Jeremy Pelley, of the Official Manufacturing Company

Jeremy Pelley

Jeremy Pelley (image courtesy of Randall Garcia)

The Official Manufacturing Company was founded in Portland in 2009 by Jeremy Pelley and Fritz Messenbrink. While the name may call to mind some sort of Dickensian industrial-revolution-era factory, it’s actually a modern design studio with a crew of four. Perhaps more than most design houses, the projects they undertake tend to be tangible rather than virtual – everything from huge industrial-style light-bulb letters to bonsai gardens – and, of course, plenty of creative signage.

This week, Jeremy has been kind enough to tell us more about the enterprise:

We just turned five years old on June 10th, according to our paperwork. We technically started working together before that by about a month or so, but we call that our anniversary.

Retro Seal

My partner Fritz Mesenbrink and I first met at Wieden+Kennedy here in Portland back in 2005. He was working in the studio, and I was in an experimental school in the building called WK12. I graduated and didn’t get hired, so I was out of the building and wondering what to do with myself. Through my contacts and friends I had made, and a little dumb luck, I landed at Ace Hotel, as they needed an art director at that moment to lay a new foundation for the expansion of their brand. I worked there for the next four and half years. In the meantime, Fritz was at W+K for a couple of years, then freelanced for a while, until he landed the Stumptown Coffee Roasters gig. That put us back in touch, since Ace and Stumptown worked together frequently. After a little while of hanging out and working on the periphery of each other, we said, ‘This is really fun. We should start our own thing and make them hire us as a team.’ And we did. And here we are. And it’s still fun.

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Ace Hotel Exit Door

An Exit Door at the Ace Hotel

We are inspired by tons of people. We feel blessed to be in our community here in Portland, surrounded by tons of talented people we are lucky enough to call friends. We are inspired by the ‘unknown artists’ and designers out there that just made beautiful things that we find in old thrift stores and antique shops. Sagmeister & Walsh do consistently amazing work for sure. There really are too many to list.

A Typeface for New York's Jewish Museum

A Typeface for New York’s Jewish Museum, by Sagmeister & Walsh

You worked with Sean Starr on a project for The Gap.

Gap approached us to help them reclaim their image of being smaller, relate-able and cool. When they first started, they sold records and denim, and it was a very different feeling in their stores. They know that they have grown so big that they are somewhat irrelevant, and they wanted to reconnect with their customers on a human level. They had a plan of changing the overall flow and layouts of their stores, adding more human scale and wall space for art, so we were brought in to help tell their story through art moments and signage.

The Gap

Hard at work refurbishing the Gap store.

We did two stores for them: one in Glendale, California, and one in The Grove in LA. We also installed giant maps of the world we hand-made out of their own bags in several other corporate offices. We wheat pasted them to the wall. Hopefully they still like them, because they aren’t easy to get off the wall.

World Map

(image courtesy of Poketo)

We also got to design a custom taco truck for them. Their idea was that they wanted to push their denim line, 1969, through taco trucks working with celebrity chefs. We pulled in Sean Starr and his team to execute hand painted signage and typography on all of our projects except the bag maps. They were incredible to watch and to talk with—Sean is the man.

Pico de Gap Truck

How much of your work is for little local places, vs. multinationals?

It has changed a lot since we first began. At first, we had pretty much nothing but local guys, but we happened to be living in a city that was getting a lot of attention both nationally and internationally. What didn’t pay off financially at first tended to drive more and more jobs to us, so it all kind of balanced out organically. Now we know a little bit more about business and how to charge what we are worth, so we can’t take on the smaller projects as easily anymore. We have mouths to feed, so we have to weigh our decisions more carefully. In a perfect world, we have only a couple of bigger jobs at a time, and then that makes it possible to take on the right smaller clients too, both financially and schedule-wise.

Natural Selection Signs

Signage for Natural Selection Restaurant, Portland. ‘Charley Wheelock from Woodblock Chocolate was an industrial designer by trade before he was a chocolate maker, and he was happy to help execute these for us. We think they came out great!’ – Jeremy

More than other cities, Portland seems to have a network of designers who are very keen to collaborate. How did this come about?

