The Art of the Faux Neon Sign

Arts and Crafts Society Ticket | Danthonia Designs Blog

(Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum)

A hundred years ago, members of the Arts and Crafts Movement professed a philosophy they called ‘truth to materials’. This meant using the most appropriate material for any application, and emphasising the quality of the materials used rather than hiding them. The sentiment is well expressed by Christopher Dresser:

All graining of wood is false, inasmuch as it attempts to deceive; the effort being made at causing one material to look like another, which it is not. All “marbling”, too, is false: a floor-cloth made in imitation of carpet or matting is false; a Brussels carpet that imitates a Turkey carpet is false; so is a jug that imitates wicker-work, a printed fabric that imitates one which is woven, a gas-lamp that imitates an oil-lamp.
I love the beauty of wood, concrete and metal, and I generally agree with the principle of truth to materials, especially in architecture and furniture design. It’s a shame when a beautiful oak floor is covered in synthetic tiles, or when plastic siding tries in vain to imitate wooden boards on a newly built house.The cheap deception is revealed in a few short decades as the elements wear it away.
On the other hand, the sign-making trade has a long history of making one material appear to be another. As soon as you roll a coat of primer onto a wooden panel, you have already begun to hide the innate qualities of the wood (although the sign will last longer). Gilded elements give the false impression of being solid gold. Painted drop-shadows and highlights give an illusion of dimensionality to flat letters. More recently, distressing techniques such as crackle-varnish and stain are used to make a new sign look like a weathered artifact. Dresser would probably take a dim view of such techniques, but just as the fine artist adds paint to a canvas until the canvas itself looks like a landscape or portrait, so the sign-maker applies his skills and tools to make a substrate look like something it is not. This leads me to the subject of neon and ‘faux-neon’ signs.
Faux Rust on Channel Letters | Danthonia Designs Blog

Applying Faux Rust to Channel Letters in our Workshop

When neon first began to shed its glow on the night-time streets of American cities, many of the more conservative set considered it an ugly visual blight – crude, bright and attention-grabbing. Certainly, the glass tube letters had their limitations; the stroke width always had to be uniform, the curves couldn’t be too tight and the colour selection was limited. But neon artists worked within these limitations and the new style of sign spread around the world, not because of beautiful designs or letterforms, but because they glowed!
Neon Sign in San Francisco | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Neon Sign in San Francisco (image courtesy of Thomas Hawk)

In an age where billboards can play movies, it seems quaint to think that these humming glass tubes were once considered modern. Now, there are a hundred cheaper and more efficient options for illuminated signage. Even as neon has largely fallen out of use, it has gained a certain nostalgic respect, with an accompanying surge of interest in preserving old neon signs, and the few remaining neon artists kept busy with new orders. While in the past, customers wanted the ‘glow’ (which could only be obtained with glass tubes), today they are fascinated by the tubes themselves, and the somewhat awkward letterforms which could be made from them. Countless bars, restaurants and even museums are full of old neon signs. Some of them no longer work, but they’re still immensely satisfying to look at.
Buchstabenmuseum | Danthonia Designs Blog

A boy admires neon letters in Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum (image courtesy of Jane McDevitt)

A fascinating offshoot of this modern-day ‘neon-love’ is the ‘faux-neon sign’. That is, non-illuminated signs which have been made to look like neon. I have seen several such signs, and find them fascinating. Why? because the monoline industrial curves of neon script were born of necessity, not aesthetic taste. A faux-neon sign is more like a painting of a sign than a sign itself. Without the limitations of neon, the sign-painter or designer chooses to emulate the look of tubing, because they find it beautiful. Here are some examples:
Faux Neon Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-Painted Faux Neon Sign by Caitlyn Galloway

Faux Neon Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

…And one by New Bohemia Signs

Sandwich Boards by New Bohemia Signs | Danthonia Designs Blog

Sandwich Boards by New Bohemia Signs

Gilded Window Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A slightly subtler faux neon sign, also by New Bohemia

What got me thinking about this very specific category of signage? At our workshop, we also had the opportunity to fabricate what is possibly the world’s only hand-carved faux-neon sign. It was based off the iconic sign for the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco and now hangs in a client’s home in Colorado.

Hand Carved 'Neon' Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Hand Carved ‘Neon’ Sign

Buena Vista Cafe Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

The Real Neon Buena Vista Cafe Sign, in San Francisco

We’d be happy to make another for anyone who’s interested.

Sorry, Christopher Dresser.

Pineapple Welcome Signs: A Brief History of a Colonial Tradition

Pineapple Welcome Sign

(image courtesy of The Carving Company)

In the New England region of America, it’s not an uncommon sight to see a wooden welcome sign at the end of a driveway, emblazoned with a sculpted and gilded pineapple. I’ve seen probably dozens of these gilded pineapple welcome signs in upstate New York and Connecticut. I’m sure Maine and Massachusetts are full of them too (though I’ve never been there in person to confirm this suspicion). The pineapple is a beautiful symbol, but I always wondered how a tropical fruit came to be such a ubiquitous symbol in a part of the world better known for maple sapping, cold winters and autumn colours. A little research revealed an interesting story.

Georgetown Entrance

A Front Door in Georgetown, D.C. (image courtesy of do/conversations)

It’s widely known that a pineapple is a symbol of hospitality. But why a pineapple? Couldn’t an apple (or, anything edible, for that matter) represent hospitality just as well? Some research revealed a fascinating story of a fruit and its symbolism. Pineapple welcome signs are just a small part of this story.

Pineapple Welcome Mat

Pineapple Welcome Mat (image courtesy of Steve Moses)

To fully understand why pineapples are the ‘welcome fruit’, let’s look at the history of the fruit itself. It originated in South America, on the border of present-day Brazil and Paraguay where it was bred by the native peoples. From there it spread to the coast, and then to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. The first European to taste a pineapple was Christopher Columbus when, in 1493, the Callinago Indians introduced him to the fruit. (Okihiro, Interview)

Once Columbus got his hands on it, it wasn’t long before his sponsor, King Ferdinand of Spain, had tasted it too. In fact, as Karen Hursh Graber (2008) wrote, “King Ferdinand, upon being presented the only pineapple in a 1516 shipment to Spain that made the journey without spoiling, said it was the best thing he had ever tasted.” Soon pineapples were a much sought-after delicacy and status symbol in Europe. The fruit was so rare, however, that it was shrouded in myth and rumor. In an influential work on the flora of the Americas of 1578, Christopher de Acosta asserted that if you stuck a knife into a pineapple for more than half an hour, the blade would dissolve (Beauman, Fran 71). In fact, this claim is utterly false (try it). The myth shows, however, that there was no lack of speculation and intrigue surrounding the newly-discovered fruit.

