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Elements of Surprise: New Orleans Design Landscape

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Enchanting, Mysterious and… Often Whack-O

[Editor’s Note: Nancy Sharon Collins is a designer, educator and font-o-phile who lives in NOLA. She will be a regular observer of NOLA design mores throughout 2012.]

As anyone can guess, life at Delgado Community College in New Orleans is very different from my 27 years in private graphic design practice in New York City, where design is not merely a vocation, it’s a life style. It is pervasive—inescapable.

But down here, visual evidence of design industries (graphic, architectural, landscape, textile and product) are not obvious. And, I have come to believe that this is a very good thing. Whereas in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas or Chicago, “design” can be ostentatiously apparent, down here ethnographic diversity, mystery, things-not-always-as-they-seem and the self taught and handmade render a more distinctive design landscape . Tradition, heritage and indigenous culture shape everything.


Today, the NOLA visual legacy is dominated by storefronts, signs and billboards in brightly-colored Caribbean style and antebellum curlicue-filigreed silhouette shapes laid on top of naive art or outsider imagery. This collision of styles can be staggering, like some of the tourists often seen on Bourbon Street.  The gargantuan shapes and forms of ship-building and the loading cranes that run in acres lend their own brooding, industrial presence all along the Mississippi. The scale of these river and sea-going vessals, like ships, barges, tug-boats and other colossal maritime artifacts dwarf the human experience even more, it seems to me, than the legendary skyscrapers of Manhattan.


In NY, everyone feels that they can be King Kong (or Faye Ray)—here, a super tanker makes you feel like an ant. Here, history humbles.

New Orleans is an internationally important city but it often reveals its agrarian and rural roots. For example, students her are exposed to different visual stimuli than the riches that were cast before me. As a teacher, I feel compelled to expose my students to the visual world of my memory and experience. I share the Swiss movement I learned at the Kansas City Art Institute. I bring up the aerodynamic, the mid-twentieth century styles still pervasive in New York while I was in grad school at the Hartford Art School. I reveal the inspiring work of Steff Geissbuhler, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar as though sharing secrets from my diary.


Still, I do not wish to hold these reference up as “better,” merely that these people and design movements are fundamental, essential, like the life-giving Mississippi itself. I want them to take these lessons—then apply them to their lives and influences here.

NOLA has given me a new perspective on all that I ever knew and grew up with. I now can see how my native north can seem comparatively cold, and somewhat selfrighteous, self-conscious. Not here: it is warmth and exhibitionism in it highest form. Across Louisiana people not only care about their roots, land and cultural structure, these things sustain and protect them, our sub-tropical students bring forward their native friendliness and vitality, their love for all things celebrated outdoors or, at the least under the cover of a porch or the awning of a fishing boat: here family, food, and fun run across four seasons.


No North American culture lives more for the dead than the citizens of Lower Louisiana, as evidenced by New Orleans’s 46 cemeteries. Their enthusiasm for everyday life charm and inform millions of tourists annually. Their enthusiastic embrace of inherited traditions is infectious, as we all know from the region’s famous festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, their Creole celebrations, , their Cajun fêtes, their spooky voodoo rites, their snarling pirates, and, aside the Gulf of Mexico, you cannot escape petrochemicals or seafood festivals, Oh, and this small celebration attended each year by a few: Mardi Gras.

Over the next few months, I will share some of the elements that make design education and life in NOLA such a fulfilling experience. This quickly reforming Yankee is gleefully, luxuriantly, reveling in the joys and lessons of my adopted home. So I want to share these lessons I am learning about living on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi and a new-found, very colorful and personal kind of growth.


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  1. 02

    As a working sign painter in New Orleans for the last sixteen years, I have to disagree with the statement that New Orleans’ visual legacy is “dominated by brightly colored Caribbean style and antebellum curlicue filigree silhouette shapes laid on top of naive art or outsider imagery”. Those elements are present in the landscape, but such a description doesn’t take into consideration the true sophistication of most traditional New Orleans signs.
    With the exception of the Galatoire’s gold leaf window lettering, which was just redone by my company in an exact replica of the original window lettered over forty years ago, the examples shown with the article emphasize a style that amounts to awkward caricature of the traditional formal lettering and elegant ornament that represent most of the city. Even the Swiss style is very present in New Orleans, particularly in the business district. Outsider art plays a role, but is notable BECAUSE it is so different from most signs here in the city. Self-taught artists sometimes do make signs for their galleries, which are charming, but to say that their work dominates the artistic landscape makes the same mistaken assumption as tourists who visit the French Quarter and think the most representative music in New Orleans is the street corner brass band.
    This is a very complex culture and environment, full of vibrant self-expression, but also full of the same seasoned blend of well-aged subtlety that creates widely diverse cuisine and makes visitors react to New Orleans as the most European of American cities. Come on down and see for yourselves!