A Sign for Brennan’s

Sign for Brennan's in St Louis

Behind where I was sitting, I heard the sound of a harmonica emanating from a small doorway that led to a narrow, stone stairway…

– Ethan Brandt (Once a Speakeasy, Always a Speakeasy)

Just over ten years ago, we received a request from a certain Kevin Brennan in St. Louis, Missouri. We had been making signs for less than two years at the time, and Kevin was just getting into the ‘speakeasy’ business. He wanted a rustic faux-timber sign for a cozy little tavern he was opening. It would be called, simply, ‘Brennan’s‘.

This was our first faux woodgrain sign, and we went out of our way to give it the antique look, using wire brushes, ball-peen hammers, chain and other techniques, to give the sign a beautiful patina finish. At the time, I smiled as I carved the phrase ‘Established 2003’ into the panel. How ironic, I thought, to create such an authentic piece of sign art, only to have a current established date reveal how new the sign really was.

Brennans Faux Woodgrain Sign

A Detail shot, showing the faux woodgrain & gilded letters

Sign Frame

We used a wire brush to give a ‘weathered wood’ look to the sign’s frame

Now, ten years later, the sign still looks as old as ever (in the best sense), and I’ve caught up with Kevin once again to see how the establishment has fared:

Kevin: We opened in 2003 as a retail wine, liquor and cigar store in the historic Central West End of St. Louis. Shortly after opening, we added an underground bar with a speakeasy feel.  To access the bar area, you would go around the checkout counter and down the stairs into a lower level.  Two years later, we opened a lounge and restaurant – The Maryland House – on the 2nd floor. Since then, we’ve added a cigar lounge and this will be greatly expanded in spring. We’ve been in business for just over ten years now.

When we first opened our doors, a close friend offered us this piece of advice; ‘Do what you want to do with the place and sell what you want to sell.  You can’t be everything to everyone so just do what you like to do.’ That’s exactly what we did, selling cigars, entertainment, booze, wine, craft beer, and small plates to snack on.

Brennans Cigar Lounge St Louis

The Cigar Lounge at Brennan’s (image courtesy of Cigar Weekly)

Although every bar has it’s share of disputes, at Brennan’s these are done in style, complete with referees and time limits. According to their website:’No one has pioneered intelligent debating on insignificant subject matter like Brennan’s.’ This heated and sometimes absurd debate series is known as ‘Arguments and Grievances’

Kevin: Arguments and Grievances was started back in 2005 at Brennan’s. This is an intense debate series on insignificant subject matter.  Once a month we host four live debates on topical yet sometimes irrelevant issues which have most likely never been broached.  Head to head debates consist of two contestants throwing verbal fisticuffs for three alternating one minute rounds.  Anything goes except for talking while your competitor is talking.  An objective referee oversees the bout. For example; Italian v Amish Furniture, Slow Food v Fast Food, Anheuser Busch v Schlafly Brewery (a Local St. Louis beer), Flip Flops v Moccasins, and many other topics.

Debating leagues have now formed in other major US cities.  These leagues were all started by individuals who started brawling at Brennan’s in St. Louis.  Those cities include Brooklyn, Denver, Austin, and Chicago. We’ve debated everything you have argued about and some things you haven’t even considered.

One thing that was not up for discussion was Kevin’s decision to purchase a hand-crafted sign for Brennan’s.

Handcrafted Sign For Brennans

We selected a hand-crafted sign because it’s one of the most important features to an establishment and – unlike most things – it’s posted right out front so there’s a good chance it’s a first impression.  Today, more than ever, creating a unique place and offering distinct products is more important than ever.  Everything here is constantly changing with the exception of our sign and some of the artwork.  We build things around these pieces and the ongoing story of completing that work tells the story of this place, and ultimately, who we are.  When we had the sign built, people laughed at the established date that we put on the sign because it was current.  They aren’t laughing anymore.

Brennans Sign

(Image courtesy of Somewhere in St Louis)

Besides our Danthonia sign, we have never advertised, but we still find a way to win some awards (even if they have to make up the category)

Here’s a list of some of the awards Brennan’s has received.