While it may not dissolve steel, the pineapple does have a distinct and exotic flavor, described in 1640 by John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I as: “…being so sweete in smell… tasting… as if Wine, Rosewater & Sugar were mixed together.” (Theatrum Botanicum) This, and similar reviews of the day led to a flurry of attempts to cultivate the fruit in the glasshouses of Europe. However, it took some time before Europeans were able to perfect the art of cold-climate pineapple cultivation. It is no surprise then that the pineapple soon became a symbol of wealth and opulence.

King Charles II Pineapple

In this 1670’s painting by Hendrick Danckerts, the Royal Gardener, John Rose, presents King Charles II with the first pineapple grown on English soil. (image courtesy of American Garden History)

The wealthy and powerful classes of America and Europe alike, in exhibits of privilege, reserved for themselves commodities – rare, expensive, and desirable – from far off places. The pineapple was not simply a delicious fruit, the “princess of all fruits” came to symbolize the tropics, the Orient in opulence, leisure, a terrestrial paradise. Its possession accordingly meant the attainment of social standing and its trappings. – (Okihiro, 88)

Gilded Pineapple Trafalgar Square

A Gilded Pineapple Adorns the Top of a Domed Building in Trafalgar Square, London (image courtesy of Mike)

Strange as it may seem in today’s globalised economy, a pineapple – in those days – was such an emblem of affluence that sometimes a single fruit was rented several times for various parties, banquets and dinners. It would be used as the centrepiece – an apex of a mound of fruits of various kinds (Okihiro 89). This practice, in turn led, European artists and craftsmen to embellish ceramic dinnerware, silverware, and other table pieces such as napkin holders and candle holders with the depiction of a pineapple.

Stone Pineapple

A pineapple, carved from stone, adorns a hotel in Wales. (image courtesy of Charlie Powell)

Prior to the American Revolution, the upper classes in the New World kept a close eye on the fashions in the old country. Hence, pineapple tea sets and similar artefacts soon made their way across the Atlantic to fill colonial homes. Being a fruit of ‘the Americas’, it may have been the patriotism of the early colonists that made the pineapple even more of a popular and long-lasting motif in the thirteen colonies than back in England.

Pineapple Teapot

Pineapple Teapot (image courtesy of Curated Objects)

All this explains how the pineapple became a prized sign of wealth.  How is it then a symbol of hospitality and welcome? One oft-repeated story is that New England sailors returning home from long voyages in the West Indies would bring with them a fresh pineapple and place it on their gatepost or at the entrance to their house signifying that visitors would now be welcome. This practice had apparently been brought back with them from their travels. Was this the origin of the pineapple welcome sign? It’s a possibility, though there is no confirming evidence that indicates this. And, in fact, it’s doubtful that such a treasured fruit would simply be left unattended on a gatepost. Another theory surmises that – being an icon of expense and rarity – the pineapple was accordingly a sign of bountiful hospitality.

Colonial Inn Sign

A Colonial-Style Inn Sign in Virginia (image courtesy of Nancy Shepherd House)

To give the pineapple as a gift conveys your intention to promote friendliness and graciousness to the recipient. – (Romilla, D.)

Clearly, to give of one’s best carries with it the essence of friendship and respect. If one is offered such an expensive luxury – seeped in the time honored symbolism of wealth – it would be amply clear in what sense the gift is being given. The hospitality shown by such a gesture would be self-evident.

To offer a slice of pineapple to a visitor was eloquently to express real respect or affection for them, and if the pineapple had connotations of hospitality (a vital tenet of colonial society), this is where they came from. (Beauman, F., 135).

Welcome Pineapples

These days, it’s not so hard to leave pineapples out on the gatepost – or a sawhorse, for that matter. (image courtesy of Great Islander)

The cities of Europe were well-furnished with theatres, racecourses and a myriad of entertainment options for the elite classes. In contrast, colonial American towns were relatively simple places, and the main form of entertainment consisted in inviting friends over and throwing lavish dinner parties. Hospitality was held in high regard in early American society. It was inevitable then, as the New World became slowly settled, that the pineapple symbol would weave itself into the fabric of the colonial United States. It was no stranger to the woodcarvers of New England either. A hand-carved pineapple was just as likely to embellish a Nantucket quarterboard-sign as was a scallop-shell or whale.

Pineapple Quarterboard

A Pineapple-esque ‘Leafy Curl Fin’ on the end of a Quarterboard (image courtesy of Lonborg Woodcarving)

A tenacious tradition has the resilience to abide centuries of changing times and customs. Although pineapple tea sets and snuff-boxes have had their day, the pineapple welcome sign remains a common fixture of the historic American home. I have a new appreciation for the sculpted and gilded pineapples I see as I drive through Upstate New York and Connecticut. Through a long and convoluted series of events, this spiky South American fruit has come to symbolise hospitality and welcome in the land of maple syrup and covered bridges.

Being a carving shop, we’re no stranger to pineapple welcome signs either. Here are a few that we’ve done:

Pineapple Welcome Sign

We may not have a website category dedicated to pineapple welcome signs, but we do have a section for Welcome Signs in general. Feel free to peruse it.

Gilded Pineapple Sign

Sculpted Pineapple Sign

Here in Australia, the pineapple tends to carry less symbolic meaning. This sculpted specimen in Armidale simply invites passers-by to buy ‘the princess of fruits’


Beauman, Fran. The Pineapple: King of Fruits. Great Britain: Chatto & Windus, 2005. Print.

Karen Hursh Graber. “The Pineapple: Sweet Symbol of the Tropics.” Web. 2009

Okihiro, Gary Y. Interview with ROROTOKO. “Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones.” ROROTOKO. Web. 12 August 2009.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones London: University of California Press, 2009. Print

Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum. London: 1640. Print.

