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)

Mystic Blue Signs

Yvette Rutledge

Yvette Rutledge

This week, we head down to sunny New Orleans to talk with Yvette Rutledge, founder of Mystic Blue Signs, and one-time owner of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. Both shops are well-known in the creative-sign-making community.

I was fortunate that when I went into a sign shop in 1973 asking for a job, I got one. I had always liked letters and handwriting. I had a little experience with basic calligraphy tools and had drawn a lot of letters for posters, though I had never used quills or One Shot. They said, ‘Here’s the brush, here’s how you use it, now go home and learn Helvetica’. Helvetica is very difficult to render correctly with a one-stroke technique without losing the subtlety of the curves. I never hesitate to paint letters that are constructed with multiple brush strokes.

Sans Serif Lettering

Sans Serif Lettering

Over the years, I formally studied typography, book design, pattern design, hand engraving, graphic design, jewelry casting – anything that caught my attention became part of the vocabulary. As a freelancer I worked at advertising design for television, set painting for public television, book design for University of California Press, logo design, calligraphy for letterpress books, subcontracting for large sign companies, and lettering large fleets of trucks. Since type and calligraphy have always been an integral part of my design world, I don’t like to limit myself to designing ‘for the brush’.

Calligraphy by Yvette Rutledge

Calligraphy by Yvette Rutledge

My partner, Vince Mitchell and I met playing music together in a reggae band. He plays crazy-good original lyrical jazz/afro-latin piano and I play minimalist-mantra reggae, world and folk electric bass and guitar in our band Eve’s Lucky Planet. Vince also plays African/jazz bass with the Kora Djazz Band led by kora player Morikeba Kouyate. Both Eve’s Lucky Planet Band and the Kora Djazz Band have been fortunate to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Vince Mitchell

Vince Mitchell

A Poster for Yvette's Band

An Art-Nouveau-Style Poster for Yvette’s Band

Vince joined Mystic Blue in 2003, also without sign painting experience, but as a musician/physics student and lab-researcher/computer techie he was used to juggling with many pins, and he does everything he undertakes with the same energy and dedication. Living in Seattle from 1993 to 2001, Vince played professional Afro-pop music, also did house painting, studied stone sculpting, and developed fabrication skills working on a project for kinetic sound sculptor and MacArthur recipient Trimpin.


Trimpin, also known a Gerhard Trimpin in his Seattle Studio (image courtesy of Bowiestie)

In 2002, as a student-researcher at the University of New Orleans, Vince received a $100,000 grant in partnership with a local engineering company for an optical device he created. He considers that experience as a learning curve in the department of ‘great ideas don’t always translate to great execution’. However, Vince was an immediate asset to Mystic Blue and took to lettering like butter to bread.

Sign on Bourbon Street

I first worked at New Bohemia Signs, which was started by Steve Karbo in 1992. Within six months I started working there, becoming a partner soon after. There is a certain rhythm that is conducive to hand lettering. By 1995 San Francisco was gearing up for dot-com, and the pace of life was accelerating. We wanted a more relaxed atmosphere where we could also play more music. We continued to run New Bohemia Signs long-distance (I used to get on a plane every few months to do location work in San Francisco), but when Damon Styer came along, the obvious move was to offer him the San Francisco shop.

Damon Styer

Damon Styer, of New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of Font Shop)

In 2010 we founded the Center for the Lettering Arts at Mystic Blue Signs. It incorporates our classes and exhibits with outreach efforts aimed at creating opportunities for the public to learn about and participate in various aspects of hand lettering and related arts.

Lettering Class

I started teaching hand lettering about ten years ago with Vince assisting me. In our basic two-part class we teach hand lettering with pencils, calligraphy pens and brushes, using the history of lettering from stone carving to movable type as a foundation for understanding lettering and layout.

Sketched Alphabet

It is an ambitious course. The class meets weekly, placing heavy responsibility for progress on the student’s practice during the week. Anyone who letters knows that if you don’t practice you won’t improve, so get used to it; if you don’t enjoy the practice, maybe lettering isn’t really your thing… Font Club is another face of the Center for the Lettering Arts. Vince’s project, the club is a free group that meets monthly for the purpose of encouraging original type design through sharing skills.Vince organizes talks and demos by professional designers and lettering artists at the Font Club meetings as well as work sessions.

