Stairwell B at the Museum of the City of New York

Signage & Environmental Graphics

Graphic installation for a stairwell at the museum, developed as part of a major renovation.

As much as New York is a city of walkers, it’s also a city of climbers. Living in an almost completely manmade landscape of buildings, towers and subways, New Yorkers probably spend more time on stairs than the inhabitants of any other American city. Pentagram has created a new graphic installation for a stairwell at the Museum of the City of New York that pays tribute to the city, its people and their many ups and downs.

The graphics are part of the signage program we've developed for a renovation of the museum by Ennead Architects. The installation transforms Stairwell B, a secondary staircase at the back of the museum, into a destination on par with the historic curving stairs that are the centerpiece of the museum lobby. Conceived as an interior tower of words and pictures, nearly every inch of wall space in Stairwell B has been filled with historic quotations about and photographs of New York.

In addition to all the subway entrances, fire escapes, and walk-ups throughout New York, the city is home to iconic stairways like the steps in front of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Main Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue, as well as the Theater Development Fund’s TKTS booth in Times Square. The first thing visitors see when they enter the lobby of the Museum of the City of New York is the building’s own dramatic curving staircase, originally designed by Joseph J. Freedlander and recently restored by Ennead.

The MCNY renovation also includes the pair of rear stairs that provide circulation to the building’s two wings, officially known as Stairwell A and B. We wanted to give these stairs the same amount of design attention as the rest of the building and presented the museum with the idea to turn the unglamorous spaces into an unconventional celebration of New York City—a hidden five-story exhibition that gives a sense of what it's like to be a true New Yorker. 

Working in collaboration with the museum curators Patricia Zedalis, Sarah Henry and Stephen Petrus, the designers selected over 20 quotations about New York by John Adams, Walt Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, Moss Hart and E.B. White, among many others. The carefully typeset quotations appear in the font Titling Gothic, in many different weights but always in all caps and justified. The typography complements the museum identity originally designed by Pentagram in 1997.

The quotations are accompanied by images selected from the museum’s collection by photography curator Sean Corcoran. Many of the images are little seen and have certainly never been presented at this scale. Mounted directly on the walls, the oversized historic photographs help open up the space and include vertiginous views of New York and its landmarks as seen from above and below. Most appropriately, several of the photographs feature the city’s other staircases, from a 1955 image of commuters on the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s escalators to a 1946 shot of a couple flirting on a fire escape taken by Stanley Kubrick.

Taken together, the type and images create a friendly visual onslaught that is crowded and slightly overwhelming, in the tradition of New York itself. Museumgoers experience a variety of voices and viewpoints as they climb and pass other New Yorkers on the stairs—something that is summed up in one of our favorite quotes from the installation, by William H. Whyte: “That’s the central function of a city: to bring people together, face to face, mano a mano. They talk about what a rat race it is, but they love it. That’s why the city will survive forever.”

Pentagram has previously used graphics to transform city staircases for several projects, ranging from superscale numbers for the stairwells of Bloomberg L.P., to motivational slogans for the New York Jets Training Center and Achievement First Endeavor Middle School, to cascading donor signage for The Cooper Union.

New York
Michael Bierut
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Stairwell B at the Museum of the City of New York
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