Romilla D.  “What does the Pineapple Symbolize? Web. 28 September 2008.

Talking Signage with Factory North

Factory North Design

Nicole Sakai & Tyler Segel, of Factory North

On a narrow street in Portland, Oregon, a small industrial-looking building – complete with garage doors – sits between a petrol station and a garage. Welcome to Factory North.

Design Garage in Portland

Factory North, 1010 SE Woodward St., Portland

The building’s facade – like the company name – tells us little about the nature of the enterprise within. You won’t see trucks full of boxes pulling out of this factory, but it’s not standing idle, either. Inside this former garage, Tyler Segel and Nicole Sakai are busy producing great designs for local food vans and global corporations alike.

Eastside Exchange, Portland

Eastside Exchange, Portland. Signage designed by Factory North

More than most design firms, Factory North seems to take a special interest in signs. Of course signage is a big part of any identity design, but these folk see to it that it’s an important part. Although not sign-makers themselves, they’ve collaborated with numerous letterers and makers in their area to come up with some very original and eye-catching signs in a city that has a special appreciation for it.

Today they’ve taken some time to talk about design, craft, and of course signage:

Factory North Portland Oregon

 In our design work, we definitely make a conscious decision to utilize the wealth of amazing talent here in Portland to collaborate on projects for our clients. There’s so much talent in this town that it would be silly not to seek out these craftsmen when the resources are so readily available. Portland is a city where both our clients and the design community notice and appreciate the hands-on approach and the craftsmanship that is required in sign painting. It also makes sense for Factory North’s brand and builds the community of strong design here in Portland.

The Big Egg, Portland

Big Egg Van Portland

(image courtesy of The Big Egg)

The Big Egg’s logo was developed in house with custom lettering by Tyler. Jeremy Richter of Richter Signs hand painted the hanging wood sign. We met Jeremy through a friend who thought we should meet him, because he does all the hand drawn signs at Whole Foods (Gourmet Grocery chain) in town.  Jon Stanton of Orange collaborated with us on the menu board.

Chop Portland Sign

Chop Sign Portland

Chop’s logo was custom designed by Tyler. We handed the design off to a friend of ours who works at Nike as an industrial retail sign designer. We met him through a friend who manages Hand Eye Supply, Core 77’s flagship store in town. He routed out the butcher block sign and stained the wood. It was just a fun side project for him, not a regular job.

Trigger Portland

Trigger Portland

Lets Rodeo Sign Portland

Interior Trigger Sign Portland

The Trigger logo was developed by Tyler and we had Justin Riede who we’ve collaborated with on a number of different projects. He does a lot of hand painted signs around town and was referred to us by OMFGCo, another design studio in town. Justin did the large painted sign on the building and Jeremy Richter did the smaller hand painted signs inside of Trigger.

Creative signage gives a small business something unique to get noticed and does something different for your brand than just having a vinyl plexiglass sign that was made by a machine. It shows that you really care about your business’ perception and that you pay attention to all of the small components that build a strong brand. It’s also a win for the business when the customers are doing marketing for them by sharing photos of their sign or space on social media. They’re also supporting other small businesses when they choose to have a sign painter or woodworker create a custom sign for them. We’re all about building a strong sense of community.

Sign in Portland

We balance our work by treating both local clients and multinationals the same way. We have a process that we go through for every client that we take on and helps us stay true to our studio structure. When working for larger companies that already have a brand in place typically that’s a lot of production work that we can give to other people on our team and free up time for our principal creative, Tyler.

Factory North

The word Factory encompasses many capabilities and has the industrial feel that’s in line with the type of work that we produce; minimal, classic, timeless, and reflects the personality of each brand that we’re representing. The North direction/location was added with potential to eventually open other offices. It’s also worth noting that Andy Warhol called his creative space The Factory, it’s hard to deny his influence on contemporary creative work.

Aaron Draplin Designer Portland

Aaron Draplin (image courtesy of A Continuous Lean)

Tyler is especially inspired by Aaron Draplin of DDC and Christian Helms of Helms Workshop. Both of those designers have aesthetics that are super clean and reference classic modern design. I’m inspired by OMFGCo because of their capacity to build brands into full environmental experiences and they have a similar studio structure to ours. We both look at blogs and social media daily and are constantly inspired by the work that so many people are producing!

OMFGCo. Sign

Dimensional Signage by OMFGCo. (image courtesy of OMFGCo.)

We’re especially seeing an appreciation of the hand-crafted aesthetic here in Portland where there’s a greater interest for the hand made, small business atmosphere. Plenty of people like that aesthetic but it’s another thing to get a small business on a budget for something hand crafted. A lot of is on the designer to educate the client on what the budgetary restrictions are for materials and production. If we can figure out a realistic and affordable way to create things that are more long lasting and aesthetically pleasing it’s a win for everyone. We’re interested in making the city we live in more aesthetically pleasing. Growing up in places where it’s strip mall after strip mall of cheap looking work, we don’t want our city to become that.

Widmer Bros Beer Label

Beer Label design project for Widmer Brothers

There are certain spots in the US where there is a greater appreciation for the hand-crafted aesthetic; Portland, Austin, Brooklyn. We think that appreciation is going to keep spreading to other cities that haven’t yet experienced that wave of resurged interest in hand-crafted quality.

Right now we’re working with a bike builder and designing his brand and bike frames that will be hand painted. We’re working with Widmer Brothers Brewing on a project to design 30 different bottles of beer where we’re curating the selection of local designers and illustrators to collaborate with. We’re also beginning work on a restaurant in San Diego where we’re designing the brand as well as the space where we’ll be working with mural artists, sign painters, and be very involved in the build out process of the space. And many more this year!

We can’t wait to see it! Thanks Tyler and Nicole for taking some time with us. Keep filling your city with great signs and designs!

Braving the Woods with Brad Woodard

Brave the Woods

Krystal and Brad Woodard

If it’s true that Texas is the new California – Austin must be the new San Francisco. No trolley-cars, but the town has a vibrant community of independent businesses, and some very creative design houses (a symbiotic relationship). In other words, it’s a hothouse for creative signage. Today’s post takes us to sunny Austin to meet up with illustrator Brad Woodard, one half of the husband and wife design team known as ‘Brave the Woods‘. Though not in the sign industry, this duo has produces a never-ending stream of beautiful posters and typographical creations.

