In 2014, designers Rita Múrias and Paulo Barata began collecting neon signs for their aesthetic qualities. Now the couple’s Letreiro Galeria boasts a 300-strong collection celebrating vernacular design and aiding Lisbon’s collective memory.
It’s 10.00 at O Casarão, a café on the outskirts of Lisbon, and people are clustering at the snack bar to order their morning coffees. With habitual chatter and the clinking of crockery, it appears to be a typical day in this café but for O Casarão’s owner, Fernando Caldas, it’s far from that. “After 45 years in business, we’ll be closing down next week,” he says, teary-eyed. Today is particularly symbolic; in a few minutes, the large neon signs that have brightly identified this establishment and the restaurant next door will be taken down.
When it opened in 1974, Caldas’s restaurant, which is now beside a busy road and surrounded by city sprawl, was a semi-rural outpost. “There were few buildings here; these were mostly farms,” he says, as ropes are tied to the green metal letters of O Casarão. “This sign would be the reference used to give people directions in the area.”
Although O Casarão (Portuguese for “Big House”) will no longer serve as the geographical signifier that it once did in the Queluz de Baixo area, the stories that the sign embodies still have a bright future. Why? Well, holding firmly to the other end of the ropes, slowly leveraging the sign down the building’s façade, are Paulo Barata and Rita Múrias, the husband-and-wife team behind the not-for-profit project Letreiro Galeria. Since 2014 the duo have been rescuing old signs like this one when the shops that they once embellished close down. The aim is to preserve them as part of Portugal’s cultural and design heritage.
With the sign firmly strapped onto the roof of the couple’s Renault, they are ready to go. It’s a short yet thrilling ride to Letreiro Galeria’s warehouse, not only because of the big letters protruding out of the front and back of the car but also because the couple have a habit of looking up to buildings’ façades rather than the road ahead while driving. “We try to do our research on foot now,” says Barata, laughing. “We realised that it’s probably safer.”
When the couple first started collecting signs, they did so alongside their day jobs as graphic designers for an agency and a news publication respectively. “I was at a point in my career where I knew that I wanted to do something involving the community and I always loved these old signs,” says Múrias. Soon, however, the passion project began to take more time and space than they had at their disposal. “We never thought that the project would acquire these proportions,” she says, as she opens the doors to their vast storage facility.
Scattered everywhere inside, under the arched ceiling and leaning against the eight-metre-high walls, are more than 300 shop signs; relics of Portuguese graphic design history in a range of styles, fonts, shapes and colours. The Letreiro Galeria collection spans from the 1930s to the 1990s, after which computer-aided signage design became commonplace and, says Múrias, “things get less interesting for us”. Some of the pieces are emblematic – such as the 2.5-metre-tall neon letters that once spelled out “Ritz” on the roof of the famed Lisbon hotel – while others are more popular artefacts like the lightboxes that signalled payphones and several signs from commercial establishments, such as shoe shops, hairdressers and restaurants.
“In the beginning, we came at this from the design angle, collecting only what we thought was beautiful,” says Múrias, adding that their interest soon grew to include a fascination with the word choices, the history of the signs and people attached to them. “The design became somewhat secondary to the story,” she says, walking past a flower-power style sign from the 1960s, with “chou-chou” written out in playful, undulating bubble letters; apparently it was one of the first shops in Lisbon to sell mini-skirts. Like the O Casarão sign taken down earlier, all of these are precious fragments of a bygone era, making up part of the city’s collective memory. “We’ve had people become very sentimental after seeing a particular sign that they walked past in their childhood,” says Múrias. “It can elicit instant flashbacks to another time.”
“Our dream is to open a museum where we could stage exhibitions and also make the whole collection open to the public”
Beyond the stories of each establishment, the collection also tells wider narratives about the evolution of commerce in Portugal and shows how graphic and type design has changed the ways that businesses communicate over time. It’s these narratives that Múrias and Barata have tried to weave into the five exhibitions that they’ve put on in recent years to share the work of Letreiro Galeria. Signs for Costa Hairdressers or A Raposo Neto Textiles attest to how it was customary to name an establishment after its owners, prior to the emergence of global brands. “And even before that, graphic symbols would be used to identify the type of establishment, such as the still- customary pair of glasses atop an opticians,” says Múrias. Rhyming verses chanted by street sellers would later become catchphrases painted onto signs, a tradition that paved the way for modern advertising jingles and slogans.
