American license plates were once both simple and diverse. Every state had its own color combination. I was particularly fond of California's black and yellow. The numbers and letters were always rough, and usually a bit tall and narrow, so all those numbers and letters could fit the standard plate. But then the engineers took over and scientifically proved that certain color combinations were safer. Not to be outdone, the accountants figured out that people would pay extra for eagles soaring, wagon trains rolling, flags waving and broncos bucking. In most states, prisoners still made the plates and one of a handful of companies set up the presses, but the images lost their graphic purity and devolved into bumper stickers.
Montana, the Big Sky State, is now bigger than all that again. Its plate is strong and clear and the same one is offered to all. And its typeface, "Penitentiary Gothic," conveys both the ruggedness of the state's landscape and a slight tinge of outlaw danger. Montana's got it right.
Critic, curator and museum director Aaron Betsky is the architecture world's ultimate insider and tastemaker. He curated the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, ran Rotterdam's Netherlands Architecture Institute from 2001-2006 and these days, helms the Cincinnati Art Museum. See his previous blogs HERE and check back next Thursday for his next post.