Juan Nava is a graphic designer in Valencia, and has been working on a fascinating personal project to document and capture the essence of signs and public lettering from that city, and beyond. Letras Recuperadas (‘Recovered Letters’) has evolved into a blog and Juan hopes to one day publish the material in book form (hint, hint, editors take note…). We’re delighted to share some of his work, and a bit about the history and evolution of the project.

Teléfono. Sigüenza / Guadalajara, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

Juan started his career in 1970 as an art director in different agencies, combining his skills as an interior designer and window dresser. This developed into working as a graphic designer, before going freelance in this capacity in 1995. It was then in 2004 that the genesis of Letras Recuperadas came about.

“For the occasion of the first Typography Congress in Valencia (June 2004), I edited a book called Itinerarios Tipográficos (‘Typographical Itineraries’) as a guide, which detailed walks through places in Valencia where old commercial signs are preserved. After that, I continued photographing signs from my city and wherever I was travelling for the purpose of documentation purposes, focused on those with certain characteristics and from a particular period.”

Caminos de Hierro del Norte. Valencia, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

It was Juan’s documentary approach that led to the next stage, which is the process of recreating the lettering in digital form and extracting their essential features.

“In the project, the photographs are subject to a rework which breaks the scale and the perspective of the original physical object, delimits it and eliminates the historical noise. This process is concluded with cleaning work by digitally redrawing the signs in a neutral color, without context, allowing the study or enjoyment of its purely typographical qualities, which in the end is what interests me the most of this project.”

Pablo Navarro. Valencia, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

The resulting images form wonderful juxtapositions when placed side by side with the originals, and this is what forms the basis of Juan’s regular posts to the blog. His site is five years old now and, to date, he has vectorised 232 signs with 203 of these published. I wondered what drives him to undertake this painstaking work.

“This project defends and reclaims the aesthetic validity of these signs which are almost always modest in origin. Likewise, the craftsmanship of the old sign makers, a traditional profession which is now practically extinct, at least around here. I’m very interested in the younger generations ‘discovering’ these things and, perhaps, intriguing them with the output of a period when the computer wasn’t known or expected.”

Granja La Sierra. Madrid, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

With such a large body of potential material at his disposal, I asked about the criteria that he uses to select the signs which will be ‘recovered’ through his process.

“I always try to make sure that the style of lettering has some unique characteristics, apart from its place of origin and the technique with which has been built. My selection and documentation ends when the mechanised signs start. I’m only interested in the craft work, the signs that exhibit this quality in various media. The redundancy (or otherwise) of the signs isn’t an aspect that influences my selection as I am most interested in the typographical qualities of the signs, rather than the trading status of the business advertised.”

J. Richart. Cocentaina / Alicante, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

Despite the fact that Juan includes signs for both active and redundant businesses in his project, there has been a remarkable level of loss among those he has documented.

“Since I published Typographical Itineraries in 2004, 60% of the signs I photographed have disappeared. This is a huge loss of part of the heritage and the visual memory of the city.”

Chique Pensào. Porto, Portugal (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

However, through Juan’s work, the signs survive in some sense and his efforts meet the requirements for the most basic level of sign preservation: documentation. It has also taught him a lot, and facilitated connections with others around the world who share his passion for hand-crafted signage of all kinds.

“I’ve learnt that there are more people than I imagined who are interested in the world of old signs, and that the project allows other people to discover them and also start to appreciate them. Since I’ve been running the project, I regularly receive pictures of signs that my friends send me when they travel and also I receive photos from people I follow on Instagram, who I’m yet to meet, something that I really appreciate. I try, of course, to redraw and publish them regularly, but only ask that people are patient when waiting for them to come online!”

Incàltàminte. Bucharest, Romania (Photo: Rosa Noguerales)

Image by Juan Nava

You can find Juan’s blog at www.juan-nava.com/letrasrecuperadas and follow him on Instagram via @letras_recuperadas and on Pinterest via @juannavagrafico. Thank you Juan for your generosity in sharing these images, and to Sarah Hyndman at Type Tasting for making the introduction to Juan and this wonderful project.

Manuel Muñoz Moran. Córdoba, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

Frutos secos. Valencia, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava

Sastrería Saiz Guzmán. Madrid, Spain (Photo: Juan Nava)

Image by Juan Nava