And one more thing … Thanks for the sign.  It hasn’t changed a bit.

Sign for Brennans St Louis

You’re very welcome!

Merry Christmas!

Hand-Painted Christmas Sign xmas2 xmas3 xmas4 xmas5

Christmas is just three days away, and we hope you all have a very merry one! A big thank-you to sign-painter Suzanne Bircher for painting & photographing this little sequence for today’s post.

Suzanne has been hand-lettering for many years, first in Charlotte and Beaufort, North Carolina, and later in Moorehead City. Though now retired and living the the country town of Dunn, she spends much of her time mentoring the next generation of sign-painting enthusiasts. Sometimes this is face-to-face, sometimes via email and the internet –  Facebook, Flickr and her own website, She Paints Signs.

I learned to paint signs from a Cuban guy that came to the USA playing minor league baseball. He saw a sign painter in a ball park and decided that was what he wanted to learn to do. He had a successful shop in Charlotte. There was a guy from Ecuador working there too. I learned a lot of swear words in Spanish!

I am good at lettering, but there are many other sign painters that are more interesting than me. I keep my hand in at lettering because I enjoy it and I don’t want to lose the skill. I rarely get any paying sign lettering jobs.

The revival of sign painters is mostly taking place in big cities. I live in a rural farm community. I try to keep up with news about sign painters and sign painting with my computer. I hope that The Sign Painter Movie will have a showing within a couple hours drive so I can go see it.

I was taught to vary the fonts and sizes of the letters in a sign. The most important part of the sign/message will be the larger or bolder lettering.

You need a big easel and some wide white paper, sometimes called butcher paper, for your practicing if you want to learn to paint signs. You use charcoal to draw light lines and layouts. After the paint dries you can wipe it off.

I get inquiries quite often through my Hand Painted Signs Facebook page, as well as thru my website, from young people wanting to learn to paint signs. I’ve had inquiries from as far away as Mexico, Germany, and China, as well as scattered through the USA. It is exciting that there is a renewal of interest in this great trade skill. New blood will help keep sign painting from becoming obsolete!

So, if you’re ever in the vicinity of Dunn, North Carolina, take some time to look up Suzanne – have a cup of coffee and paint a few strokes on butcher paper!

Hand-Painted Sign North Caolina

Suzanne’s sign (image coutresy of The Raleigh Sign Project)

Cans of paint north carolina

(image courtesy of The Raleigh Sign Project)

Sign Painting demo

Suzanne demonstrates her techniques to blogger Rebekah Zabarsky (Image courtesy of The Raleigh Sign Project)

Most importantly, ‘Have a Very Merry Christmas’!

Brush Strokes and Billy Karts: Brett Piva

graphic designer Brett Piva

Brett Piva at Work

Before the advent of the computer, novice sign-painters learned their trade at technical colleges and by apprenticing to more experienced practitioners. But for today’s enthusiasts, the first option isn’t available, and the second is mighty rare. Thankfully, though, there are a few artists, such as Brett Piva (of Pocket Design, in Newcastle), who are filling the gap – holding classes and teaching the art of sign-painting to those who are keen to learn.

I’ve always loved drawing, comics and cartoons. I remember my title pages in my text books during High School were better than any other work achieved throughout each year. I guess a mixture of illustration and creative art would have been the very beginnings until I started my trade and studied traditional signwriting.

Lettering was the second element of design I was introduced to after colour. When I was 15 I approached a local sign shop in my home town for some work experience for high school. I never knew what I really wanted as a career back in 1995 but I thought it would just fill in the forms and get it over with. I was more interested in music and just drawing. That’s all I wanted to do.

I had never really used paint before but I liked it. I liked it’s vibrance and the challenges it produced. It was like drawing but with your own unique colours.

Paint and Brushes

Tins of paint and brushes fill a table at Pocket Design

After the first week of work experience they offered me a part time job so I took it. It was the lowest minimum wage, long evenings and long weekends. Not the easiest or more common position for a high school student but it was different. Back then I liked doing things differently so it worked out. It was just good timing and pure luck that I fell into a creative career.

