A Chat with Christian Helms

Christian Helms

Christian Helms

Today, we have the pleasure of catching up with well-known designer Christian Helms, of Austin-Based Helms Workshop. This little studio has gained a huge reputation in design circles, especially for the work they’ve done on a restaurant called Frank. This place is anything but clean and minimalist. On the contrary, it’s a feast for the eyes, bursting with rich typography, signage and vintage ephemera. Likewise, much of the work that Helms produces has a high level of grittiness and ‘handcraftedness’ to it, which is just up our street.

(Christian) – I actually majored in Journalism and Mass Communication in college, at the University of North Carolina. I grew up in a small North Carolina mill town, and I honestly didn’t really grasp that design was something you could choose to do for a living. I mean, there weren’t designers in Bessemer City, North Carolina. So, most of the design I saw was either crudely hand rendered or very plastic and manufactured.

Bessemer City

Osage Mill, Bessemer City (image courtesy of Bessemer City)

I still really love hand-rendered signage made by non-designers. There’s an honesty and an urgency to it that’s beautiful. Inside the utilitarian intent there are unique quirks and visible choices that fascinate me.

Vernacular Letters Miami

A Hand-Painted Sign in Miami’s ‘Little Haiti’ Neighbourhood (image courtesy of Vernacular Typography)

I found design toward the end of college, and it was an epiphany. But I had no experience. I put myself through grad studies at Portfolio Center to build up a skill set and portfolio.

Michael Beirut

Michael Beirut (image courtesy of AIGA)

When I was a student at Portfolio Center, One of the associate partners from Pentagram Design (Kerri Powell) visited the school and did a workshop that culminated in a design competition— the winner was to receive an internship position on Michael Beirut’s team, and I was fortunate enough to be that guy. Michael is absolutely brilliant (not exactly a secret), and working with him was like a second education. Kerri and the team took me under their wing and I ended up doing a lot of stuff that was pretty rare for interns. I worked on a handful of projects with just Michael and flew to my first press check. The printer was in Kentucky and the piece was a massive sales publication for a luxury real estate project by Central park. The only instruction I got was “Don’t tell them you’re an intern, and don’t screw it up.” It was awesome.

The Atlantic Logo

In 2008, Beirut redesigned the logo for The Atlantic (image courtesy of Pentagram)

People ask me ‘Why Austin?’. It’s funny, the answer to this question remains the same as when I first moved here in 2003, but the context has changed over the years. I had a brief stint in New York before visiting Austin for a creative conference, and I just fell in love with it. Manhattan wasn’t the right fit for me, and Austin was a remarkable contrast: warm weather, cheap beer, Tex-Mex, amazing music and lots of space.

Austin Mural

(image courtesy of Lady Gouda)

I used to answer that question as a fresh new face in town, but now I’ve been here for ten years. I love Austin even more now than I did back then. I met my wife here and had a son. I’ve started businesses, and I’ve met some of my favorite people on the planet here.

Roadside Relics

The Roadside Relics Shop (image courtesy of Sweet Peach)

As the city continues to grow I think we’re doing a good job of keeping our eyes on the things that have always made Austin unique and enjoyable. Outside of the Carolinas, there’s no other place in the country I love more.

Austin Sign

(image courtesy of Poppy Talk)

We’ve worked for big multinational brands as well as small local places. The truth is the truth, whether you’re big or small. I think what we do best is finding the things that make a business different, and building a unique and compelling identity around that— in a way that feels personal and sincere.

Top Hops Signs

Christian designed the identity and signage for Top Hops in New York. (photo by Christopher Lane)

I’m working on a case study right now that will land on the site with a number of others early this year. It’s just hitting the news cycle. This year marks the establishment of the ninth Trappist brewery in the world, and the first ever on U.S. soil. We worked with the monks on brand identity and packaging. It was an amazing experience, and we’re really excited to be part of a little piece of history. Beer history, even!

Trappist Ale

Spencers Trappist Ale (image courtesy of NPR)

I guest-designed a boot for a local entrepreneur named Joshua Bingaman, who owns a company called Helm Boots. The similarity in name was a running joke with us. He’s gotten a number of calls intended for us, and we’ve even had a few folks show up at the studio, thinking it was their retail location.

Helm Boots

Helm Boots

One of the veins that I think runs through all of our clients is a real, deep commitment to what they’re doing.Whether it’s Trappist monks in Massachusetts, a theater chain out of Austin or a global brand team in Louisville, the clients we work with care. They’re not just moving widgets to increase revenue. They care about what they’re doing and invest in the brands personally, the same way we do with our work. I believe the public can feel that, and connect with it. We don’t get a lot of calls from big, faceless corporations.

Top Hops Storefront

(photos by Christopher Lane)

Any area where you can differentiate yourself is an opportunity. If we can grab someone on the street and create interest or pique curiosity, and then deliver on that, we’re creating a valuable experience.