Blackletter Strokes

Blackletter Strokes, Created with Stir-Sticks and Tempera Paint

We’ve done art shows here too. They’re usually thematic, un-juried and invitational, to try to promote the widest possible creative interpretation. We call them ‘Analog Dialogs’. The first art show at Mystic Blue was in 1999 when we moved into our current space, but the dialogs have become more focused and expansive with Vince’s support. He even built new wall space to enhance the gallery. We have hosted shows like Art to Match your Sofa (the art was grouped by color), Carnival (Mardi Gras-related fine and decorative art by local artists), The Decorated Letter (we invited interpretations of that theme by graphic designers, calligraphers, and lettering artists from San Francisco to Berlin), The Usual Suspects (work by a few local artists usually represented in our gallery), From Graver to Press (an exhibit of metal and wood-engraved intaglio printing), Twenty-first Century Lettering Art (a retrospective and prospective presentation of hand lettering viewed through the lens of my calligraphic, engraved, and painted work), Black and White ( hand-drawn graphics, logos, calligraphy, alphabets, pattern designs, drawings), etc.

Art Show Poster

Poster for an Art Show at Mystic Blue Signs

The most recent show was scheduled to coincide with the New Orleans screenings of the Sign Painter movie that we sponsored in October of 2013. Bernie Lebow of Boston’s Sign Works Group helped us bring the movie, and Adam Mysock from Tulane facilitated use of a theater there for the screening and brought directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon to town for the weekend. The show at Mystic Blue was called The Magnificent Sign Emporium, and featured work by twenty-seven sign artists who live here or have painted signs in New Orleans. Some contributors were complete novices, others old pros.

Sign Painters Movie Poster

A Poster for the Sign Painters Movie New Orleans Screening, hand-painted by Mystic Blue Signs (image courtesy of AIGA)

Almost everything we make is commissioned. Sometimes we do paint signs for ourselves, usually repeats of signs we’ve made for customers, a few best-sellers for tourists, or samples to show specific techniques. But the diversity of our customers keeps us entertained and challenged. In any given week we might do glass gilding, carving, a logo, a calligraphic wedding contract, monogram design, illustration, folk art signs, plasma-cut steel letters, faux-aged rustic natural wood signs, restoration, wall lettering, or classic sign painting.

Gilded Window New Orleans

You’ve made some great logos too. Does the logo normally precede the sign or the other way around?

It works both ways. Sometimes customers don’t know they want a logo until they see the sign. Then we make the design camera-ready by drawing it in pen and ink, scanning and editing it digitally so it can be reproduced by ordinary printing methods. If a customer asks for a logo design, there are more steps: concept sketches, revisions, and final art. We’ve just finished a logo for a new restaurant, but the sign is a big lighted pole sign, which is a scale we don’t produce. So another company is manufacturing the sign from our design.

Aunt Sally's Logo

Painted Sign

For those of us unfamiliar with New Orleans, could you tell us a bit about your neighbourhood?

Magazine Street has always been a retail avenue, and we opened there specifically to attract an audience for hand-painted signs. This was important because in 1995 when we came to New Orleans most signs here were vinyl. People needed a reminder of what was possible, so we became an in-your-face example of what used to be the norm. Pretty soon we had hand-painted signs hanging all around us on Magazine Street, spreading like weeds sprouting around the city, especially in the French Quarter, where period and classic signs suit the historic architecture.

The French Quarter

A Street in The French Quarter (image courtesy of Simon Hua)

Over the years, Magazine Street has shaped us too.We have watched the street become known internationally as a six-mile stretch of eclectic boutiques, so on any given day, we may be explaining what we do to businessmen from Japan, honeymooners from Quebec, or students from Cleveland. As a result, we also ship signs and posters all over the world.

Mystic Blue Signs

(image courtesy of A Square Claire)

As the street became a destination, we stretched our gallery offerings to include vintage poster reproductions, prints of our signs, calligraphy and paintings, Vince’s comics and plasma-cut steel letters, my jewelry and stained glass. A retail location involves a challenging amount of overhead, so we can’t be snobs about the commissions we accept. Not everyone feels that one-stroke lettering represents their business image. Some customers want something more sophisticated or bring their own designs, which often require tweaking of color combinations or letter styles to be legible at a glance. Even though we are known for classic lettering and creative design, we try to treat every sign as an opportunity to refine our skills. We still paint them all by hand.

Sign by Mystic Blue Signs

Some of your signs are carved into wood (similar to our own style). Where did you learn that?