I haven’t had the chance to design an actual sign yet. You better believe it is on my bucket list, though – someday!

Logo Sign Brave the Woods

Not a sign, but definitely inspired by the roadside signage of the fifties and sixties – a logo for The Make Den

logo pencil sketches

Original Pencil Sketches

Why ‘Brave the Woods’?

I chose the name, Brave the Woods, for multiple reasons. One, it shares my initials. Which was actually quite important seeing as I was re-branding myself, and I didn’t want there to be too much of a disconnect initially between me and the new brand. Two, it comes from the etymology of my surname, Woodard. Which actually means “guardian of the woods”. And lastly, number three, I like that it is a call to action. It is our logo and slogan all wrapped in one.

Business Card Letterpress

Does Brad go after projects, or do the projects find him?

Today I am fortunate enough to have a bit of both. Many times I will contact companies who create or sell awesome products, and shoot them ideas for new products in my style. But yes, people come to me asking me to do a project in the style of one of my previous works. That has been the biggest testament to me, to make sure the work on my website is the type of work or style I wouldn’t mind doing again.

Poster by Brad Woodward

My process varies almost every project. Each project I try something new with colors, technique, the tools I use, whatever. I have a hard time getting into a routine process for creating because I am too curious and rarely satisfied. Currently I have been working a lot more in Photoshop. I tend to create and scan in a lot of my own textures and create brushes out of them. And the Wacom tablet is becoming more of a friend to me than ever. I love the clean shapes and edges that vectors can provide, but right now I am in the phase of experimenting with a more loose style. Check again in a few months, and I will probably be doing something completely different.

Poster by Brave the Woods

Brave the Woods started in Boston. Why the move to Austin?

We have wanted to move to Austin for four years now. My wife visited Austin back when we were in college, for a journalism conference, and she fell in love with the town. From then we have been researching and asking everyone about the town. The biggest things we liked about Austin were the excellent schools, creative culture, low cost of living, warm, and just a great place for small business, though we would only move here once we were ready to start our own business. Then last year we decided we were ready after building up a client base and stocking our savings account. So here we are. Living in Austin so far has been exactly what we hoped it would be like.


Oh yes, all the beautiful signage here is so nice to see. Signage says a lot about your company right away. Effective signage attracts and excites the onlooker. Signs are meant to capture your attention and provide you with a small glimpse of what you will experience with that business. The first impression is everything when people are deciding which business they are going to choose over the myriad of others just like them. A solid brand, displayed creatively and boldly out front goes a long way.

signs in Austin

A great example of Austin’s signage; Frank Sausages & Beer, by Helms Workshop

At the moment I am working on a lot of fun projects. I am illustrating a children’s book, creating a logo for a clothing company, making dinosaur toys, creating science posters, and more. I love that I get to work on something completely new every day.

The older I get, the more I appreciate things. For example, I love certain music from almost every genre, because I can appreciate the talent and skill that goes into a specific song. Same goes for most everything else. I used to solely search out my inspiration from the era of mid-century modern design. Though I still very much love the work that came out of the era, with Alvin Lustig, Charley Harper, Ray and Charles Eames, and so many more, I like to glean inspiration from a larger pool. It is changing how I approach my work, and helping me discover my own unique approach to design and illustration.

Charles and Ray Eames Blocks

Eames-inspired Alphabet Blocks, by House Industries.

Making connections, collaborating on projects, doing people favors and cross-promoting are just some of the things I have tried very hard to do as a professional in the creative world. Other creatives inspire me. I look up to them and admire their work. By sticking close to them I learn a ton and I make good friends. Not to mention, when we put our heads together we can make something ten times better than if I just did it myself. Now that I work alone in my studio, it is important for me to stay connected. Good things happen when you have talented friends. I just do my best to make sure I am being genuine and giving as much as I take. I am not the best or smartest, so I make friends with people who are.

Speaking of collaboration, take a look at the Brave the Woods Blog, in which Brad and Krystal generously feature the work of dozens of other designers and makers. But here’s a bit more of their own work:

Mid Century LA Map

A Map & visitor guide to ‘Old L.A.’, for Herb Lester

Map design

Map Detail

Branding for Camp NaNoWriMo Brave the Woods

I enjoy any project that let’s me play and experiment. I feel fortunate to have a whole host of those on my plate at the moment, so I can’t complain. But if I had to name one that stood out, I would say one of my more favorite projects to work on was the Camp NaNoWriMo poster and swag. It was a mixture of everything I love: camping, colors, animals, lettering, promoting education…so fun. – Brad

Finally, if you are interested in hiring Brad to design a sign, we’d be happy to make it!

Blue-Collar Graphic Design

Gibbs Connors at Work

Gibbs Connors (image courtesy of Chevrolet)

‘Sign-Painting is basically blue-collar graphic design’

Gibbs Connors

What an apt description of the sign-making trade! That really sums it up. White collar graphic designers may battle carpal tunnel and neck cramps, but we of the  blue-collar cover ourselves with sawdust and splatters of paint.

Sign-makers aren’t alone in our hands-on treatment of letters and colourful substances, however. There is another group of passionate and creative blue-collar graphic designers. Their industry – like ours – has also enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. They use ink instead of enamels, and paper instead of plywood. I’m referring to the letterpress printing industry.

Letterpress Printed Gifts

Printed Items from Print for Love of Wood

In October, we received a small package in the mail. It was a letterpress-printed disc case, from Pristine Video Productions in Narooma. The case incorporated the logo we designed for them last June. Didn’t it look spiffy in a warm brown hue, pressed into some very natural-looking paper!

Letterpress Printed Disc Case

‘The Pristine logo seemed to suit itself to being printed in just one colour on a nice rustic brown kraft. The finished product looked like an effective little package!’ – Jacqui Sharples

It was printed in the UK by self-taught printer Jacqui Sharples of Print for Love of Wood. Since 2008, in a small studio in Lancashire, Jacqui has produced thousands of posters and printed gifts on a range of antique and vintage printing presses collected over the years. Jacqui says she loves the smell of ink, and describes letterpress printing as ‘addictive’.

Jacqui Sharples

Jacqui Sharples

She was once a white-collar graphic designer, doing work for newspapers and magazines, but it was the recession that brought that chapter to an end.