Hand-painted signs

From there I started studying traditional sign painting and letterforms through my apprenticeship and kept going until the introduction of vinyl lettering removed the creative processes from that life.

I do offer a hand made aesthetic through most of my projects. Yes, I produce digital work but whenever possible I use many hand made elements within this. One example is as simple as painting brush strokes,  scanning them in and using them as overlays in Photoshop to cover solid colours. It’s about going back to the beginnings and using original techniques then adapting it to digital work.

I believe there’s always been a passion for something hand made but right now it’s really at the forefront of design. People appreciate something that is not so straight, blocky and doesn’t look like everything or everyone else. Consumers are going back to admiring originality and their key difference to the next consumer.

sign for Regal Cinema

Brett paints a sign at Newcastle’s Regal Cinema

I believe it’s growing. Having a human element in a piece of work weather it be a design, a product, a piece of art, clothing or even an item of food will be more engaging than something produced from a production line or machine. People are starting to see a difference where it was recently once so generic, common and in all honesty… boring.


A Lettering Concept for ‘Maudie Macs’ Food Van

Designing with a hand made aesthetic in mind gives me the opportunity to try different things every week. Most importantly, standing up and getting away from my desk. It’s hard to say where it may go from here. Some may find it to be a fashionable thing that’s happening in design at the moment but it’s more about creating an emotional response which means a whole lot more than creating just a pretty picture. I feel comfortable with what I’m creating in my studio and feel I’ll still be creating it for many years to come.

Maudie Macs Sign

The finished sign turned out quite different.

I’m always trying to find time to seek inspiration and discover designers and sign painters. The first designers that come to mind would be the great Saul Bass, Neville Brody and Milton Glaser. Bass for his unique simplicity, Brody for his intensity and Glaser for his inspiring collection of work including the iconic  I ❤ NY logo, and his work with Columbia Records. There’s many modern designers that stand out to me but not as much as these guys have.

Milton Glaser Portrait

Milton Glaser (image courtesy of Milton Glaser)

Signwriters that inspire me more recently would be James Cooper from Dapper Signs in the UK. Just extraordinary work in his traditional methods of sign painting. TJ Guzzardi in Melbourne for the same reason. Beautiful letter and striping work. I’ve always followed Steve “Espo” Powers. Maybe because of the whole skateboarding and art combinations back in the day. Colt Bowden would have to be another modern sign painter in the states doing great things for the craft.

sign-painter at work

TJ Guzzardi letters an antique vehicle in Melbourne. (image courtesy of TJ Guzzardi)

Last year I was in San Francisco and literally filled my camera with images of incredible hand painted signs. Once I discovered it,  The Mission area  was where I ended up each day looking for new and inventive styles of typography. Turns out most of the signs were by a studio named New Bohemia Signs. Their work is really nice and clean. They seem to follow every given sign rule in the book and you can see why it works.

sign in San Francisco

A Sign by New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of New Bohemia Signs)

I also follow a tonne of typographers and letterers. Jessica Hische, Gemma O’Brien, Jon Contino, Jeff Canham (also a sign painter) and Wayne Thompson (local Novocastrian) to name a few. They all have a beautiful portfolio of work and you can see there is some sort of controlled freedom throughout most of it. Jaw dropping stuff.

Jon Contino Painting

Jon Contino at work (image courtesy of Jon Contino)

Teaching classes first came to mind after lecturing at Newcastle University at the beginning of the year. It was my first time and I discovered I loved sharing knowledge. This soon lead me to teach a couple of designers I know some basic tricks using a brush. They valued my input so I thought why not share with more.

Brett Piva signwriting class

Brett Piva give some tips to a lettering student

The classes run for a full day and are a fun but intense overview of sign painting at a beginners level. Basic equipment, traditional techniques and different Sign Paints are first discussed and inspected by the attendees. We then move on to some quick pressure testing with a brush and acrylic paint followed by painting a 3 inch alphabet of Egyptian Lettering. Each attendee then creates their own plywood sign with a word, phrase or number of their choice throughout the afternoon using Viponds acrylics and Oneshot enamels.

sign-painting class

Brett’s sign-writing class at work

All colours are mixed by the attendees using traditional colour theory. The idea is to get each person out of their comfort zone and get their hands dirty. They are a fun day where you can just mess around with colour and dive right into it. Attendees are never questioned about mistakes and they move at their own pace.