Jack Daniels Sign

The sort of exterior signage you’re talking about is a chance to share what the business is about— not just in what the sign says, but in how it’s crafted. I want to push that a lot further in the future.

American Sign Museum

A photo Christian took on a recent visit to The American Sign Museum in Cincinatti

I grew up in the south, and something about the crude (but beautiful) signage I saw back there really stuck with me. (quoted by Diego Guevara)

Vernacular signage certainly plays a role in one way or another— just like any other touchstone that I’m fascinated by. I think it’s the same for most of us— it all sits there in our heads, waiting to inform the work when the time is right, and to find a home in a solution.

Frank Sign

I think there has been a conscious shift over the past few years back to an understanding of the importance of craft. For a lot of different reasons folks are realizing that it’s better to know where and how something was made, and who made it. And that maybe instead of buying a new “whatever” every few years, it’s worth investing in one “whatever” that’s made to last a lifetime.

Hand-stitched Jack Daniels Flag

Hand-Stitching a flag for Jack Daniels

Jack Daniles Poster Helms Workshop

A three-dimensional ‘poster’ Helms Workshop made for Jack Daniels

I’m sure design trends reflect that. But I think folks will always connect more to artifacts that feel to be made by a person. And that doesn’t necessarily tie to just one aesthetic. It’s bigger than style.

Christian Helms

Standard Grit [a company that Christian co-founded] was a kind of experiment in getting back to a level of hands-on craft that I felt like was lacking in my life at the time, and an experiment in building a small business for my brother and sister-in-law to run with.

Standard Grit

(image courtesy of Method and Craft)

It ended up being more than they were ready to dive into long-term, but the exercise was invaluable. Collaborating with those two on limited edition textiles centered around typography and old southern vernacular was so much fun. It was great seeing how the phrases changed and took on new character once they got a hold of them. And it ultimately informed the work we did for Jack Daniel’s.

Standard Grit

Hand-sewn flag for Standard Grit

I’ll never be sick of telling folks about ‘Frank’. I love that place, and I love my partners. They’ve done an amazing job running the place and keeping it fresh.

Frank Restaurant Austin

We started Frank because there was a gap in the local market— there wasn’t anything like it in Austin, but at the same time the concept felt right at home here. And I’m a big proponent of designers using their abilities to build something for themselves, not just for clients.

Frank Austin

Frank Austin Interior

Pork Militia

Often it’s folks outside of design who inspire me – artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. I love talking with creative people in other fields of practice, and finding parallels and differentiators in process, inspiration, et cetera.

Thanks a lot Christian for taking the time to tell us a little about your work and your town!


‘Found Type’ around Sydney

If you enjoy typography, go out and find it! – Fiona Hudson

Just as Robert Brownjohn once did in New York, Fiona often scours the streets and train stations of Sydney with her camera, looking for specimens of ‘found type’. Her collection is growing, as are the number of found-type enthusiasts worldwide. I first came across Fiona’s Sydney Found Type collection, while researching the work of Stephen Banham. While there are many similar galleries of type in the wilds of the internet, I especially enjoyed this one because – having once lived in Sydney myself – many of the signs were familiar to me.

Surry Hills Shop Facade

A Shop Facade in Surry Hills

Fiona’s collection isn’t large, but as I perused further I was surprised to find three pieces of our own work included. I must say, it does feel good to have our signs ‘found’ among the millions of signs in this sprawling city. Here are some of my favourite of Fiona’s photos:

Strand Arcade Sign

We didn’t make this one, but we did make the wrought-iron-style poster stands inside the Strand Arcade.

Architectural Letter

Vernacular Sign Manly

A Vernacular Sign in Manly

Letters at The Rocks

Faux-Dimensional Window Letters at The Rocks

A Ghost Sign in Manly

A Ghost Sign in Manly

A Notice Board in North Sydney

A Notice Board in North Sydney

Elizabeth Rosa Sign

We didn’t make this one either, but we did make a four-foot-long replica fountain pen inside this stationery shop in Leura

Essen Restaurant Sign

The sign we made for Essen Restaurant in Ultimo. Read more about this sign on the Clover Signs Blog.

Fish at The Rocks Sign

The Sign we Made for Fish at The Rocks. Read more about it in an earlier blog post.

Union Hotel Sign

One of the Signs we made for Union Hotel in North Sydney. Read more about the project here.