Honestly, we have no idea how it happened, but we love it. We are friends with all of the designers and photographers and artists here in town, and it seems like the creative energy just flows around. Its a really exciting time to be living in Portland, and I don’t know if our company would have been as possible or as successful if we tried to do it anywhere else.

Hand-Painted Monogram

Hand-Painted Monogram for Beam & Anchor, Portland. ‘The Beam & Anchor signage was installed by our friend Justin Riede. He is a super talented, classically trained sign painter based here in Portland that we have used on TONS of jobs we have done over the years—practically every one of them that needed signage: Ace Hotel, Portland Meadows, Olympic Provisions, Kenny & Zukes, Radish Underground, and on.’ – Jeremy

Some of your projects, such as ‘Spirit of 77’, involved a lot of hands-on construction work. Do you make a point of doing as much as you can yourselves, rather than outsourcing?

We definitely used to. When we were more of a ragtag crew, we would just dive headlong into a project, money be damned. We believed in the work and thought that it was worth it to spend a few months on a job that only paid a few thousand dollars. Clearly, we see the error in that approach now, and if we want to remain a viable, profitable company, we simply can’t operate like that anymore. We love building things ourselves, but now we do it for fun, not for jobs. We just aren’t set up for fabrication and manufacturing in the bigger sense. Our name is a bit of a misnomer in that way, kind of intentionally. I think it does make a difference that we know how to build things, though—it helps us make better decisions with the design of certain things along the way.

Wooden Lightbulb Letters

Wooden Lightbulb Letters for Spirit of 77 (image courtesy of AIGA)

Well-made, considered and appropriate signage is critical for all business, in my opinion. We look at every decision as a brand decision. The materials you choose to use, the colors, the typefaces, the medium, the scale, the placement—all of it. It all matters. We like to say this: It’s easy to make things pretty, but it is harder to make things matter. We pride ourselves in making things that matter. Frequently, its that intangible feeling that someone gets when they see that something was hand painted or hand carved that is precisely what makes something matter. It could be the same design and same size ad placement, but machine made, and it might not feel as special.

Spirit of 77 sign

The finished sign (image courtesy of AIGA)

We really love all of our projects, but one of the most fun was a couple of years ago when we got to work on the local horse track here in Portland called Portland Meadows. It was just great on every level. We were proud of the creative, the client was awesome, and it was truly a unique item in our portfolio. Everyone wins!

Portland Meadows Signage

Part of the wayfinding system for Portland Meadows. All signage painted by Justin Riede.

Lately, we have been working on some local stuff like a Woodblock Chocolate, PGE, and the newest campaign for Portland Meadows, but also a hotel in New Orleans that is going to be pretty cool.

Woodblock Chocolate Bar

Most of all, though, we have been trying to refresh and update our own website. It should be launching in the next week or so, fingers crossed. We have grown and changed so much as a company that we feel like, while it has served us well and looks good, it just doesn’t represent us as we want to be understood anymore. We are super excited to get this update live—it feels like a real milestone for us as a company.

[Note: since this interview was conducted, the new website has gone live. Take a look.]

Lightbulb Letters

‘We worked with ADX here in town to fabricate this sign.’ – Jeremy

Thoughts on Wooden Signs

A sign-maker recently emailed us with this question:

Hi Danthonia,

How are you? I was wondering if I could ask you some advice about timber. I have a client that wants a plywood sign that is cleared/varnished with their logo painted on it. The idea is to have the colour and grain of the wood as the background. I know that Plywood isn’t very resistant to the elements and I was wondering what timber and varnish you would use in this case? The size of the sign is 600 by 900mm. Any advice would be a great help.

