usually work directly in front of themselves, not reaching up.

The vertical staff of the reference "T" and the installed "T" overlap, so the letters will be placed perfectly, just like you would do digitally in Illustrator.

Brett Shore

yep - i walked by this last month and thought the same thing. I wonder if the museum was just as surprised to find such a thing.

I haven't been inside the museum in a while - anyone have any pics of the original interior signage? is there any left on the inside?



In the 90's, the Guggenheim Museum contracted Vignelli Associates to work on updating the signage. All interior signs were replaced except for the original Frank Lloyd Wright elements: the letters on the exterior facade, the big circular medallion in the floor as you enter, and the cornerstone (FLW's signature red square). I was a senior designer working for Massimo at the time.

Regarding my earlier comment, in the film directed by Ken Burns, Ken showed footage of Wright on-site inspecting the construction process, however, I believe Wright passed before the completion. Signage in most cases, not all, is typically installed after a building is completed. So it could be possible that a senior project manager from his office was the one actually doing the yelling as Bill mentioned.
Rocco Piscatello

the upper "T" looks to be a bit larger and of a different weight too.

Personally - as one who designs and awful lot of signage - I can believe the installer got it wrong first time (said with an evil grin that stems from a recent annoyance) - Though of course it could have been a test...

As to using the upper "T" as a horizontal start point for the sign seems a little extravagant... Tape or chalk work quite well and are faster. So is a size-as paper cartoon, which you can position and re-position as often as you like. There is no need to form an entire (at least?)18" high letter for the purpose.

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