I don’t think they do that at New Bohemia. I have been teaching myself to carve. I thought I could teach myself because I have so much experience hand-engraving metal, and carving tools are similar to gravers. It was a challenge because wood has such a different texture from metal, and the tactile feedback is such a critical element in the process. Carving wood is more organic, sort of like cutting a carrot.

Carved & Gilded Sign

We have also added other techniques to our repertory; Vince has taught himself to cut steel letters with a CNC plasma torch (the designs are still hand-drawn), sandblast glass, print from our hand-engraved copper plates with an intaglio press, fabricate welded metal ‘can’ signs, write code for our website…the list goes on.

Metal Sign Fabrication

Any artist who makes a beautiful or sincere stroke touches me. As a hybrid myself, I tend to appreciate artists who cross the artificial boundaries raised by the commercial world. Type designer-calligraphers like Hermann Zapf and Rudolf Koch, engraver-designers like Eric Gill and Victor Hammer, sign painter-calligraphers like Carl Rohrs, John Stevens, and Alan Blackman have inspired my lettering, because their expanded vision makes them innovators.

Rudolf Koch Quote

A quote by Rudolf Koch, interspersed with an alphabet set in Hermann Zapf’s timeless Optima, designed by Peter Fraterdeus, typographer and founder of SlowPrint. (image courtesy of Slow Print)

Poster and print artists like Alphonse Mucha, Koloman Moser, Ludwig Hohlwein, and William Morris drew me into the field with their mastery of the unity of illustration, lettering and ornament on the page. Reference books like Atkinson’s Sign Painting Up to Now, George Bickham’s The Universal Penman, and Nicolete Gray’s Lettering as Drawing sent me running to bookfinders, because in the 1970’s they were out of print. Vince brought a fascination with glyphic writing and cyphers into the mix. He lived in Europe as a child, and developed a love of language that led him to Chinese brush writing. It would be hard to discern which of us spent more time in libraries looking at old obscure books.

Koloman Moser

Design by Koloman Moser (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Do you see a growing interest in handcrafted signs?

Yes, thank God. It would be terrible to see the trade disappear. I am grateful for the entrepreneurial spirit I see in young people– when you want to do something different, it helps to be fearless. We see some young painters learning antique styles and classic design, and hungrily pursuing the traditions of glass gilding the way David Smith does it, practicing the art to its highest complexity of expression. This takes true dedication and love for the craft.

David A. Smith

David A. Smith gilds a Jamieson whiskey bottle. (image courtesy of David A. Smith)

An emphasis on the old-style was part of what made it possible for New Bohemia and Mystic Blue to survive in the nineties by doing what the computer did not do well at that time. The other part of our survival grew from the wide spectrum of styles we embraced. I hope young artists will continue to expand their understanding to include contemporary trends in graphics and design, so that as tastes inevitably change, critics don’t once again unfairly label such a vibrant art as no longer relevant.

Gilded Window

A Window in San Francisco, gilded by Yvette, when she ran New Bohemia Signs

I have to venture an aside here about the part that social media has played in this re-invigoration of hand lettering. Suddenly we are aware of people across the globe who often work as we do to our own muse, in spite of what the digital industry tells to do. It becomes like a groundswell and is thrilling to those of us who expected to live forever in obscurity. But such unprecedented access also means that people can become famous through extraordinary exposure rather than extraordinary merit, so young designers have to develop their powers of discernment to avoid some of the pitfalls of what may be presented as high quality hand lettering. Five thousand ‘likes’ don’t change mediocre work into brilliance. We have to study true masters (there are many) and use our own judgment about what we see.

Carved Wooden Sign

The Making of a Pub Sign: Part 2

Hi again. Welcome back to Danthonia Designs, where we’re working on our sign for The Oregon Public House. Last time, as you probably remember, we ironed out the design. This time, we’ll go right into the shop and start hand-crafting the sign itself. Now this type of sign has a long tradition, which goes right back to the Northeastern American coast, old wooden sailing ships, and the quarterboards which bore the name of each ship.

The tools and techniques that we use are essentially the same as what they would have used back then. The main difference being that, in those days the signs were made out of huge planks that were quarter-sawn from gigantic trees, such as sequoia redwood or western red cedar. Nowadays, such majestic giants are protected, so we use a material called High Density Urethane. We laminate it to PVC to make a very durable panel which can actually be worked with all the same tools that you would use for a wooden sign. We can even make the sign look like wood, just by how we apply the paint with a brushed texture.