– Sign-maker

Dear Sign-Maker,

If your client is convinced the sign should be plywood, get a ‘marine plywood’ and ask the supplier for his advice on the best outdoor clear coat for the wood that he is selling. The coating should be both waterproof and UV resistant. Apply many coats. The trick is to keep the water away from the wood for as long as possible. Any scratches or punctures during installation will give the water a place to get into the wood and the deterioration process will begin.

With our own clients, we encourage them towards a HDU sign with a faux-woodgrain finish, rather than a plywood sign. Admittedly, the materials are more expensive, but they are also so much longer lasting. Wood signs are beautiful, but will require maintenance every year if not more often.

Rotten Wood Sign

Here’s a photo I recently took of a local redwood sign we made about twelve years ago. It certainly showing it’s age.

About ten years ago, we made a whole system of signs out of Jarrah-wood for a resort in the Blue Mountains. They still look beautiful today. I asked the groundskeeper about how the signs are holding up, and he told me that he sands and re-varnishes the top edge of all the signs every year.

Another local customer walked into our shop one day with a piece of Huon pine he had bought while holidaying in Tasmania. He wanted his property name carved and gilded into it. A faux-wood panel simply wouldn’t have had the same emotional connection.

So, some clients really do want the authenticity of wood, and are willing to put in the necessary effort. In such cases, we’ve found this treatment to be the best:

Step 1: a coat of Intergrain Reviva Timber Cleaner
Step 2: one or two coats of Intergrain Dimension 4 Primer
Step 3: two to three coats of Intergrain DWD (this comes in a variety of shades)

We’ve written more of our thoughts about sign materials in these two articles:

Hopefully that helps!


Ramshackle Farm Sign

A Faux-Wood Sign in rural Victoria

Scots Hut Wooden Sign

A wooden property sign, with ‘chipped’ and patinaed edges

Brennans Wood Sign

A faux-wood bar sign in St. Louis, Missouri. Click here to read a blog post about the project.

Posted in Q&A

Caitlyn Galloway: Sign-Painter and Gardener of San Francisco

Caitlyn Galloway

Caitlyn Galloway (image courtesy of Sign Painters Movie)

In the busy and colourful Mission District of San Francisco, a chain-link fence marks the boundary of a one-acre urban farm. It’s called Little City Gardens. With its abundant rows of vegetables and a small greenhouse made of up-cycled house windows and reclaimed timber, it looks like a typical community garden. A closer inspection, however, reveals tidy hand-lettered signs and notices here and there – an irrigation schedule, a ‘no parking without permission’ sign – every letter crisply painted. No vinyl stickers, and no crudely scrawled messages from a sharpie or spray can. Clearly, this is the work of a professional. In fact, the garden is part-owned by Sign-painter Caitlyn Galloway, who learned to letter at New Bohemia Signs, and now divides her time between between wielding a brush and a garden hoe. This week, she tells us about her life as a sign-painter-gardener.

I’ve always had a fascination with handwriting and calligraphy, and without thinking too much about it, most of my doodling and drawing throughout my life incorporated letters in some way. I studied painting in college and late in my process discovered the work of Margaret Kilgallen which resonated deeply with me. It was through my excitement about her work that I was able to identify my own engrossment with hand made letters, and an appreciation for the warmth, history, and character that can be communicated through letters made obviously (or subtly) by human hands.

Margaret Kilgallen

Margaret Kilgallen (image courtesy of Ambrose)

In 2007, I moved to San Francisco and thought I would try painting signs here and there as a way to make some additional rent money outside my gardening and farming work. At the time, I had no idea there was a rich history of sign painting in the city, and a handful of people still doing it so beautifully! I was walking around my neighborhood one day and saw a shopkeeper hanging a really incredible sign. I asked the shopkeeper who made it, and they pointed me to New Bohemia Signs. My eyes lit up, and I spent the weekend pulling together a now-embarrassing portfolio (I use that term very loosely) with markers and pens, and then went in to New Bohemia and asked Damon if he could take on another apprentice. Weekly practice sessions eventually led to steady work with the shop, which then led to six plus years of involvement in some form or another. I love that shop dearly, and the people who run it. It’s a special place.