At first I was going to teach but print is in my blood and soon found myself bitten by the letterpress bug. I started my business whilst doing my full time degree and when I graduated I decided to take my business full time. You could look at it like I’m recycling my past in a way, except I’ve taken it back to it’s very roots…I feel so lucky to be doing what I love everyday. (The Art Market)

woodtype letters

(image courtesy of Claire Sutton)

I only used recycled stock so all my paper and card is carefully sourced and most of my inks are recycled from printers closing down. (Nook and Cranny)

I started off working from home with a small 8×5 Kesley Excelsior circa 1890, progressed to a garage, then finally in July 2012 I moved into my own studio in an old mill. My current setup is more or less what I’ve been dreaming of all along!

Letterpress Business Card

(image courtesy of Claudia Rose Carter)

I work using traditional methods of hand setting wood and metal type. Wood type being my true love, I enjoy the limitations it offers of only having a certain amount of typefaces and wood letters to choose from. It’s a very slow and time consuming process but very rewarding and makes you use your brain!

Print for Love of Wood Studio

Jacqui’s Studio (image courtesy of Claire Sutton)

With the advance of technology I can also use more modern methods of letterpress which allows me to work with small businesses like Pristine to produce branded products.
The beauty of letterpress is that you can produce small runs and by using polymer plates you can print almost anything without breaking the bank.

letterpress print

An antique Victorian plate, from Jacqui’s collection, and the the resulting printed image. (image courtesy of Paper Runway)

For photopolymer plates first you have to create a black and white version of your artwork. Each colour has it own plate and is run separately through the press.
In the case of Pristine I had to take the logo into Adobe Illustrator and change all the colours to black.
Most of the time this is very simple but the logo you guys designed consisted of hundreds of colours. When I converted it to monochrome, it just looked like a black blob. So, I had to eliminate some of the leaves.

tree of life logo

The Full-Colour Pristine Logo (Hundreds of colours!)

The plates are made by exposing a negative of the artwork on photopolymer to UV light. The plates are then washed out with water which leaves a raised image of your artwork.
Letterpress is best kept simple and using only one, two or three colours.

Unlike Colt Bowden, we will probably never have a letterpress of our own, standing in a corner of our sign-shop. But we look forward to collaborating on future projects with more colourful characters of the traditional printing industry!

Letterpress CD Case Recycled Paper

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 Chat with The Pre-Vinylite Society

Meredith, of Best Dressed Signs, Boston

Meredith Kasabian (image courtesy of Rene Dongo)

Maybe you’ve already heard of ‘The Pre-Vinylite Society‘. If not, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to this illustrious and passionate group of craftspeople. Though still in its infancy, the society models itself on the craft guilds of centuries past. As their manifesto states,

[We] are observant of the aesthetic world around us and resistant to traditions that dictate easy, quick, and careless ways of making our art…We care about the aesthetics of our surroundings because we know that artistic vigilance in the face of mass conformity will deliver us from a homogenous existence.

I discussed the finer points of the society with Meredith Kasabian, of Best Dressed Signs in Boston. Meredith is the literary voice of the society, curating the blog, writing and collecting articles for publication, and encouraging Pre-Vinylites to contribute their thoughts on art, lettering, society, beauty and the public space. Meredith tells:

The Pre-Vinylite Society is a loose network of mostly sign enthusiasts who are invested in improving the aesthetics of their local surroundings and public spaces.  It came into being through Best Dressed Signs’ Josh Luke’s desire for a non-judgmental, all-inclusive forum where sign painters of all skill levels could showcase their work and get advice without worrying about being “good enough” yet.

Sign-painter Josh Luke

Sign-Painter, Josh Luke, documents a finished work of art. ‘At Streetcar we believe that the best wines and beers are fundamentally hand crafted by hardworking, conscientious winemakers and brewers. We made aesthetic choices in designing our shop to signify and reflect the truly human processes of making wine and beer.’ – Owner Michael Dupuy (Image courtesy of Streetcar Wines)

It started as, and mostly still is, just a Facebook page (though I’ve recently started a Tumblr page called the Pre-Vinylite Society blog for more literary inclined Pre-Vinylites to share their thoughts and stories as well) but we hope to spread the word and have it develop into a movement towards a more visually conscious populace who demand that their urban environments be aesthetically improved—mostly through quality signage but also through historical preservation efforts, etc. Membership is self-ordained. Anyone that wants to be involved is more than welcome!

(for a list of members, click here.)

painting a window sign

Josh Luke paints ‘PVS’ on a window. (image courtesy of Flickr)

Right now the Pre-Vinylite Society—as a society—is kind of nebulous. As I mentioned, it’s really just a Facebook page and a Tumblr site at the moment but judging from people’s responses on those venues, it seems to strike a chord.

Back in 2010, when Josh and I were sitting around the kitchen talking about how we’d like to develop an inclusive community dedicated to the improvement of our urban landscapes, we came up with the idea and wrote this blog post called The Pre-Vinylites: Notes on a Manifesto. The first and only person to comment on that blog post was Colt Bowden. He’s a sign painter, illustrator, and letterpress printer in southern California and he’s just a very motivated, smart guy. Josh suggested a PVS zine and Colt made it happen, and in a really awesome way! All three of Colt’s artistic pursuits are showcased really well in the zine! The first volume, Egyptian Lettering, was just his work (with excerpts from sign painting books, etc.), while the second volume, Casual Lettering, and the third volume, Script Lettering, are compilations of the work of many sign painters around the world. You can purchase Colt’s ‘zines’ from Etsy

How to Paint Signs and Influrnce People

‘How to Paint Signs & Influence People’, Volume 2, a Magazine by Colt Bowden (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Colt was also kind enough to send a few images from the third issue:

Colt Bowden's 'Zine'


Hand-Lettered Words

At this early stage it seems that most people who associate with the PVS do so because their standards are high. But I can see how it may eventually get beyond our control and we may start witnessing people doing things in the name of the PVS that don’t meet our standards. But that’s why I’m trying to develop the PVS blog and promote Colt’s zine. These products provide  a kind of anchor for the PVS and record its original standards.

