Pentagram/Harper Collins

A look back at the challenges (and fun) of creating an identity for Disney’s New Urbanist experiment 20 years ago.

Celebration, Florida, isn’t exactly known as a symbol of authenticity. Developed by Disney’s real estate arm in the 1990s, mentions of it often lead to comparisons to the creepily pristine suburbia depicted in films like The Stepford Wives and Pleasantville. It’s even mocked in a Chumbawamba song. But to Michael Bieurt, it’s really not that bad.

The Pentagram partner headed the signage and branding work for the new town as Disney officials prepared to break ground on it a little more than 20 years ago. A former Vignelli Associates designer, Bierut has never shied away from modernity, as displayed throughout his new book, How To (Harper Collins, $50), as well as an accompanying show at the SVA Gallery in Manhattan. But his work for Celebration stands out as an anomaly of sorts in a retrospective that consistently looks fresh and bold regardless of the client. It’s especially true with his wayfinding projects like New York City DOT’s new parking signs and map displays as well as signage for Governors Island.

To New Urbanism’s detractors, Celebration is the most famous symbol of the movement’s flaws: A relentlessly nostalgic built environment that fights sprawl but fails to meaningfully address housing inequalities. As of the 2010 Census, Celebration is 81.9 percent white, non-Hispanic, with a median income of $79,636. Both figures are well above Orlando’s averages (41.3 percent and $42,147, respectively).

From a strictly design perspective, however, Bierut looks to the past as a reminder that authenticity isn’t exactly synonymous with American architecture. College campuses and leafy suburbs across the country are more likely to resemble proven ideas from the past rather than someone’s disorienting new vision of how we should live. He even describes his own neighborhood in Westchester County, New York—which he likes—as “a fake Craftsman-style house next to a fake colonial house, next to a fake Cotswold cottage thing, next to another fake thing.”

“No one has ever walked to my house and said ‘This seems quite inauthentic,’” he adds. “They say, ‘What a nice house, how many fireplaces do you have?’” With enough time, anything can become “authentic.” Even Celebration. “The older it gets,” he says in How To, “the more I like it.”

CityLab caught up with Bierut to ask him how he got involved in Celebration, what he thinks about his own work for it, and what “authenticity” means in the context of such a town.

How did you get the commission for Celebration?

In the early ‘80s, I was asked to do the graphics for an exhibition at the Architectural League of New York on the designs for a new town in Florida called Seaside by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk that a lot of architects pitched in for. I had never heard of Seaside before and I did terrible graphics for it. I was young and naive so I thought, “Florida. Seaside. What I’ll do is recall Miami, art deco, aqua,” horrible things. It wasn’t good.

Towards the end of the decade, David Money and Keller Easterling got the commission to do a book about Seaside and I designed it. Along the way, by doing work with and for architects over the years, I got to know a lot of them. I got to know Liz and Andres. I got to know Bob Stern, Jaque Robertson, Alex Cooper, and a lot of other architects in that era. Eventually, we [Pentagram] got invited to submit a proposal for this new project called Celebration, Florida, that was being done by a division of the Walt Disney company called Disney Development.

I think one of the reasons we got hired was because we had acquired a fluency in New Urbanism almost by accident. To a certain degree I had internalized the precepts of it along the way and was genuinely curious about how you could find graphic design corollaries to the principles New Urbanism was founded on. Celebration ended up being a way to explore that and figure out how you could do a modern wayfinding system out of modern materials but not have it feel obtrusive or too corporate and have it fit in with the landscape as if the ensemble of buildings was meant to all fit together.

I think part of this was Michael Eisner’s interest in architecture at the time, but the people we worked with at Disney Development weren’t Imagineers or Disney corporate types; they were seasoned real estate developers. Everyone on the team really was a true believer. They thought that this radical and somewhat untested idea of New Urbanism could have the chance to happen at scale with serious money and ambitions behind it. I’ve had cynical clients over the years, but the team involved at Celebration was not one of them. There were people in that group who really thought that this would be a way to change the way that houses and neighborhoods were built in America.

How long did it take to develop the branding and wayfinding system?

The overall project was one of the longest ones I’ve ever worked on—a good six, maybe eight years on and off doing things. The basic premise of it took six months or so, just getting it oriented, getting a sense of what the program was, and resisting designing a logo for the town.

A Celebration, Florida, watch. (Pentagram/Harper Collins)

Business people tend to feel like because they’re working on a project, they need a logo. We kept saying that towns don’t really have logos, although they do have seals. A classic municipal seal actually made some sense. Tracy Cameron, one of my designers, was already creating an insignia that could go on the manhole covers so we created this huge scope that also included fences and street signs and all the markings on the retail and municipal buildings.

The manhole cover had this motif of a boy on a bike with a tree and a dog that seemed to be very “American small town” in feel. We had also done a lot of research and turned up different kinds of nice, warm signage programs from the early 20th century for places like Forest Hill Gardens, New Rochelle, Winter Park. They weren’t just lettering and they certainly weren’t Helvetica, but they would incorporate elements that were pictorial and evocative. There was this nice kind of handcrafted, storytelling quality to them, so we were always trying to figure out ways to get pictures into the signs somehow.

Tracy had that kid on the bike, so we thought we should just adapt that manhole cover into the town seal and indeed that became the symbol for Celebration, Florida. The boy got changed to a girl with a ponytail because one of the executives at the development company had four daughters, so he wanted a girl on the bike instead. There’s also a Celebration wristwatch with the girl on a minute hand and a dog on the second hand.

