Symposium: What's Your Sign? Retail Architecture and the History of Signage

  • 9:00 AM–1:00 PM

University of Iowa Visual Arts Building
107 River St, Iowa City, IA 52246

The Legacies for Iowa Collections-Sharing Project at the University of Iowa Museum of Art presents a symposium considering the history of retail architecture signage.

For as long as goods have been bought and sold, shopkeepers and traders have visually communicated their wares through signs. This breakfast symposium explores the evolution of signage from the shutter paintings of ancient Pompeii to the wooden trade signs hanging along Medieval English streets to the neon of twentieth-century American roadside signs. How have symbols of selling shifted over the centuries? How do retail signs reflect or reject broader visual cultures? What technological shifts have precipitated the most dramatic design departures? Papers may examine the iconography, typography, and materiality of retail signs as well as the cultural, financial, and geo-political forces that shaped storefront signs in the past. Papers may also contend with the future of retail signage in an increasingly digital and global economy. This public event will be livestreamed and occurs in conjunction with the City of Iowa City Downtown District’s CoSign project, which partners local artists and craftspeople with small businesses to create exciting and distinctive new signs.


8:30am – 9:00 am Munch and mingle


9:00 am – 10:00am Session 1: History 

Asli Arpak, Adjunct Faculty (Wentworth Institute of Technology) -  Creating Shape, Sign and Style: Notes on the Pictorial, Aesthetic and Representational Qualities of Early American Sign Design

D. B. Dowd  Professor and Director of the Modern Graphic History Library (Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis) Commercial Modernism and Roadside Promises 

Glenn NP Nowak, Associate Professor (School of Architecture, University Nevada Las Vegas) Meta-signage around the Mega-Resorts of Las Vegas: A Sign of the Times 


10:00am – 10:45 am Session 2: Influence of Signs on Culture 

Charlott GreubAssistant Professor (Department of Architecture and Landscape Design, North Dakota State University) Image - Building: a Branded Occupation by Night 

Cheryl Wassenaar, Associate Professor (Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis) RE(AD) From the Streets to the Studio 


10:45am – 11:00 am Coffee Break 


11:00am – 11:45 am | Session 3: Signs and Spectatorship

Kelly Porter, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design (East Tennessee State University)Make/Do: Lessons from Home-made "Mom and Pop" Signage 

Shane Reiner-Roth, Co – Founder (TALL Work) and Master of Science in Architectural Studies Candidate (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) - R P, RE OP, RES TOP, REST STOP: The Reappraisal of SITE's Rest Stop 

Edward Snajdr, Associate Professor (Department of Anthropology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York)  - The New "Old School": Retail Shop Signs and Openness in a Changing Brooklyn 


11:45 a– 12:00 pm Coffee Break 


12:00pm – 1:00 pm | Session 4: Case Studies in Cultural Preservation and Identity-Making 

Sam Holleran, Chair of Architecture and Urban Design (ETH-Zürich, Ellery Studio (Berlin)) Graffiti, Street Art, Advertising, and the Fight for Urban Visual Space 

Jeffrey BalmerAssociate Professor (School of Architecture, University of North Carolina Charlotte) I AM A MONUMENT: Saving Toronto's Sam the Record Man Sign 

Aleksandr Mergold, Assistant Professor (College of Art, Architecture, and Planning, Cornell University) and Principal (Austin-Mergold LLC)  - Memory Palace for the People: A New Moscow Metro Station 

Zhao Deli, Lecturer (China Academy of Art) and Founding Director (Zai-Zao Architecture)  Porosity Urbanism: Re-Creation Design for the Continuous and Performative Signage at San Yan Bookstore

Community Events:

Saturday, September 9, 2017 | Downtown Iowa City

1:00pm – 3:00pm | Community Sketch Crawl, organized by Neumann Monson Architects - meet at Old Capitol steps

1:30pm – 3:00pm | Tour of CoSign Businesses, led by Thomas Agran - meet at corner of E. Washington and Dubuque 

Cost: Free


Emil Ganso

Electric Sign

, 1927
Lithograph, 19 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. (50.17 x 35.24 cm)
Gift of Charles R. Penney, 1981.597

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires a reasonable accommodation in order to participate in a program, please contact the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art in advance at 335-1727.