PVS Lettering

‘The Pre-Vinylite Society’, by Sean Gallagher, of Working Class Creative, Philadelphia (image courtesy of Dribbble)

We hope that the PVS will continue to grow and that people who associate with it will continue to uphold the basic tenets of the society—to improve our aesthetic environments by producing quality work that doesn’t conform to traditions that dictate an easy or cheap way of producing art.

PVS Sign North Carolina

A PVS Sign by Suzanne Martin Bircher, of Hand-Painted Signs, Dunn, North Carolina (image coutesy of Hand-Painted Signs)

I studied Romantic and Victorian literature and found out about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She was the sister of Gabriel Dante Rosetti who was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Christina was never technically a member—probably because she was a woman—but she was a critical part of the movement.

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rosetti (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was immediately attracted to the Pre-Raphaelites’ art and its relation to poetry and as I read more about their mission to defy academic art that taught a strict, almost rote manner of producing paintings (from a tradition started by Raphael), I became more attracted to their Romantic and rebellious attitude. I also like that they incorporated a writing component into their mission—they had a very short lived publication called The Germ that accompanied their work and sought to express their ideals in both written and visual mediums. As a writer who explores visual art, that obviously appeals to me. The PRB incited many conversations about how Josh and I could borrow this rebellious attitude and incorporate it into an art/sign painting community.

Once we decided on the name,  Josh made his Pre-Vinylite Society  painting. It’s an homage to the PRB, manipulating an image of Jane Morris from Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s 1874 painting Proserpine into a kind of muse for sign painting (instead of the pomegranate that condemned Proserpine to spend half her year in Hades, she’s holding a lettering quill—a sign of the light to come).

Pre-Vinylite Society

The Pre-Vinylite Society, painted by Josh Luke (image courtesy of Signblanks)

Art-Nouveau Painting

Painting Detail – Jane Morris holds a lettering quill, rather than a pomegranate (image courtesy of PVS)

Proserpine Painting

And the painting that inspired Josh’s work – Proserpine (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As I mention in the Pre-Vinylite Society Manifesto: “Much like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from whom we derive our name, the Pre-Vinylite Society is made up of members who are observant of the aesthetic world around us and resistant to traditions that dictate easy, quick, and careless ways of making our art. Also like the Pre-Raphaelites, we Pre-Vinylites are writers and artists, striving to make our mission heard as well as seen.”
As for the future of the sign industry in general, we feel very positive that quality work will continue to be produced—but personally I think the message of the society needs to get out to more than just the sign painters themselves. Business owners, graphic designers, and the general population need to be shown what quality work is so that they can judge it against less quality work and make more informed decisions about the options available to them. Personally, I don’t think the mainstream will ever value quality over quantity. But maybe I’m just a cynic!

Although we take inspiration from a pre-internet age, without the internet, the Pre-Vinylite Society would just be me and Josh sitting around our kitchen talking about how we wish more people appreciated hand painted signs!

I think a major misconception about the Society is that people take “Pre-“ to mean “Anti.” We are NOT Anti-Vinyl—we are PRO-commemorating a time BEFORE (or PRE-) vinyl. We’re not nostalgic for times past but we are historians and we think those times should be honored and certainly not forgotten. But we also know that history only has as much to teach us as we’re willing to take into the future and make new.

We consider the computer to be a tool like any other. We’re committed to making signs by hand, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy stock in erasers when we can fix a small kerning issue on a hand drawn sketch with a few clicks on Photoshop.

If you’re interested in learning hand-lettering, the best advice is to seek out a sign painter in your community and learn from them–nothing compares to learning from a master. If an apprenticeship is not available to you, scour the internet for sign painting forums and ask questions, read every sign painting book you can get your hands on, and practice lettering every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Also, remember that hand lettering, like every skilled trade, requires patience and a lot of practice before you’ll even feel comfortable with the brush. It also requires a fine balance between confidence and humility–as do most honest endeavors.

I would like to push the PVS into areas that reach beyond signage and lettering like architecture or even public art. I think the PVS is about caring what your environment looks like and valuing art done well, more so than just hand painted signage. But hand painted signs are the root of the society and will always anchor its philosophy.

Pre-Vinylite Society Ring

Sign-Painter Ken Davis sports a PVS ring. (image courtesy of PVS)

Here are some images from a PVS art show, held last year at the Extension Gallery at Orchard Skateshop (Allston, Massachusetts):

Sign Painting

(image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Painted Saws

Hand-Lettered Saws by Kenji Nakayama (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Signs as art

(image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Sign Painters do it in 1 Shot

A Sign by Jeff Canham of San Francisco (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Sign-painter Kenji Nakayama

Kenji Nakayama stand in front of his saw paintings (image courtesy of Orchard Skateshop)

PVS Painted Saw

One of Kenji’s Saws, promoting PVS (image courtesy of Kenji Nakayama)

Pre-Vinylite Society

Painted Sign Show

Art Enthusiasts debate the merits of Hand-Lettering (image courtesy of Mouseizm)

Painted SIgns

(image courtesy of The Phoenix)

And now, since Meredith was kind enough to share her thoughts with us here, I’ve finally taken up her request to put together a guest post for the PVS blog. The piece is entitled ‘A History of Creative Sign-making: A Sign-Carver’s Perspective‘. If you still have some time, please read it on The Pre-Vinylite’s Tumblr page!

Nutmegger Workshop

Signmaker from Portland, Oregon

Peter Vogel specialises in creating very authentic-looking, type-rich signs that look like they’ve been around since the great depression. We’ve already mentioned Pete’s Nutmegger Workshop in an earlier post, but today we have the pleasure of devoting the entire blog post to this unique sign-shop in Portland Oregon.

I’m a New Englander and a Nutmegger is a person who hails from Connecticut, the Nutmeg state. There’s a story that goes back 200 years or so about the spice trade, old clipper ships and the Connecticut Yankee traders who imported barrels of nutmegs so hard that customers thought they were sold wooden nuggets instead of the real spice. Nutmeg is a extremely hard seed from a tropical tree in the islands of Indonesia and India and was new to the colonial states, so no one really knows if these claims had merit or not.  The official name for Connecticut is ‘The Constitution State’, by the way.