Sign-Painting Poster

Brett is planning more workshops in the new year, so stay tuned!

A broad range of people got involved also. We had a doctor, an engineer, a clothing store owner, a youth worker and lot of young designers wanting to try it out. It was very refreshing to see so many people taking an interest in traditional signwriting.

sign shop

The workshop after a lettering class

Where does the name ‘Pocket Design’ come from?

Ha ha! I get asked this a lot and usually leave it a bit unexplained as it’s not the most exciting story. But, here it is in full:
In 2006 I was heading to London to broaden my career as a mid-weight graphic and web designer. I needed to quickly come up with a freelance business name. I wanted something that was easy to remember, was reliable, didn’t really hold too much meaning and sounded good to me. I went through around forty names and settled on one I wrote on a piece of paper really late one evening/early morning and placed it in my pocket.

I searched for hours for this piece of paper the next day. After finding it in my jeans later that evening I read it out and thought it was terrible. I then settled for the most reliable place I’d keep my ideas. My Pocket. No hidden meaning, no direct message, no common and clever theme or phrase. Just… Pocket.

I was skateboarding a lot back then and it always reminded me of the sound of the trick ‘Pop Shove It’. So I liked it even more.
It worked in my favour in London. A few large creative agencies soon recognised me and referred to me as ‘The Pocket Rocket’ and kept me freelancing with them for many incredible months. I was quick, assertive and produced work without a complaint. I really enjoyed those creative and knowledgeable years in London.

design t-shirts

Along with work through Pocket, I look for avenues to get involved in creative arts by submitting work in to group show exhibitions. I’m trying to put together a body of work based on the signage that I saw in San Francisco and New York. it really inspired me to keep up my brush skills. The work will involve new and old painted signage while representing modern culture in those cities.
I’m looking to host some type based exhibitions in the studio in early 2014. I’ll be inviting people from Newcastle to submit along with other national and international creatives. I co-directed a gallery space in my spare time in early 2012 and learned a lot about curating and organising an event. Newcastle thrives on this kind of activity and I feel it’s a great opportunity to share what I love with the community.

I’ll soon be setting up a bridging course to help design students get ready for the industry. The design industry can be very tricky to find your feet in the beginning.  These courses will cover basic stuff that you can only learn in the industry. Basic practices that may not have been taught to them or common processes that they may have forgotten about.
Other than that, I seem to always have something on the go. Billy Kart racing, record collecting, sketching, planning exhibitions and workshops, overseas trips etc. Not enough time in the day really!

Billy Cart

The Emporium Newcastle

Some of Brett’s hand-lettering at The Emporium in Newcastle (image courtesy of Hannah Rose)

Hand-Lettered Wall

More of the same (image courtesy of Hannah Rose)

A recent interview on ABC

Some painting at Regal Cinema


A Gilded Fish at The Rocks

Fish at the Rocks Sign

(image courtesy of Out4Dinner)