Browsing the collection chronologically also tells the story of Portugal’s manufacturing prowess and how materials and techniques evolved from decade to decade – hand-painted glass was leapfrogged by metal plates and wood, before the emergence of illuminated signs, lightboxes, incandescent and neon lamps. “There’s so much to learn,” says Múrias who, inspired by her work at Letreiro Galeria, began pursuing a doctorate in design in 2016; her thesis focused on Lisbon’s 20th-century urban design.
Part of her weeks are currently taken up with scouring the city archives like an urban archaeologist, tracing the history of particular establishments to see how the design of shopfronts and signs have changed over time. “The bureaucracy of Latin countries works to our advantage here,” says Barata. “A licence from town hall is required for any little modification to a building’s façade and so everything is logged.”
Being one step ahead of construction companies has become Múrias and Barata’s modus operandi. “We have to get to a sign as soon as the establishment closes, before they start work on the building, if we are to keep it from being thrown away or broken,” says Barata. That involves travelling up and down the country to butter up business owners and make their project and intentions known. “At first, people were suspicious when we expressed interest in keeping their signs,” he says. “We often had to visit three or four times to convince them to donate them. It’s been getting easier though and the exhibitions that we have done have helped.” They make a point of hand-delivering invites to their events to past and potential sign donors, who are often happy to see them.
Despite Letreiro Galeria’s wide appeal, which touches on urban, cultural, graphic design and branding heritage, the project has struggled to secure any institutional support. “Shop signs are part of the vernacular so perhaps they don’t draw an elite crowd in the same way that an art gallery with a big, shiny name might,” says Múrias.
“Our dream is to open a museum where we could stage exhibitions and make the whole collection open to the public,” adds Barata, mentioning established neon collections such as the Neon Muzeum in Warsaw and Berlin’s Buchstaben Museum, plus the fact that the couple’s borrowed storage space is currently slated for demolition and redevelopment. Securing a permanent space would be the first step but they must also make the project financially sustainable.
Recently, Letreiro Galeria has begun to lease signs to TV and film production companies that want to bring some authentic design heritage to their sets. If the idea catches on, it could provide a welcome income stream. So far it’s been public generosity that has really made the difference. Cash donations are often used to repair broken signs in the collection. Next in line to be fixed is a large neon sign for Oculista Machado, an opticians in Lisbon; on seeing the unlit sign in one of the gallery’s exhibitions, the optician’s granddaughters felt compelled to make a generous contribution that would help it shine again.
The sign has since been taken to a workshop on the other side of town where Antonio Reis and his partner Jorge Neves will repair the broken letters, as well as shape tubes of glass on an open flame to recreate the original neon spectacles. The small studio is filled with a curious variety of tools and materials, including blowtorches, gas canisters, and flasks containing mysterious powders that gain fluorescent colours when in contact with neon or argon. It’s the kind of setting that you’d imagine an alchemist working in, making evident just how much goes into creating the magic luminescence of neon. “Everything here is done by hand” says Neves, who has, for six decades, been merging design, chemistry, electrical engineering and dexterity to make shining signs.
Despite the widespread popularity of led lamps, Reis and Neves aren’t short of work. The elegance of neon is still widely appreciated; it’s merely that the customer base has changed over the years. “While we previously went around the city looking for work from newly established cafés and restaurants, work comes to us now,” says Neves. “Decorators, artists and chefs are among our clients today.”
Still, it’s an industry on the verge of extinction. With fewer and fewer people willing to put in the hours to master the craft, Reis and Neves are among the country’s last practitioners. The prospect makes Letreiro Galeria’s effort all the more meaningful, safeguarding not only memories and graphic design heritage but also the last remnants of a fading craft. “It touches me to see a sign that I created 40 or 50 years ago still shining bright,” says Neves. “I truly value the work that Paulo and Rita are doing. I am proud to know them.”