Nutmegger Workshop is a part time gig with hopes to go full time. I’m a career graphic designer. Most of my design experience has been with higher-end print collateral, identity design, marketing campaign graphics and everything from invitations to magazines to billboards and even large scale vehicle wraps. I’ve been at it more than 30 years. I currently work as the art director at the Portland Tribune newspaper here in Oregon.

I design my signs on a Mac in Illustrator. I certainly don’t claim to have the freehand skill set that traditional sign writers have.  I do steer clear of printer fonts and have created many of my own hand drawn alphabets based on what I see on old signs and in old lettering books. I intend to learn what I can from other sign painters and I was even offered a few lessons from Ronald Lloyd, a 77 year-old traditional sign writer in England who admires my work. We email and trade photos of our latest work. So I typically cut stencils, but Ron has suggested that I start free-handing drop shadows and other details to start developing my brush skills. It’s a start.

Hand-Painted Sign in England

A Sign by Ronald Lloyd

Hand-painted Sign in England

Another one.

I draw inspiration from turn-of-the-century photographs of city street scenes. Hand-painted signs were everywhere — on windows, in upper-story windows, on fascia boards, sides of buildings, you name it. Sign-writers’ work hung like galleried art back in those days. I recently visited Boston and Portland, Maine and took photos of ghost signs that offered up quite a bit of inspiration. And I’m always inspired by hand letterer Dana Tanamachi of Tanamachi Studio in New York.  She epitomizes ‘brain, hand and eye’.

Tanamachi Studio Book Covers

One of Dana Tanamachi’s recent projects. (image courtesy of Tanamachi Studio)

I get emails from around the world asking about my aging process. It’s a secret, actually, but I’ve learned mostly from a lifetime of  “doing” — refinishing furniture, house painting, collecting antiques and understanding how things age.   I’ve also learned much from online how-to articles and videos. I take what I need from these and create my own processes through trial and error. I’m never totally satisfied with my process and am always looking improve it. One thing I do know for sure is that a sharp chisel and an old chain can add years to a piece better than anything else.

rustic aged sign

A Close-up of one of Peter’s signs (image courtesy of Design Observer)

Not all of my signs are distressed. Many clients don’t want to hang anything in their house or business that looks damaged. The distressed look isn’t for everybody. I have turned down requests for signs with company logos and bright colors because this isn’t what I do. I have no desire to be a full-service commercial sign fabricator.

Most all of my work is commissioned, though I constantly make signs that I post to my site that I think people will want to see and draw inspiration from. I get a lot of “I like that one sign on your site, but can you make it say this.” I’m looking for that magic formula that will capture people, but I’m not sure there is one.  One design shop wanted me to create a series of vintage-looking French signs and others have told me that they would rather have any old sign, regardless of what it said, as if they discovered it hidden in the attic of an old building.

Antique French Sign

One of Peter’s French Signs

A recent, satisfying project was a cover that I painted for Portland Monthly magazine. Their creative director had been following my work and had wanted to get it into the magazine at some point. When he contacted me to design a cover for their Farmers Market issue, we both knew it was the perfect application for my work. I thought it would be a situation where I’d be heavily art directed, but it was quite the opposite. I provided a few layout options, he made a selection and we were good to go. It was great exposure and the cover received national recognition.

Magazine Cover Designs

Some of Pete’s original Concepts for the Portland Monthly Cover

And here’s a nice sequence showing the production of the sign:

wooden trim

sign blank

primed sign blank

sign blank with a coat of timber surfacer

Sign Blank with background colours painted

Started Sign

Partially Painted Sign

Hand-Painted Sign, nearly finished

Hand-Painted Sign

Distressed hand-painted sign

Detail of patina sign

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

magazine blurb on Peter Vogel

Peter gets coverage inside the magazine.

A year ago I saw a short, 2-minute promotional video for a traditional letterpress printer that really impressed me. I approached Parliament, the creative firm that produced the video, and asked if they’d be interested in a trade — a sign for a video. The firm owns The Witherspoon Building, a 1890s-era brick building in downtown Portland and is spending millions for seismic upgrades and renovations. The sign they filmed me making, Witherspoon & Sons, will hang in their new office space to commemorate the building’s history. We just finished shooting and the 2-minute final edit should be posted to my website in a week or so.

Witherspoon Building Antique Sign

Sign Peter Exchanged for a video

The letterpress video that prompted the exchange (for Keegan Meegan Printers):

And the video for Peter:

Nutmegger Workshop: Witherspoon & Sons from Nutmegger Workshop on Vimeo.

Wall Letters for Bocados

graphic designer stewrt horton

Stewart Horton

Just over a year ago, we branched out a little from our usual fare of carved HDU signs, and collaborated on a project with Stewart Horton, of Horton & Co. – a design firm based in Newcastle.

Stewart worked with his sister Ingrid (a graphic designer in Melbourne), to re-brand Bocados Spanish Kitchen,  a Spanish restaurant that was moving into a beautiful stucco house on the corner of King and Watt streets in East Newcastle. Since it had formerly operated from the building next door, it was important to give the restaurant a new and different look.

The Hortons decided to do their research and make Bocados as authentic in appearance as possible. Stewart tells:

spanish restaurant in newcastle australia

Bocados Spanish Kitchen, King St, Newcastle East

We wanted to get that Northern Spanish feel, of pigs & acorns, as well as a lot of copper, brass and zinc. We didn’t want the restaurant to look Moroccan.

They had just moved from the place next door, so it really needed to look new and different. The logo stayed the same, so we needed to make it dimensional – make it pop out of the wall a bit, to grab people’s attention. It couldn’t just be flat.

My sister Ingrid and I collaborated on this project. She designed and painted the murals on the front wall and inside.

Now that it has all come together, the client has only given us positive feedback about the signage and the project in general. In a few months time, they’ll be opening up the top floor of the building as a bar, so they’re expanding and it’s worked out very well for them.

spanish pig mural

spanish sun mural

spanish restaurant door

spanish restaurant interior

Where did we come in? We took the Bocados logo and rendered it as cut-out stainless steel letters, which were mounted above the entrance. We painted the letters a warm earth-tone colour. They don’t shout for attention, but just blend in nicely with the other elements of architecture and art. For us, this was an unusual project, but sometimes it’s fun to diversify.

spanish restaurant sign

Thank you Stewart and Ingrid, we’d love to work together on more creative projects in the future!


