Saturday, 28 April 2012

Helsinki: Font Walk

Napa Gallery, Eerikinkatu 18, Helsinki, Finland. I ask the woman in the back room about the  Font Walk map and she points me to the small cardboard box on the corner table. Only one per customer, please. It is only fair; this is a limited edition. After examining the beautiful map for a while at the gallery, I step back outside. Actually, it would be a good idea to go for a cup of tea and get into the mood for observing fonts... But I decide to do it while walking.
What is Font Walk about? Being part of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 program, it promises design experiences. However, the main idea is to pay attention to some, selected details in Kamppi area, and learn to look at the texts and visual messages that we easily pass every day without noticing them. For example, have a look at the neon letters above the Orion cinema.
The walk will guide me to about 30 interesting stops in the district, and the estimated walking time of the route is about 45 minutes. Well, better take it easy and allow more time for observation and stops along the way. As I turn from Eerikinkatu street to Fredrikinkatu (or 'Freda'), I realize that some details are easier to spot from the other side of the street. Especially the ones that are higher up on the building walls. The "hieroglyph" gates are open when I pass them and a moment later I find myself walking back to find them. This symbol resembles a walker, doesn't it?

The optician's sign reminds you of the old days when it was much more common to use descriptive objects or symbols as signage for certain professions. Today we mostly see text signs.
The purpose of the Font Walk is not font-spotting but to discover details. Therefore, I don't feel guilty about not focusing just on the lightning bolts of Sähkötalo building (Electric House)... The building was designed by architect Alvar Aalto and I simply have to check out its door handles.
My eyes stray off from the map also when I walk towards Salomonkatu and see the tall pillars above Tennispalatsi building. Until now, I've always "seen" only the curved shape of the roof of the building but never noticed the pillars, so the texts advertising the museum and cinema have been wasted on me.
I've also failed to notice the flagpoles on Autotalo (Car House) building. Probably because there have been no flags flapping in the wind. The next stop is the Kamppi underground station, marked with "M" for Metro, but of course there is also a sign for the appropriately located Subway fast food restaurant, with the 'S' shaped like a curved arrow.
The map guides me back from Kamppi station, past Voimatalo house with the surprisingly uniform fonts on its walls, and further down to Albertinkatu street. The old, now closed wooden kiosk seems bare at a first glance, but a closer look reveals messages here and there.
There are a couple of fonts to spot in this corner. Number 12 on the map, Kallio sign, is on a building that has really beautiful wooden doors and a lovely round window on the ground floor. It takes me a while to find the round sign of a former bank, Helsingin Työväen Säästöpankki, on the wall.
On Eerikinkatu I walk beneath the scaffolds right in front of Eerikinkatu 25 and think about the art deco home of Hercule Poirot in the films made of Agatha Christie's detective stories. The font like ornaments are actually above the scaffolding... The street signs in two languages (the city's majority language Finnish on top, minority language Swedish below) are a refreshing sight because of their old style font which is very different from what is mostly used in newer areas today.
The people live on the corner building of Abrahaminkatu and Kalevankatu streets are lucky. If you take a peek throught the locked glass doors to the hall, you can discern stylish reliefs inside, including animals and of course, walkers. I also pass the sign of the Consulate of the Republic of Seychells, and one of my favourites, Maitoa - Mjölk (Milk) which I saw for the first time about a week ago.

Number 20 on the map, the Porras sign, remains a mystery. There is a renovation project going on in the courtyard and either I'm in the wrong place or the sign has been removed temporarily.
I turn my eyes also towards other things than those listed on the map. For example, right next to the barbershop (mentioned in the map) you can just about decipher the logo and text for Loma-Auto (Holiday-Car). Long gone.
There are also other ghost-like texts on Kalevankatu, and they are to be discovered with your own eyes only. MI VUODESOHVIA (MI SOFABEDS) store has not been here for a while.
The decorative Kirjavälitys - Bokspedition (Book trading) sign is hidden inside the entrance to the courtyard at Kalevankatu 16. Don't forget to look at the stylish dark metal gates.
There are so many different façades at Kamppi area. Usually, my eyes seem to wander more easily to the old buildings. At Annankatu street, I've surely passed the Hopeatalo loads of times, without seeing the sign for Silver House or what the house itself looks like.
Back on Eerikinkatu street, the ELO building looks terrific. These days you don't often see texts fit on the façades as permanently as this. The map guides me to the other side of the street to have a look at another neat art deco entrance and its elegant sign, and finally to the last stop, to the neon signs of Corona bar and Andorra cinema, owned by the brothers and movie directors Kaurismäki. 
I fold the map away and turn to walk towards the railway station. I realize I'm looking at different things now, compared to when I was coming here. My eyes seem to scan signs and texts, interesting entrances to houses. It is very easy to walk in Helsinki too fast, focusing on where you are going and how quickly you can make it, instead of focusing on where you are. When you slow down, it is so much easier to discover new details along the way: different messages, shapes, surfaces, stories behind them.

Wow, what a great door handle, shaped like an E!

P.S. The Font Walk map is available for download here: Font Walk map


  1. Font Walk - what a great idea!

  2. I agree! On my way home, I started planning something along the same lines to my home town :)

  3. I think I will set it as an exercise for my students this summer to in in with their typographic neighbourhood project... this is great

  4. Sounds good! It may open their eyes to something new.

  5. What an interesting idea and an interesting post too