Andrew Suggit’s ‘Golden Sans’ Project

Andrew Suggit

Andrew Suggit (image courtesy of Collective)

The typography of inland Australia may be epitomised by wool bale stencils on rusty letter barrels or the faded letters on the corrugated iron tails of station windmills. On the coast, however, we find an altogether different style of type. Graphic designer Andrew Suggit, of the Gold Coast, has made a point of documenting the typography of his region. His project is called Golden Sans.

a sign on the gold coast australia

Being a young and largely residential city with no industrial past, the Gold Coast has a relatively short ‘typographic history’. If you’re looking for ghost-signs or nineteenth-century hand-lettering, you’re in the wrong place. The ‘vintage type’ of southeastern Queensland ranges from the mid-twentieth century to just a few decades old. However, just as Stefan Schutt and Sam Roberts have brought attention to the historic signage of Melbourne and London, Andrew’s enthusiasm for vintage Gold Coast type has attracted the attention of type enthusiasts worldwide. It can’t be denied, ‘The Coast’ has a style of its own.

Arvon wall letters gold coast

(Andrew): I have a natural inclination to the built environment, place-making and typography, and the Gold Coast is going through rapid change at the moment so I started to document. The Golden Sans Project initially started as an Instagram-based blog which quickly developed into a full image-based research project documenting residential and urban type which has forged the identity of the Gold Coast. It has also organically developed its own brand over time to be more then a photo blog, but a place of discovery, exploration into the craft of creativity, and investigation into what drives Gold-Coast-based creatives.

bent iron lettering gold coast australia

I decided that alphabetically was the best way to collate the imagery. I’m constantly adding to galleries to it. It’s an ever evolving process. The project will keep moving forward as I find new imagery. I’m also working on a book and some Gold Coast centric products as we speak.

Golden Sans Website

The ‘Golden Sans’ Website. Every week, Andrew publishes another album of images, in alphabetical order.

Our local vernacular typography is so specific to the coast as it is a holiday destination, so the type is generally summer fun orientated.

sign on the gold coast

I have an exhibition coming up on the 12th March as part of Bleach festival 2014.

wall letters gold coast

In the process of documenting all of this type, we’ve discovered some of the folks who made it, too. I am planning on speaking to a company in Burleigh [Leda Signs] that specialised in the old foam style signage.

Golden Sans Project

(image courtesy of Tusk Agency)

The interest in this project has been huge, as it is a great collection – so specific and unlike any other.


Making a Dimensional Crab Sign

This little video takes you through the process of making a fully three-dimensional sculpted crab, from laminating the substrate all the way through to photographing the finished sign.

Most of the steps are pretty self-explanatory, which is why the video has no speaking, but in case you do want to know a little more of the nitty-gritty of the process involved, here it is:

Sanding the PVC

Our sign-panels are made of SignFoam 3, laminated to foam PVC, and the crab was no exception. First, we sanded the PVC thoroughly, to make sure the adhesive would stick well.

Unrolling Double-Stick Tape

Trimming double-stick tape

After applying the tape, the edges had to be trimmed. If you forget this step, the extra tape will stick itself everywhere! This shot has a title overlay, but hopefully you didn’t get too distracted.

Hand-Drawn Video Titles

Speaking of titles, I drew them up very quickly with a sharpie pen. With the help of Photoshop, I reversed the colour and removed the background to make a handcrafted title, suitable for a slightly industrial ‘maker video’.

Peeling the Paper off the Double-Stick Tape

Next, we peeled off the paper.

Sticking the PVC to the HDU

…and carefully stuck the two materials together.

Adjusting the Pinch Roller Width

This little crank on top adjusts the width between the two rollers, on our pinch-roller.

Pinch-Rolling the Sign Panel

Here, we’re pinching the laminated panel together. Sorry if this confused you. This was actually the first pass through the roller. That’s why there are only two layers, not three. So, technically, this shot should have come earlier in the piece. Oh well, it looked nice where it was.

Laying Carbon Paper onto the Sign Panel

Now, the panel is all laminated. Nancy is laying carbon paper down, so she can trace the shape of the artwork onto the panel.


Cutting out the Sign shape on the Bandsaw

Cutting out the crab, on the bandsaw.

Cutting out a large Crab on a Bandsaw

This took a while.

Routing the HDU

To save time with the hammer and gouge, we used a hand-held router to hog away some of the SignFoam on the thinner areas of the sign, such as the crab’s legs.

Drawing Guidelines for Sculpting

Drawing a few lines on, for sculpting.

The Sculpting Process

The sculpting was all done by hand, both with and without the use of a rubber mallet.

Sanding the Crab Smooth

After all the gouge work was finished, the crab needed to be sanded.

Sanding a Crab Sculpture Smooth

Nearly finished now!

Moving the Crab to the Painting Table

In this shot, the author carries the crab to the painting table.

A Coat of Primer

Nancy applies a generous coat of primer.

Painting the dark Undercoat

Followed by a dark undercoat

Painting a Lighter Blue

…and then a lighter one.

Starting in with the Artist Acrylic

And finally, the artist acrylics.