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

Now I’m mostly painting signs out of my own private studio, but still help Damon at New Bohemia with monthly brush lettering classes, and join the crew there for the occasional Friday beer-o-clock to talk shop. I owe my honed skill to Damon, a superbly talented sign painter who somehow makes it all look easy, and my renewed excitement for the craft to the evolving stream of painters that flow in and out of there.

Damon Styer

Damon expounds on sans serif letters (image courtesy of Font Shop)

After employing many different techniques over the years at New Bohemia, now in my own practice I’m most consistently inspired by really utilitarian, simply-made signs – the kind of signs that were made without fanfare back in the days when painting letters onto a large board, or a wall, or above a store entrance was just the quickest way to label a building or communicate necessary information.  The letters were simple, graceful, functional, and slightly (sometimes only barely) less than perfect. The swiftness and ease evident in a well executed, single color letter will always be just as impressive to me as the most intricately decorated, glittered and bejeweled masterpiece of a sign.

Hand-Painted Sign

A Utilitarian, Hand-Painted Sign by Caitlyn

Are there other sign-writers, designers or artists who inspire your work?

Yes, so many! First and foremost, I always feel a particular adoration for my fellow lady sign painters. Candice Obayashi (a tattoo artist & sign painter), and Heather Hardison (an illustrator & sign painter) are both super talented, and are inspiring in the way they integrate sign painting with other aspects of their work.  I think an interesting question many new sign painters are navigating is how to make ends meet with this craft, and how we might incorporate sign painting skills into other creative endeavors in order to keep the practice viable and relevant for ourselves. They are each combining their multifaceted talents and interests in a way that I admire.

Heather Hardison Illustration

A Heather Hardison Illustration for San Francisco Chronicle (image courtesy of Heather Hardison)

Ashley Fundora and Pickles are some strong up and coming sign painters (currently working at New Bohemia Signs) with really graceful hands. Wow! I’m inspired to keep practicing whenever I see their razor sharp stroke terminals.

Signs by Pickles

Signs by Pickles (image courtesy of Pickles Hyperbole)

There’s also Yvette Rutledge at Mystic Blue Signs, and Norma Jeanne Maloney at Red Rider, both super talented women who have both been sign painting for a couple decades now and deserve much respect and admiration from all of us newcomers. Their portfolios are massive and their styles are honed, and they’ve managed to keep their shops running strong through the major changes the industry has seen.

And more broadly, I continue to feel inspired by sign painters who may not even consider themselves sign painters. The shopkeeper who paints their own quick sign for their window, and unwittingly adds a really brilliant loop to their O’s! Or the farmers along rural routes who paint the most charming strawberries and letters on a slab of wood using just a brush and whatever paint is on hand. Sometimes, though it’s funny to say, I actually feel a little sad that the more I train my hand in neat, tidy sign painting, the farther away I get from this kind of character that I’m always so drawn to.

Fruit Stand Sign

Fruit Stand Sign (image courtesy of Kari)

There are quite a few projects I was honored to be a part of at New Bohemia – one from my early days was The Stinking Rose. I fondly remember standing on scaffolding for days on end, surface gilding the rough walls of the building til my thumbs were numb, and the wind and noisy traffic below had driven me crazy. This job doesn’t always feel glamorous in the moment! But I was proud to help implement a Damon Styer design that is now one of the most striking in the city.

