The sole purpose of house numbers used to be to convey whether you were in the right place. These days, they're doing much heavier lifting.
In some neighborhoods, a particular typography signals that a house has been flipped. In other cases, address signs alter an exterior's overall vibe - sleek copper numbers on a reclaimed wood background can signal "modern farmhouse" even if they're attached to a traditional Colonial revival. As other parts of our homes have been HGTV-ified and terms like "curb appeal" have seeped into the lexicon of average homeowners, house numbers have become almost as loaded with meaning as the white-picket fence.
They "start the story: Who is this? What does this say about the people who live here?" says Renée Stevens, a designer and chair of visual communications at Syracuse University's Newhouse School. "What they do, beyond function, is they add personality."
House numbers were once a foregone conclusion. Throughout the 20th century, entire neighborhoods would order the same style from a door-to-door salesperson, or install the model their civic association chose. People now have nearly unlimited options; search Etsy and you'll find more than 34,000 choices. The only U.S. Postal Service regulation is that numbers exceed one inch in size.
Interior designer Betsy Burnham, principal of Burnham Design in Los Angeles, says house numbers never used to be part of her conversations with clients. But now it's common to carve out time at the end of a job to pick the perfect ones. This attention to a previously overlooked detail, she speculates, is simply part of a larger cultural shift over the past two decades toward appreciating design: "We're conscious of it, we're inundated with it."
Allison Vaccaro, founder of exterior design firm Brick&Batten, says she saw interest in house numbers intensify even more during the pandemic. The odd coupling of economic uncertainty and a surging housing market meant "people were looking for ways to update their houses that weren't going to cost a lot of money," she says. Small, do-it-yourself upgrades like switching up house numbers and planters were easy ways to "make a big difference with curb appeal."
She offers another theory, too. As various flavors of modernism have surged - from the Mad Men craze of the 2000s to Joanna Gaines's rustic-slash-industrial version of the 2010s - "the house numbers came with it." You're probably not going to bulldoze your traditional home, she explains, but "you might use house numbers to tell the world, 'Yeah, I might live in this Colonial, but I'm not that. My personality is modern."
This would explain why sans serif numerals are dominant. (Serifs are the little tails and flourishes that extend off a letter's edges - for example, the ledges at the top and bottom of a letter "I." So, a typeface that is "sans" those fussier details generally come across as modern.) One sans serif typeface, Neutraface, has become so ubiquitous in fast-changing urban areas that it has earned the nickname "gentrification font."
"These older neighborhoods are being revamped and redeveloped, and one of the first things that you notice is that these modern house numbers are going up," says Will Zhang, director of design and product innovation at Emtek, a decorative hardware company.
Enough developers have slapped Neutraface (or a look-alike) onto their builder-grade flips that designers who work on higher-end projects are seeking alternatives. Vaccaro says her company has slightly adjusted which typography it uses.
"Everybody was doing the exact same modern sans serif - very clean, very straightforward," she says. Instead, she has moved toward a more retro, mid-century spin - for instance with zeros that are circular, rather than oval-shaped. "Ours was more about differentiating that look because it was becoming so overpopulated."
At Tucson-based Modern House Numbers, the only serif - i.e., more traditional - option among the company's seven available fonts has lately experienced a sales boost, says co-founder Brandy McLain. Still, the most popular style remains a sans serif called Palm Springs, described on the website as "Neutra-inspired." Starting at $24.50 per number, the company's signage typically appeals to homeowners and custom builders, rather than to flippers doing things on the cheap.
McLain founded Modern House Numbers with her husband 15 years ago. "We really wanted some bold house numbers out front," she says of their newly remodeled home at the time. But the market overwhelmed them - hundreds of typefaces and dozens of finishes, yet none that spoke to them.
The couple opted to make their own out of aluminum cut with a water jet. When strangers began knocking on the door to inquire about the numbers, McLain says they realized "maybe this is our mission."
Today, the couple sells about 300 residential orders per week.
Aside from typeface, a slew of other attributes can factor into the message that house numbers send. Typical digits run about 6 inches in size, but opting for a larger scale is particularly en vogue, Vaccaro says. Part of that is about function - bigger numbers are easier to read - but it's also a way to draw more attention to whatever aesthetic you've chosen.
Another increasingly popular flex: Building a stand-alone wall just as a place to mount your house number.
"You can do a whole landscape positioning and up-lighting onto a number that's been placed on a wall," Vaccaro says. "That's how big house numbers are getting. It's not just that they don't live on the mailbox anymore, they sometimes have their own wall."
More people are also using letters to spell out their address, such as FIFTY-FOUR TWENTY-ONE instead of 5421. It isn't exactly practical - think about an ambulance driver trying to quickly decipher that. But "it speaks to the fact that people want their homes to be unique," Zhang says.