The discreet charm
of burglar alarms
Why do I photograph burglar alarms? I can’t explain better than the article I wrote for Eye magazine 64, reproduced below. I soon had enough to publish an ongoing taxonomy – hence this blog. From 2010 to 2015 (one electoral term) I also categorised them by political constituency, to explore whether the designs reflected cliches of their local demographic.
» WHILE pursuing a seemingly endless project photographing shop-fronts, I started to become equally fascinated by the naively-designed burglar alarms that adorned them. Hundreds of specimens later, this sad typographic obsession still has me in its grip; after a recent trip to Wiltshire, I returned with one photo of a standing stone, and 76 photos of burglar alarms. The mega-security firms apart, it’s a local art, and it’s fun noting how styles vary by area. Amateurish logos predominate, seemingly designed by a jobbing printer or the proprietor’s child, possibly under the influence of drink. Rural liveries tend towards the whimsical, with jaunty creatures and decorative fonts. Well-heeled towns offer pompous serif concepts such as Decorum and Quality, while inner-city walls blare bold tabloid exhortations to STAND FAST and AMBUSH!
Some themes are universal. An Englishman’s home is his castle – and his burglar alarm’s got a picture to prove it (indeed, once beyond Britain’s CCTV-bristled shores, visible alarm boxes seem far rarer). Much iconography inhabits a strange Daily Mail-style realm, where the Blitz spirit lives on amidst a bizarre menagerie of not necessarily scary beasts (whales, pandas and unicorns have been spotted). It’s an old-fashioned monarchy where tower-dwelling aristocrats rule, shadowy villains crouch, and a chivalrous but heavily-armed militia keeps order – the pun on ‘knight’ being an added bonus. Unexplained acronyms abound, and the occasional outbreak of modernity is of the austere or cod-futuristic variety, marginalised and strangely poignant in its faded, dated optimism.
The burglar alarms’ physical environment is just as compelling. They often hide in obscure corners where the clashing colour schemes of two properties meet, or nestle incongruously amongst centuries of architectural detail. Lucky the alarm that is thoughtfully placed, neatly painted around, peeking through tailored tile-holes or protected by pigeon spikes. Most of its brethren languish unloved amidst layers of grimy urban accretion, paint-slopped, guano-streaked and swathed in wiry electrical gubbins. Saddest of all are the redundant alarms, their once-proud labels sun-bleached and peeling, destined to have rival firm’s logo pasted over, or become a mere ghost-shape on the wall behind a spanking new ‘security system’.
Therefore, whether you’re interested in vernacular design, socio-political signifiers, or simply the strangeness that is humankind, do not over (or under) look the humble burglar alarm. Examples can be found anywhere there are businesses and houses, from run-down shopping streets and rotting industrial estates to smart civic centres and chi-chi commuter villages. So next time you go for a walk, don’t look ahead – look up.