You’ve seen it. You know it. It’s a typeface used across all types of media. But when deployed for street-address numbers, it’s visual shorthand. This typeface is a denotation of a certain type of taste and style.
And it suggests something expensive. Though it’s not ostentatious or “fancy” or traditional luxe expensive. It’s a low-key, minimalist, design-savvy expensive.
The type-face is Neutraface and it’s the “gentrification font.” When you see new construction or house renovations going on in your neighborhood and the street address or signage appears in this font, WATCH OUT! Either it’s a case of “here comes the neighborhood” and prices are about to go up. (Which is great if you own and are looking to sell, but bad if you rent). Or you’re already part of the gentrification wave. And now you’re judging your new neighbors, sizing up just how tasteful they are. They’re your new brethren in your aspirational gentrifiers’ journey.
… gentrification is not an aesthetic but a systematic process of displacement. According to Lisa Berglund, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, gentrification constitutes a “change in average income level to more affluent clientele, usually”—a shift in class that’s also often tied to race. But while many scholars rely on quantitative changes to identify whether gentrification is happening—for example, a percent change in a certain demographic over time—Berglund said that cultural shifts, like visual changes, can also lead to cultural displacement. As a neighborhood changes, so does its branding in an attempt to signify that it’s “not what it used to be,” Berglund said, and to distance it from “whatever baggage people carry with [their] ideas about what a place is, or whether they belong there.”
Neutraface is not new, nor is its use in newly built and re-modeled homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. Nor is it the only telltale sign of the process. An argument might be as easily made for another gentrification clue — the construction of a “Malibu fence.” This is the horizontally-slatted wood fencing that suggests a Southern California beach-town vibe. This even though the beach may be dozens if not hundreds or thousands of miles away.
A decade ago, while still living in New York City, I spent a few months living on and off in Los Angeles. I was there while producing an ad campaign for a client based in L.A. I sublet a house for a few months in the Silver Lake-adjacent Echo Park neighborhood. Echo Park lies between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. At the time it was still a gritty, low-rent part of town but starting to gentrify. The house I rented not only had this type of Malibu fence, but it also had the Neutraface font on it. Go figure. And already then I suspected these design touches amounted to a type of visual code.
Which brings us to Neutraface itself. Why Neutraface? Well, first, Neutraface is named after Richard Neutra the famed architect who designed some of the most iconic Mid-Centry Modernist homes ever. Among these is the much photographed Los Angeles home known as Chuey House.
And second, Neutraface’s sleek, minimalist style suggests an urbane, contemporary lifestyle of laidback sophistication and ease amid airy space filled with California sunlight. Neutraface then, by extension, suggests this. It’s retro and recalls that modernist era and style albeit within a more contemporary context. As a san-serif font it speaks to a design awareness of minimalism and how such details communicate one’s taste.