Kurt Kraler, Signs That Define


The Signs That Define Toronto: A new book from ERA and Spacing conceived and edited by School of Architecture Alumni, Kurt Kraler (BAS '12, MArch '16), ERA partner Philip Evans, and Spacing’s Matthew Blackett along with 20 contributors reveals the history, culture, and stories of the city of Toronto through its unique signage.

Inspired by Kurt's 2016 Thesis The Generic Spectacle and featuring contributions from Assistant Professor, Linda Zhang and School of Architecture Alumni, Paniz Moayeri (BAS '15, MArch '19), the book packed full of gorgeous historic and vintage photography and is accompanied by thoughtful essays on the social and cultural value of the city’s signage.  

We sat down with Kurt to discuss the book and it's evolution from his work at the Waterloo School of Architecture.

WA: How did you first develop an interest in the concept of signs being a document of the culture of the city and how did that affect the process of developing your thesis? 


KK: The interest in signs began with reading the book “Learning from Las Vegas” (1972) by architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Seven Izneour. The book documented and examined the relationship between signs and the buildings that they adorned in a city where signs dominate the streets, and the buildings recede into the background. Later, I had an opportunity to visit the Las Vegas Neon Museum and its famous neon boneyard which has a collection of old signs. Visitors can only enter the museum if they’re on a guided tour where docents provide the stories behind some of the most distinctive signs in the collection to recall the history of a city where old buildings are discarded in favour of newer and flashier buildings, all in a bid to attract more tourists than their competitors. This got me thinking about the signs of Toronto and how we could tell the stories behind the city’s signs in an effort to connect people with local history.


WA: Your thesis The Generic Spectacle focused on Las Vegas, what similarities and differences emerged between Las Vegas and Toronto? 


KK: One of the similarities between Las Vegas and Toronto I noted in The Signs That Define Toronto was the influx of electric signs in both cities that followed the opening of their respective hydroelectric dams, which provided an abundant supply of cheap electricity. This access to electricity drastically changed the way each city looked in the years to follow, producing more vibrant storefronts and illuminated streetscapes. One key difference I uncovered is that the famous Las Vegas Strip actually exists in an ‘unincorporated community’, meaning it does not have a democratically elected municipal government overseeing and imposing restrictions on signage, unlike Toronto’s city government. As a result, the Las Vegas Strip has a much more distinctive and cluttered signage landscape than Toronto since private casinos had free reign to erect larger and brighter signs to outshine their competition. In the book, heritage planner Tatum-Taylor Chaubal, writes about the campaign in Toronto to remove projecting signs along Yonge Street during subway construction in the 1950s, which resulted in the city imposing a ban on all projecting signs, a bylaw which still influences local signage policy to this day.


WA: The book was published by Spacing and co-edited by publisher Matthew Blackett. At what point in the process did Spacing and Matthew come on as collaborators, how did that collaborative process work? 


KK: ERA Architects principal Philip Evans, and I had been pulling the book together for a couple of years and secured funding for the project but did not have any publishing experience. We reached out to Matthew Blackett of Spacing to see if this was a project he would be interested in collaborating with us on. Since Spacing had established itself as a leading voice in documenting Toronto history, Matthew thought this was a natural fit in his catalogue of work. Him and I would meet on a weekly basis to check in, share ideas and updates. We reached out to our list of contributors and over the span of 18 months, we managed to complete the book. It was through Matthew’s background in journalism, graphic design expertise, and knowledge of publishing, that we were able to pull together The Signs That Define Toronto.


WA: With essays from 20 collaborators, what was the process of sourcing contributors and selecting the topics covered in the book?  


KK: We established a framework for the book with a chapter outline and set out to try and find contributors that had the relevant knowledge and interest in writing about those topics. We reached out to contributors Matthew had previously worked with including chief curator emeritus for Toronto History Museums Wayne Reeves, writer and researcher John Lorinc, and Chinese-Canadian historian Arlene Chan. For the more contemporary topics, we contacted journalists Danica Samuel and Navneet Alang for their perspective on topics that they had already been writing about. I also brought in Paniz Moayeri, a former colleague of mine from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, to write about the distinctive signs of the Persian-Canadian community known as “Tehranto” after seeing her graduate thesis defense presentation. In addition to the essays, we filled out the book with photo spreads, iconic sign features written by fellow ERA colleagues, and interviews with artists, sign makers and photographers.


WA: The book explores “the advances in the signage technology of commercial businesses over the years in chronological order”, is there a particular period of signage that stands out or specifically appeals to you? 


KK: We wanted to highlight the major advancements in signage technology over the years that shaped the look and feel of the city, beginning with hand-painted signs, to billboards and marquees, electric signs and neon, and finally backlit signs and LED screens. For more recent signs we thought it would be crucial to explore neighbourhoods that are defined by their unique approach to signage, instead of honing in on one specific sign type. This would also help us capture the collage of the many different types of signs that are visible on Toronto’s streets and understand the cultural value of signs to these communities. The one period of signage that really stands out to me is the period of neon signs, especially with the significant contributions of the Markle Brothers. Sam and Jack Markle were artists who applied their skills to creating commercial signs and shaped the visual landscape of the city. They’re responsible for the iconic Sam the Record Man sign, which featured oversized rotating vinyl discs, forever redefining Yonge Street as the center of the City’s signage landscape. What’s fascinating about neon signs are their enduring appeal. As John Lorinc notes in his essay on neon, “Like moustaches and black clothing, neon always seems to be making a comeback.”


WA: The various contributors provide many access points and open numerous discussions, were there any ideas or concepts that were discussed that did not end up in the book or have any come up since the release of the book? 


KK: As with any creative process, there are plenty of ideas that come to the fore but are omitted for one reason or another. One editorial decision we made was the decision to focus on commercial signs, narrowing the scope to exclude public signs like the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway station signs or the ubiquitous Green P parking symbol. We’re continuing to document signs through our Instagram page @signsthatdefine (www.instagram.com/signsthatdefine), featuring excerpts from the book along with other fascinating stories that didn’t make it into the book. Amongst those stories is the real reason why the Tip Top Tailors sign was reinstalled on a slant, the hidden mural that was uncovered during the Silver Dollar Room restoration, the mosaic and terrazzo threshold signs that once adorned storefront entrances, as well as the distinctive signs of Toronto’s Little India neighbourhood on Gerrard Street East.


WA: How do you think the current era will be interpreted by someone applying your approach in the future? 


KK: I think the current era would be defined by the plethora of multinational chain stores we see everywhere, with the same signs across neighbourhoods, cities, and countries even. I’m curious about the evolving role of signs as shopping continues to shift away from bricks and mortar stores to online outlets. Perhaps we’ll see a return to smaller store formats as larger big box stores find it more economical to operate online? We’re also witnessing a transition to Light Emitting Diode (LED) signs that mimic the appearance of neon signs. However LEDs are cheaper and easier to work with than neon, producing some truly unique, eye-popping designs that will mark a distinct period of signage history in Toronto

The book is available to purchase in the Spacing Store.

Follow the project on Instagram.