Affixing Hanging Hardware

Screwing in the stainless steel hanging hardware

Taking a Photo

Joe takes a photo of the finished crab.

A Sunset behind the Workshop

And, of course, every good video has to end with a sunset. Here’s one behind our shop.

Closing Title

And that’s it!

(Note: This video was made about a month ago. In the meantime we’ve done another one, called Making a Handcrafted Sign. At some stage, I’ll do a blog post about that one too, but until then, you can watch it on on YouTube, our videos page, or a french design blog called Aether Concept)

Shooting the Breeze with Sideshow Sign Co.

Sideshow Sign Co.

Luke & Jasmin (image courtesy of Warby Parker)

Rusty tin sheds, barbed wire, old trucks, faded wool bale stencil lettering…don’t we all love rural Australia? Luke Stockdale’s Aussie bush upbringing undoubtedly had a great influence on his work. His solid vintage signs have clearly struck a chord with customers all over the USA, too. This is evident by the many projects filling his Nashville-based workshop, Sideshow Sign Co.

sign shop welding nashville

(image courtesy of Nashville Scene)

With the help of his wife Jasmin, Luke is producing the type of classic, timeless signage that only improves with age. We’re pleased that he took a little time to tell us about how he went from a Melbourne design course to bending steel and wiring light-bulbs in Nashville.

sign shop in Nashville

(image courtesy of Warby Parker)

My wife is a Nashville native. We met in Prague in 2006 and the two of us have been back and forth across the Pacific ever since. We lived in Melbourne before deciding to settle in Nashville.

Sideshow Sign Shop

Adam Gaskill at work in the shop

Adam Gaskill Custom Bike

My full-time fabricator, Adam Gaskill makes these amazing bikes when he’s not beltin’ out signs. I’m lucky I’ve got him because he’s just as passionate about digging up old sign-making techniques as I am!

custom bike nashville

Another of Adam’s creations

I got a Design degree from RMIT and worked as a freelance designer for seven or eight years, mainly branding and album artwork. The move to sign-making was innocent at first, I made a few interior typographic pieces for restaurants I was re-branding, and the demand came from there.

sideshow cafe sign

Over the next couple of years I tried to learn as much as I could about traditional sign-making. It’s been a trial & error process, but I was lucky enough to have the whole ‘distressed and weathered’ thing to fall back on while I was honing my sign-making skills. I could make my mistakes look like they were intentional! I still feel like an amateur sometimes but we’ve managed to make some pretty solid work.

electric sign sideshow

‘Leave it to an Aussie who was born and raised in rural Australia to come to the states and exemplify the current vintage Americana style movement.’ – Uncrate

My folks were affected by the ‘Black Saturday‘ fires in Victoria, in 2009. They lost everything, but managed to get away with their lives in the nick of time. Unlike a lot of Black Saturday victims, they were able to claim enough insurance to rebuild. I relocated to stay with them for the next nine months and the three of us designed their new home. The house just won a HIA award. The whole experience made me want to make stuff for real, so you could say it influenced my move into sign-making.

rural australian letterbox

This one was a gift to Luke’s mother. It hangs on her mailbox in rural Victoria

The light bulbs were just something I knew I could do – I had access to sockets and bulbs, and I knew how to do some basic wiring. As far as the aesthetic goes – my style as a designer was kind of vintage Americana. And I’ve always been a lover of old signage & typography.

sideshow sign dimensional

We’ve done a few apprenticeships, but we’re taking a break from them for the moment.

We can make fresh, new-looking signs as well as ‘distressed’ ones, but either way our fabrication is still traditional – steel, rivets, hand-painted, hand-cut lettering, etc. (although we do have a CNC for bigger jobs), so they don’t look like a modern channel letter or vinyl sign. People don’t generally come to us for clean modern signage, they come to us wanting them to look old. That’s kind of our thing.

lighbulb lettering in process nashville

One hundred percent of our signage work is custom. The only inventory items we have are our prints.

sideshow sign co prints

One of the Prints Designed by Sideshow (image courtesy of Librarian Tells All)

I was told about Sideshow Signs by Peter Vogel, of Nutmegger Workshop.

I would absolutely love to work with Peter. He’s really talented. Soon, I hope!

nutmegger workshop sign

Peter Vogel also makes hand-crafted vintage signs. Here’s one of his (image courtesy of AIGA)

Our most recent has been my favorite so far – a double-sided neon projecting sign for clothing company Imogene & Willie.

imogene and willie sign nashville

We have quite a bit of work in the shop right now. We’re doing another job for ESPN, this one is a big channel sign of their old logo, it’s going in some broadcasting hall-of-fame. Another piece for a circus.

Lightbulb ESPN sign and deer head

dimensional sign

Thanks, Luke and Jasmin!

French Periodic Table: Sideshow Sign Co. from Luke Stockdale on Vimeo.