Sydney in spring. Tonight you dine alone.
Walk up the Argyle Cut to Argyle Place
And turn left at the end. In there you’ll find
Fish at the Rocks: not just a fish-and-chip joint
But a serious restaurant, with tablecloths
And proper glassware. On the walls, a row
Of photographs, all bought as a job lot
By a decorator with a thoughtful eye:
Big portraits of the racing yachts at Cowes
In the last years before the First World War.
Luxurious in black and white as deep as sepia,
The photographs are framed in the house style
Of Beken, the smart firm that held the franchise
And must have had a fast boat of its own
To catch those vivid poses out at sea:
Swell heaving in the foreground, sky for backdrop,
Crew lying back on tilting teak or hauling
On white sheets like the stage-hands of a classic
Rope-house theatre shifting brilliant scenery –
Fresh snowfields, arctic cliffs, wash-day of titans.
What stuns you now is the aesthetic yield:
A mere game made completely beautiful
By time, the winnower, whose memory
Has taken out all but the lasting outline,
The telling detail, the essential shadow.
But nothing beats the lovely, schooner-rigged
Meteor IV, so perfectly proportioned
She doesn’t show her size until you count
The human hieroglyphs carved on her deck
As she heels over. Twenty-six young men
Are present and correct below her towers
Of canvas. At the topmost point, the apex
Of what was once a noble way of life
Unquestioned as the antlers in the hunting lodge,
The Habsburg eagle flies. They let her run,
Led by the foresail tight as a balloon,
Full clip across the wind, under the silver sun,
Believing they can feel this thrill for ever —
And death, though it must come, will not come soon.
– ‘Meteor IV at Cowes, 1913’, by Clive James 2009

Fish at the Rocks Sydney

Not every seafood restaurant can claim to be immortalised in verse. In fact, Fish at The Rocks is the only one I know of. It’s been a fixture of Kent Street for many a year, with its plate-glass windows shedding a warm light onto the footpath on many a dark evening.

Fish at the Rocks at night

Carved & Gilded Fish Sign

(image courtesy of John Bodin)

Technically, Fish at the Rocks isn’t at The Rocks at all, but just around the corner at Miller’s Point. The large brick building of which it is a part, was constructed in 1919, as a ‘commercial facility’ – a few shops for the growing suburb of Millers Point. The construction was paid for by the shipping companies, for whom money was no issue. In those years, sixty percent of Australia’s growing international trade made its way through the Sydney wharves. Some of the older locals remember a butcher shop behind the plate-glass.

Fish at the Rocks

By the nineteen-fifties, it had changed to a corner shop, and was doing a brisk trade with the many dock workers. It was famous for it’s ‘Aussie Burger’. In 1967, fish and chips were added to the menu, and business-people from the city could be seen rubbing shoulders with the blue-collar clientele in the small take-away. It had a reputation for the ‘best and freshest seafood in town’. In the subsequent years, Fish at the Rocks expanded their menus (they even make profiteroles), added function rooms upstairs and seating downstairs and, like any self-respecting business, they purchased a hand-crafted sign. Several of them, actually. Owner, Paul Tate tells a few more details:

I guess being here for so long helps to get known. We have always striven for quality over ease of production. For example we’ve always avoided frozen and pre-packaged products. Good customer service is a part of the culture here, and we’re probably a bit more personal than some places.

Chalkboard Menu Lettering

Lettering the Chalk Board

Before it became Fish At The Rocks in 1988 it was called ‘Bob and Di’s’ – primarily a take-away with all the usual hamburgers, et-cetera. Some of the older locals tell me that it was a butcher’s shop before 1950.

Referring to the house profiteroles, the Sydney Morning Herald once wrote; ‘Chefs must be working quickly as the pastry remains slightly crisp, providing a satisfying contrast with the filling.’ When I asked Paul about these, he answered:

The profiteroles were introduced to the menu quite a few years ago. They have proved to be very popular, we did take them off the menu for a time just for a change but put them back on due to popular demand. They are made with the classic French choux pastry. We change the variety of ice-cream filling from time to time but they essentially stay the same.


Profiteroles from Fish at the Rocks. (image courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald)

Still the same, and as popular as ever – a good analogy for the establishment as a whole. With plans to stay put for many more years, Paul invested in hand-carved & gilded signs.

We chose your hand carved signs to replace our old and tired vinyl sign because they are in keeping with the heritage and style of the area. They also stand out and reflect the quality of Fish At The Rocks.

Gilded Hanging Fish Sign

Our sign for ‘Curry at the Rocks’ can be seen in the background.

Gilded FIsh Logo

The Fish Logo, Hand-sculpted & gilded

And what about the poem by Clive James?

Somebody pointed the Clive James poem out to me a few years ago. It’s nice to know we inspired him enough to write a poem! Maybe I should get it framed and put it up on the wall , do you think I would need to get permission?