After a coat of primer and three coats of green, we stick on the stencil, which gives us the placement of the letters, the flourishes, and the outside shape of the sign.
The letters on this design are pretty large, pretty big stroke width, so we’re going to choose one of our larger chisels, and we’ll carve it at a shallower angle than we normally do, to avoid digging too deep.

For the tree logo of the Oregon Public House, we decided to chip-carve it, which gives it a ripply sort of a look. And we do that with a swan-necked gouge. It’ll look beautiful once it’s gilded.

Meanwhile, the banner is cut out of the same material, and it’ll get sculpted and painted. It’ll get all the same sort of treatment that the main sign gets, and then right at the end, we’ll attach it and it’ll be this three-dimensional element, which casts a shadow…it’ll just look beautiful.

All the processes that you’ve seen so far are just almost like second nature. We do them on every sign that we make in this shop. But on this particular sign, we’re going to use a technique that’s known as engine-turned gold. It’s something that’s normally done on smooth metal surfaces such as vehicles, but how will it look on a bit of a textured, brushed surface like we have on this sign? With a deadline looming, we don’t have a lot of time to find out.In the next video, we’ll get serious about painting and gilding, so stay with us. See you then!

Sign Design

Sign Carving

Wooden Sailing Ship




Sequoia Trees

Sign-making Tools

Sign Panel Brushed Texture

Weeding Paint Mask

Hand Router

Carved Sign Letters

Oregon Public House Sign Design

Scroll Saw

Palladium Leaf Box

Sign-Making Equipment


Applying Gold Size

Open a Can

Roderick Treece

Roderick Treece

Roderick Treece

This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing glass-gilding legend Roderick Laine Treece, of Encinitas, California. In the world of gold-on-glass, Roderick is right at the top with craftsmen like Britain’s David A. Smith and Sydneysider Will Lynes.

Roderick Treece

Before discovering his talent for sign-making, Rod had considered becoming a professional photographer, and he has continued to pursue that passion as well as landscape painting alongside his career as a sign-man. Like Will Sears, Rod is of the opinion that fine art and commercial art – far from being polar opposites – can actually complement and inspire each other.

Roderick Treece at Work

How did you first get into sign-making and gilding?

My father was into it when I was a kid so I just grew up around it. Later, when I got fired from every job I had, I figured I might as well paint signs. I got a job that needed ladders and a plank so my grandfather told me what to get and showed me how to use them. I did the job and still have the ladders. Shoot! Where did that plank go to?

Don Treece

Rod’s father, Don Treece

How many of your pieces are designed by you versus being presented with a design to render into a sign?

About twenty percent of the signs I do now are someone else’s designs. Before I started Custom Glass Signs, I did a lot more of other people’s designs.

Gilded Mirror

Is all of your work commissioned?

I never just make a sign without a commission, never have. I save that for my fine art.

Custom Glass Signs Workshop

Custom Glass Signs Workshop

What sort of fine art do you produce?

My fine art consists of photographs and paintings from the last thirty-five years. Starting with large format black and white images then moving on to Polaroid SX70 film. Then I moved on to pastel drawings of world travel experiences. Oil paintings of minimalist landscapes have been the latest in the last fifteen years, then reverse painting on glass with gold leaf.

'I See Here'

‘I See Here’ by Roderick Treece

Is there a project that you especially enjoyed?

Anything on glass – the Ralph Lauren work is always great. Their designer Dikayl Rimmasch is very cool to work with.

Gilded Sign by Roderick Treece

What’s in the shop right now?

Right now I have a complete redo of a cutout sign that went bad, a new commission for four glass signs for a Chicago mobster and two custom mirrors. It’s gonna be a busy month!

Are there any sign-makers who have inspired you in your own work?

So many; My dad, Donald E. Treece, Big Daddy “Ed” Roth, Robert Curry, Sniffer, Nathan Yoder, Larry White, John Studden, Noel Weber, Rick Glawson and on and on and on!

Robert Curry Sign

A ‘Sign’ by Robert Curry (image courtesy of Font Shop)

Do you see a growing interest in handcrafted signs in recent years?