Stinking Rose

Caitlyn works on the ‘Stinking Rose’ sign, with Jeff Canham. (image courtesy of Damon Styer)

The Stinking Rose

The Stinking Rose (image courtesy of Shruti Iyer)

I also really enjoy being able to offer my skills to friends. One of my very first signs was for a friend’s farm up in Washington, and it’s still one of my favorites because it was so appreciated. More recently I had a lot of fun painting some large menu boards for friends at Mission Pie here in SF, working with them to figure out the best flow for all the information and how to highlight certain components of the menu in a subtle way. It was a challenging collaboration, and it’s an honor to make something for someone that could potentially affect their business in a profound way.

mission pie menus

mission pie menus in progress, in Caitlyn’s shop

mission pie installed

and, installed, at Mission Pie

I’ve just finished up a couple of storefront signs for an herbal apothecary here in SF, and am working on some small private commissions. I’m currently only in my studio a couple days a week as my other work keeps me very busy, so I have to limit myself to a project or two at a time. This feels like a good balance for me. I admire my peers out there who are running full time sign shops, but I think having my hands dipped into the craft on a more part time basis suits me well right now.

scarlet sage in progress

A sign for Scarlet Sage, in progress

scarlet sage

…and installed.

Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?

I think so! While I can’t really say how many more people are interested in buying hand painted signs, I can definitely say I’ve seen a huge swell of interest from people wanting to make hand painted signs. I currently assist Damon with his monthly classes at New Bohemia, and the excitement in the air during those classes is contagious. Sometimes it’s people wanting to get away from the computer and get their hands moving, or it’s muralists wanting to incorporate letters into their work, or it’s formally trained typography-lovers who want to learn how to break down letter forms using a new set of tools.

Hand-Painted Alphabet

An Alphabet, Hand-Painted by Scott Biersack, at one of New Bohemia’s Sign-painting Workshops (image courtesy of Scott Biersack)

A few years ago, when I was working for New Bohemia, I was sent out to do some touch up on a wall job on a busy street in the city. The painting I was doing was totally unimpressive – I was using a thick fitch brush to just touch up large patches of background color around the edges of the existing design. I wasn’t even painting letters! Even still, passersby behind me would stop in their tracks and be momentarily transfixed by what I was doing. They’d pause and watch in total awe, and they’d tell me I was doing a beautiful job. It was funny, and I think that says something about people’s continual fascination with anything done by hand. In this case, people were really responding to the smooth, quiet physical motion of applying paint to the wall with a brush, even if the final outcome wasn’t anything particularly impressive. Just the tactility of the materials and the motion itself was inspiring to people.

Handpainted K

A demonstraion ‘K’, by Caitlyn (image courtesy of Joseph Candice Towery Obayashi)

Tell us about ‘Little City Gardens’.

My other work is with Little City Gardens, a small, one-acre urban farm I run here in San Francisco. We grow and sell vegetables, herbs, and flowers to city residents and restaurants, and we also host tours and workdays where people can see firsthand what small scale food production looks like and how it works. It’s an attempt to illustrate the benefits and challenges of commercial agriculture in the city, which then hopefully inspires dialogue about larger agricultural issues, and also to bridge the gap between what are considered appropriate urban and rural activities.

Little City Gardens

The Greenhouse at Little City Gardens. No doubt the garden is well-supplied with hand-painted signage!

Farmers Market Sign

Farming and sign painting sometimes feel like two completely disparate lines of work to be in, and in some ways they balance each other out nicely (the fresh air feels great after a couple days of toxic paint fumes). But for me, they function surprisingly similarly at times. They are both creative outlets in their own ways, offering opportunities to satisfy my perfectionist tendencies, as well as constant reminders to let those tendencies go. It’s not always important to pull every single last weed out of the kale crop, just like it’s not necessary to smooth out every single minor bump in the outer edge of an O. Perfection is always an admirable goal, but there is a gracefulness in efficiency, too.

Pencil Sketch

Caitlyn Galloway Signs

liquor store signs caitlyn galloway

Signs for the Stanley Hotel

Julian and Tracey Jacobs

Julian and Tracey Jacobs, owners of the Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel in Northwest Tasmania is wedged between the Tarkine Wilderness and the Ocean Wilderness of Bass Strait. It is a place that I had wanted to visit for a long time…

– James Woodford, The Wollemi Pine

Stanley, Tasmania

View over Stanley, Tasmania, showing a unique outcropping known as ‘The Nut’ (image courtesy of Tony)