We came up with the theory behind how we’d organize things—what would look alike and give the town a certain identity, as well as what would vary. We decided that all the basic infrastructure elements of the town, everything that would have been built by the department of public works, would use the same typeface family because it was all coming out of the same sign shop to a certain degree.

We picked Cheltenham for the basic town signage, the street signs, the wayfinding signs, and the incidental signs that were all built into the basic infrastructure. It’s a serif typeface that has very robust serifs, but it’s not pointy or sharp. It has a nice roundness to it. It sets the tone for the town. Coincidentally it was designed itself by an architect, Bertram Goodhue, so that seemed to add to its appeal to all the architects we were working with.

A typical streetsign in Celebration, Flordia. (Pentagram/Harper Collins)

All the major building signage would vary as if they had been commissioned separately by the respective architects of those buildings. We did the retail signs, the signs on the movie theater Cesar Pelli did, the post office Michael Graves did, the town hall Philip Johnson did, the bank Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi did. We had a different treatment for each one of those that was customized to the architecture.

Has the town stuck to that design philosophy?

Yeah, they’ve been very faithful to it. They’re nothing if not consistent on that. Last I saw, all the new street signs were following the basic playbook we had set up.

Was there any backlash in the design world to Celebration’s nostalgia aesthetic?

New Urbanism is viewed with suspicion and even outright hostility by people within the architectural community. And the fact that Disney was the commissioning client sort of made the whole thing seem even more suspicious than it would have been otherwise. But it was actually very idealistic. We could have done a contemporary signage program for it but that requires a sort of hubris that I don’t actually think I possess: that the part I’m contributing must be of its time and stand in stark contrast to its surroundings.

Commerical signage in Celebration, Florida. (Pentagram/Harper Collins)

Anyone working in a New Urbanist context comes up against this question of authenticity and what’s real and what’s fake. I live in Westchester county and by the time I was doing Celebration, I was living in Sleepy Hollow, New York, in a Craftsman-style house from 1913. It wasn’t by Greene and Greene or any sort of legendary architect, it was just someone who had presumably seen pictures of that kind of thing in books and decided to throw up something like it. By the time we moved in 80 years later, it was just a lovely, leafy green neighborhood where every house seemed pleasant and nice.

I happened to see a picture of it from 1915 or 1916 when there was freshly plowed dirt and the few trees were six feet tall and supported by sticks in the ground. They all just looked like typical American eclecticist houses, the kinds of things that would have driven Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Howard Roark insane. Yet now it’s all grown up and looks like this lovely neighborhood where the houses all have a patina and it all seems very pleasant.

Trying to “be authentic” is really hard. It’s particularly hard for graphic designers. Even if you strive for absolute originality, you’re still bound by the shapes of the letters in the alphabet if you want to communicate with everyone. You could say, “This way of doing a capital S is bullshit. I have a new vision of how we’re gonna write S’s and they’re not gonna resemble the conventional letter S at all.” Well, no one’s gonna read what you write. Automatically, there are 26 occasions to conform to tradition and then everything else kind of proceeds from there. Street signs don’t work unless they look like street signs, because people aren’t going to be decoding some reconception of the American street sign while they’re coming up to an intersection at 25 miles per hour.

Everything is walking this line between what convention is and what kind of customization you do as you’re executing those things.

Today, it all looks like it’s from the era that it was created in. The typeface, the colors, they all have a very 1994, 1995 look to them.

That’s what’s so strange about it! I was just in the Ford Foundation building the other day. I know that Kevin Roche thought he was inventing the future when he did that building in the 1970s. It preceded all of those Portman hotels, the idea of having an atrium with a garden that all the offices would look out onto instead of the city. It was completely unprecedented but now you walk in there and it just seems like the most ‘70s place you’ve ever been in your life, and in a great way. Without diminishing the quality of the design at all, it inevitably became of its time. Roche wasn’t setting out to create a period piece, but everything becomes a period piece.

Bob Stern, one of the master planners of Celebration, is doing new dorms up at Yale that are faithful reproductions of the colleges on the old campus which has Collegiate Gothic everywhere. Someone could say that he’s being inauthentic, that the original ones were authentic, but believe me, at the time, anyone who had been to Oxford, England, would say, “Those Americans are building a fake college in New Haven.” They were trying as best as they could at the time to replicate their notion of what a college should look like by reiterating this Gothic architecture.

People try within the best of their abilities to both honor the moment they’re in and respect the context that they’re building in. With graphic designers, our stuff is playing a supporting role in all of that. People will rely on looking at street signs without registering that there’s design intent behind them, although one of the nice things about certain kinds of signs is that they end up being iconic and quintessential for the place they represent—whether it’s a London borough sign that really looks like Chelsea or Kensington, or a New York subway sign that looked like the future circa 1969. These things are supposed to be charging pure function, but end up creating a sense of place despite themselves. In Celebration, they were trying to channel the 1920s or teens, not the ‘90s.

Have you been back to Celebration recently?

I haven’t been back lately but I did go back at least ten years after it was built, and 12 or 15 years afterwards, too. As predicted, I think it all just has to do with the trees growing in and the place just feeling more confident. At the time we were working on that project, my mom and my dad and my in-laws had places in Ft. Myers, Florida, like every older person from Northern Ohio. If you want a glimpse of an Orwellian hellscape, Del Boca Vista phase III is much scarier than Celebration. There’s no gate at Celebration. Its golf course is a public golf course.

There’s a sameness that characterizes the sprawl so prevalent in places like Florida. Say what you will about Celebration, but it’s not cookie cutter sprawl. It’s a different sort of thing, and if you judge it for what it is, I think it actually comes off pretty well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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