Yes there has been a big interest recently and I am happy for that BUT I am not so crazy about the lack of quality in some of the work I am seeing. I call it ‘The Craft Sign Movement’. It is like it doesn’t really matter that the shapes of the letters are bad or don’t read right. It’s all about that it’s ‘hand-painted’ . I think there will be a backlash from the public when they say, ‘I don’t want a hand painted sign because it’s doesn’t look right.’

Roderick Laine Treece, Custom Glass Signs & Mirrors from Rhythmlake Media on Vimeo.

A Sign for The Union Bar

After blogging about signs for the best part of a year now, it’s high time we featured a project right here in our beautiful town of Inverell. Otho street – one of Inverell’s two main retail strips – is full of grand old federation-style buildings. Not least among these is the Old Union Bank. Since its days as a bank, this building has been reinvented numerous times. It has been a restaurant, a tavern, an empty building to lease and, most recently, a spiffy tapas bar. Local Builder Tim Russell and his wife Ann thought up the idea, remodeled the building, and opened it in its current form some two years ago now. We were honoured to fabricate the large gilded art-deco-style letters on the building’s dark blue facade. Tim tells more about the project:

The building was purposely built in 1911 for the Union Bank of Australia. The Union bank merged with the ANZ bank in around 1960 and they eventually moved to their new location in 1972. The building was then purchased by Pixie Cydesmith who turned into a first class restaurant until 1979. It was then purchased and turned into a hotel called ‘The Tavern’ until 2010 when it closed for business.

Inverell Tavern

Inverell Tavern

We looked at the building in May 2011 as it was for sale and had been since closing. We tossed around ideas of what we could do with the building until we came up with what it has evolved into. The Union bar, cafe/restaurant and bar with a entertainment area at the rear. The upstairs has two, two bed luxury apartments for overnight or long term stays.

It’s been a lot of hard work to get to where we are today, but very worthwhile and satisfying, Business is good.

Union Building

Renovation work at the Union Building

The location of the sign originally had the Union Bank of Australia moulded into the facade, which obviously had been taken off.  We wanted to create a statement and make people think. The sign has certainly achieved this, as it is the focal point and draws your eye day or night. The investment was really worthwhile.

Union Bar Interior

I was born and bred in Inverell and just love the place. It is one of the most vibrant & friendly country towns in New South Wales. The street-scape is picturesque and the shopping precinct has a charm and vitality that is unmatched. I have traveled to most places on the Eastern side of Australia, and you won’t find a better location for everything required to provide a easy comfortable family-orientated lifestyle.

Union Bar Gilded Letters Inverell

Gilded, Prism-Carved Letters

Union Bar Facade

Union Bar Front

Dimitrios Klitsas, Master Woodcarver

Dimitrios Klitsas

Dimitrios Klitsas

It’s nearly six months ago now that I spoke to Dimitrios Klitsas on the phone. Dimitrios has taught woodcarving to dozens – if not hundreds – of craftspeople in New England, and he is held in high regard by anyone associated with the craft. Well-known sign-crafter and gilder, Francis Lestingi is among his many students. But where did Dimitrios learn to carve? I was interested to find out the story; hence, my lengthy phone call to Hampden, Massachusetts.
Dimitrios Klitsas

I learned to carve in Greece, my homeland. I took a four year training at a technical college under my great teacher, Angelo Moshos. At that time, a young man could learn the trade of carving. That is what I did.

I use Pfeil chisels from Switzerland, and some older chisels that I brought with me from Greece. Not knives. Knives are limited. If you know how, you can make anything with chisels and gouges, whether it’s something small or large, elaborate or rough. Whatever I do, I try to make it very very beautiful, so it would look at home in a palace. I want everything I make to be a piece of art.


Every Wednesday I do a three-hour carving class with local people who are interested. They can come back again and again. I also, three or four times a year, hold a longer carving class – a week long. People come from farther away for those classes. I’ve even had a student from Australia!

Now, some of my students are becoming very good carvers too. One young man comes every year, for thirteen years. He is a farmer in Washington state. He stays in our home, and he is very committed to learning. He even carves until late at night. Now, he has a lot of skill. It all depends on the attitude and commitment.

Handcarved Wood Ornament

Student work at one of Dimitrios’s classes (image courtesy of Anthony Hay)

At your company, you carve signs. I also carve signs sometimes, but I don’t specialise. I’m just a woodcarver. Every customer loves something different. I can’t say why. There are a million things that you could carve! Once you know how to handle a chisel and a gouge, you can carve a sign the same as you carve anything else.