I always enjoy making a sign for an establishment with a bit of history behind it and The Stanley Hotel in Tasmania is certainly one of these. One look at the building makes it clear that it has been around for a while, but – like a well-dressed elderly gentleman – it carries its age with style. The signs we made have been hanging for nearly six years now, and this week Tracy Jacobs, proprietor of The Stanley Hotel, has kindly written down a little about the history of the place:

The Stanley Hotel Sign

(image courtesy of Jules Hawk)

The first Europeans arrived in ‘Circular Head’ in 1826. The township was later renamed ‘Stanley’ in 1842 after Lord Stanley. Stanley became a bustling community and the population was recorded as 233 in 1848. There were twenty shops, sixty houses and cottages, a church and parsonage, a school, house of correction, police office and magistrate’s house, customers house, post office – and of course the Stanley Hotel! During the 1850’s the sheltered deep-sea port was thriving and was essential for the farming districts as a service centre.

Stanley, Tasmania

(image courtesy of Phunny Photos)

A certain John Whitbread was found guilty of poaching rabbits in England when he was just a boy (aged fifteen), and was sentenced to seven years in Van Diemen’s Land [now Tasmania].  He arrived in Hobart in 1828.  As a convict, his record was one of good behaviour, and when he later settled in Stanley he became a fine citizen, businessman and host.  He built the hotel and named it the Emily Hotel, now known as the Stanley Hotel. He bought the block on which it stands from the penal colony for 20 pounds and the building was licensed as a hotel around 1847.

Stanley Tasmania

(image courtesy of Steve Daggar)

In the book A Residence in Tasmania, published in 1856, Butler Stoney describes the Emily Hotel as it was in 1853.  He said that on arrival in Stanley ‘a good and comfortable hotel rewards the weary traveller…Mr Whitbread’s establishment is a fine large stone-built house with many good and well-furnished rooms and every attention is paid to his guests’. The Hotel has been continually licensed since 1847 under various names: ‘The Emily’, ‘Freemason’s’, ‘The Union’ and now ‘The Stanley Hotel’.

Stanley Hotel Tasmania

(image courtesy of Rose Frankcombe)

Preserved houses and buildings with beautiful gardens, sea and rural vistas, the deep water harbour with fishing boats coming and going and a good selection of galleries, restaurants and cafes – all give the town a character of its own. You can spend time visiting the historic attractions, go fishing, play a game of golf, walk on beaches, eat great food made with the freshest ingredients or enjoy a chat with locals in the historic pub.

Staney Tasmania Streetscape

(image courtesy of Russell Charters)

Stanley is also famous for the cleanest air in the world (measured at Cape Grim nearby) and the wide-open skies offer wonderful opportunities for stargazing with bright night skies revealing the magic of the constellations and the awe-inspiring Milky Way.

Stanley Tasmania

(image courtesy of Anna Kwa)

On purchasing The Stanley Hotel thirteen years ago, a major refurbishment (inside and out) was undertaken with the clear aim to ensure that the town’s only Hotel was a stand-out accommodation and dining destination. This  vision has been rewarded with numerous awards from the Australian Hotels Association –  Tasmania’s Best Bistro 2007, 2008, and 2009, Australia Best Bistro 2008, Tasmania’s Best Pub Style Accommodation 2008-13 and Tasmania’s best Country Hotel 2008.

Stanley Hotel Tasmania Signs

(image courtesy of Beast #1)

A few years ago, on our travels, we saw a beautifully hand-crafted and painted sign at the entrance of Wrest Point, Hobart, advising of ‘Ducks Crossing’. The impact of the sign was such that it  inspired us to review the signage at the Hotel and Danthonia’s signs were the style and quality that would suit our heritage building.


The designers were very patient with implementing our ideas and were very obliging to our changes and suggestions. The signs have been in place for six years and still look bright, colourful and show no sign of wear and tear.  The signs create interest and tourists regularly take photographs of them.

Stanley Hotel Tasmania Sign

(image courtesy of Naneh)

Stanley Hotel

(image courtesy of Baker)