Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

No kicks on Route 66

American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66

By Lisa Mahar. Design by Lisa Mahar and Ashley Sargent<br>Monacelli Press, &pound;23.98, USD40

Route 66, from Chicago to LA, epitomises that element of the American dream that is ‘on the road’ almost as much as that other icon of mobile America, the motel. The symbol that lies between drivers and their beds is the motel sign. This book is a history of the motel sign on Route 66.

‘Signs,’ writes Maher, ‘represent a concrete physical manifestation of an idea held in the mind of the maker. In this sense, signs can reveal the beliefs and values of the men who made them. Innovations or mutations to existing patterns of sign composition generally represent other, larger changes – economic, political or social – occurring within the culture.’

Both the culturally saturated subject, the promise of the introduction and the cool cover all suggest a stimulating cultural analysis through the window of the sign. Perhaps if I’d been aware of the author’s previous interest in grain elevators I would have been better prepared for the contents, which are a good primer for Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards. The text and design of this book are a model of clarity. Each chapter spans a decade of motel sign design and begins with a brief thematic overview and concludes in a summary and link with the next introduction. Between these are images, maps and diagrams which reiterate the introductions and conclusions. The structure most resembles a lecture, given with the aid of overhead projections, of the kind often delivered in motel conference suites.

The big idea behind the book is that the development of motel signs closely follows the theoretical model of evolution and this really sums up the problem with this book. In its earnest desire to be a rigorous and theoretically informed analysis it misses the point of theoretical analyses: that is, to shed a new light on a subject. Here theory is called upon to reinforce the novel view that things change in response to external circumstances – Duh!

This literalness is repeated endlessly throughout the book in some inadvertently comic ways. There is a double-page illustration showing a map of Route 66 and examples of motels which use a saguaro cactus in their sign. The point of this is not to demonstrate the fact that Route 66 was symbolically the route West to the promised land (rather than East) and the cactus was a simple yet potent symbol of the West, but simply to show that the image is used in places where the saguaro cactus doesn’t grow!

This tendency to overdetermine the analysis is particularly evident in the section on signs of the 1950s called Abstraction and Self Expression. Here, there is an attempt to establish the formal etymology, as it is termed in the book, of the elements of a sign for the Hacienda Motel from the realms of art and science, though in fact the illustration focuses entirely on a supposed link with the surreal abstraction of Klee, Miró and Calder. The clarity of the diagram is such that the tenuousness of these links is clear since the examples shown bear no relation to the sign at all.

The real problem of the book is the seriousness with which it approaches its subject. It is as if in order to make the study of popular culture seem respectable field of enquiry it must be approached in a manner that apes the art history and anthropology of the 1950s. The method chosen is a formal analysis that while seemingly appropriate to a visual subject ignores the fact that, as the author notes, these signs are rich in popular cultural signifiers and are hence much more like dense textual poems. These require an analysis that reveals the discourse in these signs, the most obvious of which is the idea of the West which so dominates them that they seem to lie on a road leading only one way.

Did you know Route 66 was still partly a dirt road until 1938? Or that motels started life as safe campsites? These facts are tantalisingly dropped unexplored into the text. Perhaps in the US, Route 66 is so well understood that there is no need for another book detailing its social history. But to those interested in the creation of the icons of the American dream, understanding Route 66 is more about understanding the evolution of the myth than the number of motels with Spanish/Mexican names or the drawbacks of Helvetica as a roadsign typeface. Yet it is precisely this nerdy insensitivity to reality combined with great illustrations from a peerless collection of postcards that give this book its undoubted fascination.