Carved Wooden Sign

The economy is not great right now, but I stay busy. I just finished a five-and-a-half by four foot sign for the Maine Fish Market in Windsor. It includes a crab and a lighthouse. It took me a month and a half to make.

Maine Fish Market Carved Wooden Sign

Maine Fish Market Sign

(image courtesy of Maine Fish Market)

Now, I am sixty-five years old, and I am still learning. You can never learn everything! It says in the Bible not to bury your talents. If God gives you a talent, use it! I know how to carve wood, somebody else knows how to do something else. Keep learning and improving, even when you are old, there’s no reason to stop. Once you have a skill, you can make anything!

A Logo & Sign for Abla’s Patisserie

Ronald Abla

Ronald Abla at work (image courtesy of Sydney Morning Herald)

If you live in Sydney or Melbourne and enjoy Lebanese sweets, you’ve probably heard of Abla’s Patisserie. In 2006, Michael Abla asked us to design a logo for the sweets shop in Merrylands, Western Sydney. The shop is a large one and it needs to be, to fit the long display racks of baklava, chocolates and cakes on offer. As for the logo, Michael wanted it to somehow represent the unique gift packages which are an Abla’s specialty. The mark would also need to lend itself to neon signage.

Pencil Sketch

We explored the concept of ribbons & bow ties in our initial sketches.

Pencil Sketch

Logo Sketch

The pencil sketch that eventually became the final logo design

Although neon is a beautiful art form, our specialty at Danthonia Designs is hand-carved, dimensional signs. After some discussion with Michael over how best to brand the space, we settled on having one of our dimensional signs inside the shop, and two large neon signs on the outside for the benefit of the motorists on the busy Sherwood Road. ‘Neon is part of our culture’ he explained. At the same time, a palladium-leafed handcrafted sign would look very classy atop a shelf of gift-wrapped goodies.

Abla's Patisserie Logo

The final logo

Abla's Dimensional Sign

Abla’s Dimensional Sign

Sign Detail

Now, eight years later, Abla’s is a growing enterprise. Michael has opened two new shops in Melbourne (Preston and South Yarra). Last year two Abla’s chefs, Jack Abd El Nour and Hazim Hazim won first and second place in the Melbourne Baklava Bake-Off. This is no small distinction. In short, it’s proof that the bakery is home to the best baklava in Melbourne.

Abla's Chef Jack Abd El Nour

Abla’s Chef Jack Abd El Nour at the Baklava Bake-Off

Jack & Hazim

Jack & Hazim

The success of Abla’s surely has more to do with the quality of their products than the design of their logo. There is, however, a certain satisfaction in seeing one’s logo design rendered in giant neon letters and emblazoned on packets of delicious sweets, carted around Sydney and Melbourne and enjoyed with a cup of strong black Lebanese coffee.

Abla's Neon Sign

Abla's Patisserie

Abla’s Patisserie in Melbourne (image courtesy of Alpha)

Abla's Cake

Steven Heller

Steven Heller

Steven Heller (image courtesy of Masters in Branding)

Both Damon Styer and Christian Cantiello mentioned his books as a source of inspiration. He has written a small library of them, and his name can be found on many a dusty bookshelf in sign shops and design studios around the world. The American Institute of Graphic Arts wrote this of him:

In this process of impossible Herculean output Heller has managed to completely chronicle the past hundred years of graphic design to such an extent and depth that his influence cannot help but be felt by every design student and practitioner everywhere in the world.

Steven Heller's Bookshelf

Steven Heller’s Bookshelf (image courtesy of A Walker in LA)

Many of his newer works have been co-authored by his wife, Louise Fili. For today’s post, Steven Heller kindly took some time to answer a few of our questions.

How and why did you first get interested in design?

I was a wanna-be cartoonist, publishing in underground papers. Design was not an issue. I learned to do paste-up and the next step was composition. Design or layout was what came next. My interest evolved as I saw what could politically be said through type and image.

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Manuel Gomez Burns)

Do you still see design as a political tool?

It can be. Look at the first Obama campaign. Graphic design is a means, it can be a tool for anything.

Design for Obama Cover

‘Design for Obama’, a book by Steven Heller, Spike Lee and Aaron Perry-Zucker (image courtesy of Taschen)

You’ve written a lot of books about design. Is there any danger that you’ll run out of ideas?

I’ve done 168 books more or less. Ideas come easy. But I am in a niche. There are some ideas I wish I Could do, but don’t have the chops.