A Few Minutes with Francis Lestingi

Francis Lestingi, Signs of Gold

Francis Lestingi (All images courtesy of Francis Lestingi unless otherwise specified)

According to Sign & Digital Graphics Magazine, Francis Lestingi is ‘a former physics professor who saw the light and got into the sign business’. They failed to mention, however, that sign-artistry has been a part of Francis’s life ever since he was in high school. Back in those days, he used to ‘borrow’ the hand-lettered signs from shop windows at night, to study them at home – working on his own brush technique – but always returning the signs before morning.

Maybe those memories were lingering in his mind, in 1994, when he made the decision to retire from his position as physics professor at State University College in Buffalo and travel to New England to learn traditional sign-making from Jaye Cooke, Paul White, David Calvo and Dimitrios Klitsas.  From there, he went on to start his own hand-crafted sign shop with his son, Stephen. That’s how Signs of Gold came into being – now a well-respected name in the hand-carving and gilding industry.

Paul White Cape Cod Carver

Sign-carver Paul White & Students (image courtesy of Paul White Woodcarving)

Last month, Francis kindly took the time to tell us a little about his work:

You’ve been crafting hand-carved & gilded wood signs for almost two decades. How did you first get into it?

Back then I was getting close to completing 25 years as a college physics instructor which included extensive work in designing graphics for astronomy and for relativity. This design work was an extension of the work I had previously completed for Harvard University and the US National Science Foundation. I had also ventured into computer animation to elucidate the concepts of Einsteinian Special Relativity. I was using a primitive (pre-Apple Mac) Commodore computer with some success.

What I really wanted was to expand my animation work into General Relativity but needed the recently
introduced Apple computer. Computers were few and far between then, so when I requested that my
academic authorities supply me with a new Mac and the latest animation software (such as it was at the
time), the answer was no.

At that point, I decided to direct my artistic talents to something completely different. I went to New
England, learned how to carve ( I had already learned gilding while I was in elementary school) and in a few months I had started Signs of Gold, Inc.
Commodore Computer Advertisement

Advertisement for a Commodore Computer (1985), courtesy of the Commodore Computer Gallery

Signs of Gold started around the time when the sign industry was just starting to become more computerized. Any thoughts on how the industry has changed?

 Computers, especially the Apple Mac, are miraculous machines that can enhance one’s creative and artistic endeavors. I use a MacPro Tower with Adobe Illustrator to assist me in my design work.Computers can enhance one’s creativity, but they themselves are inherently not creative. I think many members of the sign industry are using computers to such an excessive extent that the inevitable output is prosaic, uninspired, and trite.

Your signs have won numerous awards, what’s your approach to design?

In our 20 year experience, the only time we duplicated a sign design occurred when a customer stubbornly insisted on it. That customer’s sign ironically went on to win two national First Place Awards! Every design we create is sui generis. Our goal is to design the most elegant, unique, and beautiful work of sign artistry we can. We once had an ad in a telephone directory that read, “ If you just want a sign, try the other guys. But if you want sign artistry, give us a call.” That is our design philosophy.

Two traditional gilded signs in New England

Francis first produced the sign on the right, which garnered an honourable mention. Later, the sign on the left won two first place awards in national sign contests.

I’ve seen a growing number of typefaces that you designed, for sale from Letterhead Fonts. When did you branch out into type design, and how big of a jump was it from sign lettering and carving to designing complete typefaces?

I have always been enamored with lettering as an art form. I was a calligrapher in elementary school, progressing to brush lettered storefront paper signs when I was in high school. About six years ago I decided to design a calligraphic digital typeface that I could use to produce my son’s wedding invitation. The process is a wonderful blend of art and technology. You have to creatively design each letter form by hand, scan them, and then meticulously and laboriously analyze and adjust every single Bezier anchor point until everyone of the 256 characters is “letter perfect.”

Then comes the spacing and kerning phase. Time and patience are paramount here, but the end result is both rewarding and satisfying, especially when you know others are using your work.

Since my first typeface, “Pierre” I have created “Calileo” and “Verdi” for Letterhead Fonts , and “FranHand” and “Stefano” available on MyFonts. In my sign work, I also use digital typefaces designed by others, but I always customize them to some extent with a flourish or swirl to add a little originality.

A ‘How-To’ Video, Featuring Francis’s Verdi typeface:

Pierre gikded sign

This sign, made by Francis, incorporates the Typeface ‘Pierre’.

Gilded Wall Letters for Hart to Hart

Prism-Carved Wall-Letters (Calileo)

Can you tell us little about the Society of Gilders?

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society of Gilders (an association dedicated to the practice and preservation of the art of using gold and metal leaf) I have recently been assigned the task a designing a T-shirt for this international, non-profit organization. I employed one of my own typefaces, “Verdi.” and developed some original scroll work inspired by scrolls in a New Orleans church [Saint Alphonsus Church] where the Society has been doing pro bono restoration work.

Every year members of the Society of Gilders give back to the community by participating in Community Projects. For the past 5 years, we have worked on a volunteer basis, in churches that were affected by the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

T-Shirt with Verdi Font

Francis’s T-Shirt Design for the Society of Gilders, making use of the ‘Verdi’ typeface.

Gilding a chusrch statue in New Orleans

Members of the Society of Gilders restore a statue in St Alphonsus Church, New Orleans (Image courtesy of Society of Gilders)

Is there a project that sticks out in your memory?

All of our projects are a joy to work on especially when we install them  for all the world to see. For us, it is analogous to having an opening at an art gallery. However, currently we are working on a signage system for the De La Salle Christian Brothers Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I am particularly proud to be offering this latest work pro bono as a thank you gift to the the religious Order I was a member of for 13 years (long ago).

Sign Ornaments

Molded & Pressed Steel Flourishes for Francis’s Christian Brothers sign project

Sign ornaments gilded

Gilded & Attached

Gilded Sign by Francis Lestingi

The Christian Brothers Sign, from a little farther back

gilded school sign rhode island

Sign Gilder

Francis holds a sign gilding demonstration.

Peeling mask on a gilded sign

More of the same.

Gilded Sign for a Dentist

Gilded sign for a Pizzeria

Gilded Sign for Cafe Bin 620

Thank you, Francis for taking the time to contribute!