For Fish at the Rocks, I’m sure Clive wouldn’t object!

A Talk with Will Sears

Signpainter Will Sears

Will at work (image courtesy of Maine Project)

Once again, it’s back to Portland, Maine to meet up with Sign-Painter Will Sears. In our post about Gritty McDuff’s, Will shared some of his musings on Portland’s signage, past and present. Will undoubtedly has a good knowledge of the history of sign-painting and lettering, and this respect for the past shows in his work.

Growing up around my parents who were both self employed in creative fields was a big inspiration to do something that was a skilled trade and could be done independently of a big business. I stumbled across sign painting in particular by way of graffiti. Growing up in Philadelphia, it was hard to ignore the influence that Steve Powers had on the graffiti world. His tone that he set, along with Margaret Kilgallen that one could be doing their art, but also be doing a service to other small businesses and the community was a cool idea to me.

Steve Powers Street Artist

Steve Powers at work (image courtesy of Arrested Motion)

I’ve been making signs for about two years now, with no real formal training, but I’ve tried hard to really look into the traditional side of the sign game to guide my work. It’s been a humbling experience with a big learning curve for sure.

Will Sears

(image courtesy of Maine Project)

I had no real plan to end up in Portland. Right after school, I did a sculpture residency here in Maine with a good friend of mine from Philly under John Bisbee, an artist that I really look up to. Before I knew it, It felt like home. I like nature and the coast. Feels good to see the ocean everyday.

Portland, Maine has a really strong sense of “Local” pride which is great as a trades person. Its easy to get to know people who are in need of signs who take an equivalent amount of care and pride in their own work.

Pounce Pattern

(image courtesy of Maine Project)

Along with sign-painting, I also do fine art. The two go pretty great together. My studio is sort of set up as a hybrid for both. Luckily I use a lot of the same techniques so it feels like one is practicing for the other and vice-versa. The only down side is that they both demand a full time commitment. But I’m figuring out a balance day-by-day.

Sign Art

Will’s art happens to be very typographic as well, blurring the line between signage and fine art (image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)

For inspiration, I feel like I borrow from everyone, and if I start naming names I’ll leave someone out, but in particular, I’ve really gained a lot of insight just from studying New Bohemia painters, Josh Luke and Kenji Nakayama of Best Dressed, Frisso, all the PVS people really – Those folks are killing it. It’s been a pleasure to meet and talk with some of them. I’ll try to catch up and represent – also Steve Powers, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, and all the nameless regional painters through out the years that painted rock-solid Egyptian, casuals and script that haven’t necessarily gotten any real “fame” from it but do really classic, simple work.

Barry McGee Street Artist

Barry McGee (image courtesy of Jaunted)

At the moment, I’m working with my good friends at Oxbow Brewery up in Newcastle, making and painting a menu board for they’re tasting room. Also, continuing with an ongoing project with them, hand lettering label designs for their barrel aged beers, that Mason Miller from Checker Press converts to plates for letter press. A lot of fun working with these guys, They’re artists in their field and provide a lot of inspiration.

Hand-Lettered Beer Labels

Bottle Labels for Oxbow Brewery, Lettered by Will Sears (image courtesy of Oxbow Brewery)

Handpainted Brewery Sign

A sign for the brewery, also painted by Will (image courtesy of Oxbow Brewery)

Working with Broadturn Farm, painting their van was probably my favorite project so far but as soon as a sign is painted its done and its the process that’s my favorite part.

Hand-Painted Van

The side of the van Will painted for Broadturn Farm (image courtesy of Broadturn Farm)

Sign for Broadturn Farm

A Larger Sign for Broadturn Farm. This one is a collaboration with local muralist Tess O’Brien

The recent feature in Traditional Sign Maker Magazine generated a lot of support and love from friends and fellow painters. Thank you to them and my supporters!

Sign Painters Will Sears and Josh Luke

Will Sears and with Josh Luke (image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)

Workshop of Better Letter Handpainted Signs

(image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)

Hand-Lettered Alphabet Posters

(image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)




Hand-Lettered Signs

(image courtesy of Maine Project)