Design Literacy

Like what?

I’ve always wanted to do a full length feature film on the history of propaganda.

Propaganda Poster

An image from From Steven Heller’s “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State”
(image courtesy of Studio 360)

Do you prefer designing/art directing or writing?

I prefer saying things. I loved designing until I reached my limits. I loved art direction but after 40 years I was spent. I love writing, but I’m not that good.

Typography Sketchbooks

A Page from ‘Typography Sketchbooks’ by Steven Heller and Rita Taraliko (image courtesy of Otaku)

Louise told me that she has another book on the way (Grafica della Strada), Were you involved in that one at all?

Only moral support.

Grafica della Strada

(image courtesy of Creative Bloq)

What projects are you working on currently?

A book on Edward Gorey covers, a book on “anti-design,” books on Stencil Type and Slab Serif type, book on design entrepreneurship, a book on design education, a revision of my Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer, and a bunch of other things.

Masters Series: Steven Heller exhibition documentation

Steven’s SVA Masters Series exhibit 2007

Here in Australia, the stencil is almost an icon of rural culture, because of the stencils used on wool bales. Each farm had its own stencil, with the name of the property. Many still do. That book sounds like an interesting one.

I wish I had known. I don’t cover Australia. The book is part of the series with Scripts and Shadow Type. It’s a compilation of how faces are used as stylistic language. Lots of examples that show the roots of the style and its long running applications.

Wool Bale Stencils

Australia Wool Bale Stencils (image courtesy of Steve Swayne)

Which designers do you admire the most?

Louise, Seymour Chwast, Paula Scher, Ross MacDonald, Milton Glaser, Mirko Ilic, and dozens more.

Bread Alone Bakery Logo

Glaser’s Bread Alone Bakery Logo, branded into a loaf of bread (image courtesy of Milton Glaser)

How did you first meet Louise?

I admired her work and invited her to a book opening.

Have you noticed a resurgence of ‘craft’ in the design industry, in recent times?

Yes. I see students more interested in the hand than ever before. Its great. It will be integrated into common practice. Craft is essential.

Michael Doret Sketches

Michael Doret Sketches from Typography Sketchbooks, by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Grain Edit)

What do you think is behind this trend?

Stuff happens. Too much computer, perhaps. The need for the unique.

Do you photograph old signs on your travels?

Sometimes. But I leave that to Louise. I buy paper and artifacts for my books.

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili (image courtesy of 37 E 7th St)

Steve Heller and Louise Fili Discuss Their New Book: Shadow Type from Designers & Books on Vimeo.


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.

Golden West Sign Arts

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald has left his mark around the Oakland area in the form of crisp, hand-painted signs on local businesses such as Siegel’s Tuxedo Shop, Temescal Alley Barbershop, and many more. Further afield, he is possibly better known as ‘The Signpainter’ from the short video Jack Daniel’s Meets The Sign Painter. Coming from a background as a veterinary technician, Derek could almost be described as a ‘neo-luddite’ (in the best sense of the term) for his computer-free approach to sign-making:

‘The computer is a tool. It’s a useful tool, just like a hammer is, just like a paintbrush, but living in the world where everybody does that, why not not do it?’ – Derek McDonald

Showcard Lettering Derek MacDonald

Derek paints a showcard.

Here are a few of Derek’s thoughts about his own work, at his shop (Golden West Sign Arts) and the future of hand-lettered signs in general:

I got into sign painting through a general interest in car pinstriping. I soon found that often the two are closely related and the same paint is used, et cetera. My first sign person I looked up to was Jimmy The Saint of San Francisco, California. He had some work around my neighborhood in Oakland and I was – and still am – amazed at a really nice script he did on a transom. It really got me excited about learning to letter. That was in 2004.

Silver-Leafed Transom

A Silver-Leafed Transom Window, by Derek

How did ‘Jack Daniels meets the Sign Painter’ come about?

We got an email from the ad agency doing the ad campaign for them [Arnold Worldwide]. They simply asked if I would be interested in designing and painting some stuff and having a little short film made to show the process. Of course we felt – and still feel – extremely lucky to have had that opportunity and I can say that it was certainly a blast even though not something I was used to being involved in. It was a total coincidence but a friend of mine in Los Angeles who makes music for film [Neil Cleary] was the guy who got hired to compose this song playing in the background so that made it even more cool!


Derek’s little hand-lettered sign transformed into a billboard in Los Angeles

The shop here works just like any old school general sign shop, I suppose. I am happy to reproduce logos if they are within reason to be painted by hand or I’m happy to draw up my own patterns and layouts. If I lived in a dream world all the customers would let me make everything look a certain way but I know that that is not being realistic at all if you expect to pay the bills doing this full time.

Derek MacDonald

I think that’s a big difference with trying to be a ‘general’ or commercial sign painter versus using sign painting techniques in your art. If you’re doing it as a pure art then you get to do whatever you want, use whatever colors, do the craziest letter styles, et cetera, and in the sign painting in a commercial sense your main goal is to give the customer something that fits their business and most importantly it needs to read well. It’s art that is functional. But it needs to be functional before it’s art. If it’s just art and not functional (doesn’t read well) then we’re not doing our job. Luckily for the past couple years we’ve had a steady flow of jobs and haven’t needed to do any advertising other than posting pictures on our website etc. Although we have a street shop on a main avenue, the majority of our customers contact us via email and then we might meet later to go over designs, colors, et cetera.

Golden West Sign Arts

Inside & Outside the Shop (image courtesy of Christina Richards)

I enjoy so much of what I get to do. That’s not to say there isn’t any stress, haha! I think I just enjoy the fact that this craft is a constant lesson. As long as you have the ambition there is always plenty to improve upon. I like doing loose work like paper banners and show cards but I like the end result of a nicely done gilded window. I equally enjoy setting up my scaffolding and doing walls. So, it’s hard to say. I think I’m happy I don’t have to do the same thing over and over. It’s a variety of types of jobs and the techniques change a little with each one.

Hand-painted Paper Banner

A Freshly-painted Paper Banner

What’s in the shop right now?

Let’s see…I just finished a small showcard for a vintage clothing store in San Francisco. I just finished lettering a motorcycle tank for a guy in New York. It is engine-turned gold leaf, with black outline and shade. I’ll be starting six A-frame signs for a small chain of butcher shops called Belcampo Meat Co. We have quite a few little signs to make for a circus. Coming up shortly I will be gilding a large carved inscription in a mausoleum for the Family of the Borax Mining Company. There’s more, but those are the ones I need to get going on in the next week or so.

Belcampo Sign

Hand-Lettered Trampoline

It seems handcrafted signage is becoming more of a commonly known thing. It’s good that customers are more aware of it. I just wish we had mentor or apprenticeship programs here in the U.S., or more ways for younger people to learn the traditions and the written and unwritten rules. If we have a whole new generation of sign painters out there skipping the fundamentals it may not be such a pretty sight, haha! Seems like a lot of workshops are popping up here and there. Some are being offered by amazing professionals and some are being offered by people who just picked up a brush six months ago themselves…haha! Be careful out there!

Derek McDonald & Mike Meyer

Derek McDonald with veteran Sign-Painter Mike Meyer

My all time idol is E.C. Mathews. I look through his books and really try to soak in that era of layout and design. Of course, I don’t come close to his awesomeness in the least bit but I do go to him for inspiration. Also the letter styles of Alf Becker, his letters work well for show cards, board signs or gold leaf on a bank window – timeless.

E.C. Matthews

A Page from ‘The Sign Painting Course’ by E.C. Matthews (image courtesy of Public Collectors)

I just really love the 1930s, 1940s and the early 1950’s stuff. I love good classic storefront window layouts and good old classic truck door layouts! It’s the stuff I feel most connected to for some reason. Not the overly elaborate filigree, scroll filled stuff, even though its a nice look too, but I just love the simplicity and efficacy of the more streamlined stuff; a simple thick-and-thin letter style with a nice personalized loose script and some good shades and shadows in the right colors will blow most stuff away. I myself am no master and have a life’s work ahead of me, but I do try to stick close to the masters I look up to as far as how to approach a sign. I think Pierre Tardif in Canada is a living example of the previous guys I mentioned above. If you look at his work it is clean, simple, loose and professional all at the same time. It always does its job as a sign in that it reads well. He usually sticks with the basic four: Egyptian (block), Thick and Thin, Script and Casual….and it works beautifully! He is my favorite living sign painter by far. The work he does is what I wish my work would look like.

Pierre Tardif

Pierre Tardif (image courtesy of Pierre Tardif)

To end with, here’s a short video about Golden West: