Scott Biersack

Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

Scott Biersack (image courtesy of The State Press)

Early every Saturday morning, university student Scott Biersack faithfully made his way to a public chalkboard on the Arizona State University campus and spent the next several hours decorating it with an intricate original typographic work. While the works themselves often lasted only a few hours, Scott’s perseverance earned him a growing reputation among those fascinated with hand-drawn letterforms. Today, Scott shares some of his experiences, inspirations and hopes for the future:

I love lettering and everything it entails. Just about a year and a half ago I had no clue what ‘lettering’ really was. Then one day I jumped onto the Instagram bandwagon with some friends and decided to use it for good instead of shooting photos of my food or random other things. I stumbled across a few pieces from Zachary Smith and instantly fell in love with the style and execution. From that point forward, I knew I wanted to practice it myself. So I forced myself to draw a new lettering piece every single day for an entire year to continually practice and get better at it.

Hand-Lettering by Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

Hand-Lettering by Scott Biersack

Every week I used to hand-letter a motivational message onto a public chalkboard at Arizona State University, every week. I wish I still had time to create more of these, but sadly schoolwork is consuming all my time! That project was to inspire and motivate others as well as myself. So I woke up at 5am every Satirday morning to practice my lettering by writing some inspirational or motivational quotes and phrases for the students to see the following Monday when they returned to class. Each piece took five to seven hours to complete and were occasionally destroyed a just few hours after completion (since it is in fact a public chalkboard for all to use). A lot of people asked me, ‘Don’t you get upset when people erase your work that you spend hours on?’ My response is, not really because it just gives me a reason to create another piece.

Chalkboard Lettering | Danthonia Designs Blog

What was project 365?

Project365 was the name I gave to the self-initiated goal to draw lettering every single day for an entire year, never missed a day, and constantly shared every piece via Instagram to show my process and progress.


One of the pieces for Project 365

There are sooooo many people that inspire the heck out of me. I can’t name them all because there are so many. I learned and grew the most by viewing works from very well known letterers and sign-writers such as David Smith, Ged Palmer, Neil Secretario, Drew Melton, Jessica Hische, Dana Tanamachi and many more. Viewing their works allowed me to understand how they are constructing their letterforms and the methodology behind their compositions.

Ged Palmer's Sketchbook

Ged Palmer’s Sketchbook (image courtesy of Ged Palmer)

I absolutely love working on branding/logotype projects. I developed a logo/logotype for a cider business called Craftycider. Sadly, it seems the owner has gone MIA and I haven’t talked to him in months… I’m not sure where the project stands, but the logo is complete and ready to be shared with the world if the owner wants to progress further! (Either way, I plan on sharing the project in my portfolio someday soon).

Crafty Cider Logo | Danthonia Designs Blog

Currently I’m working on a deck for Girl Skateboards. It’s nearly complete, just needs to be tweaked a bit more before it heads into production. So I’m excited for the world to see it sometime – this spring I believe!

Skateboard Deck Designs | Danthonia Designs Blog

Skateboard Deck Designs by Scott

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

Definitely! Hand lettering has risen from the grave, it appears. The computers and other forms of technology these days have made “lettering” into an art form and something almost every company wants because of its uniqueness and how custom it can be. I feel like it’s something every designer wants to do (at some level) nowadays since nearly everyone likes it.

Laser-Cut Letters | Danthonia Designs Blog

Scott had one of his designs laser-cut to make this dimensional ‘sign’.

As for my future? I love lettering/typography so much that I think I’m going to move to New York City to further my education in the Cooper Type design program. First, I’ve got to get accepted, then somehow manage to pay for housing in that super-expensive city! I’m not worried about it though; if there’s a will, there’s a way. It’ll happen and work out somehow!

Handpainted Showcard by Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Chat with Louise Fili

Louise Fili | Danthonia Designs Blog

Louise Fili (image courtesy of Uppercase Magazine)

As designers and sign-makers, we are fascinated by the work of those craftsmen (and sometimes women) who preceded us, adorning shopfronts, walls and windows with their finely-crafted specimens of sign-artistry. And we’re not alone in this fascination. Graphic designer Louise Fili, of New York, often photographs old signage in her travels. She recently put together a book full of beautiful images of Italian shopfront signs. Today, she tells us a little about her career as a graphic designer and sign photographer:

I was always fascinated with typography. I remember being four or five years old and carving letterforms into the wall above my bed, even though I didn’t yet have the ability to form them into words. When I was in high school, graphic design was called commercial art, which was a pretty unsexy term. During those years, I sent away for an Osmiroid pen, which I had found advertised in the back of the New Yorker magazine. With that, I taught myself calligraphy, still not understanding that this would have any relation to what I’d be doing later in life. It was only when I got to college that I discovered that all the things I loved – letterforms, calligraphy, and books – were appealing to me because I loved graphic design.

Louise Fili Logo | Danthonia Designs

My studio is a walk-in archive of all the restaurant menus, business cards, matchbooks, specialty food packages and wines that I have designed, interspersed with vintage posters and flea market finds from decades of traveling in Italy and France. And at any given time, the freezer is always filled with gelato.

Louise FIli's Studio | Danthopnia Designs Blog

Louise FIli’s Studio (image courtesy of From Your Desks)

I approach logo design in much the same way that I designed book jackets for so many years. After discussions with the client and extensive research on the subject, I sit down with a tracing pad and I start sketching. I will write the name over and over, letting it speak to me, going from an amorphous jumble of letters to a more precise design. At that point I will most likely have a typeface that does not exist, and it will have to be hand lettered. I will gather specific reference, make a more informed sketch, and off it goes to be transformed on the computer.

Louise FIli Sketch | Danthonia Designs Blog

Having grown up in an Italian-American household, I was steeped in the culture (and especially the food) even before my first visit to Italy as a teenager.

Juliana's Pizza Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Sign for Juliana’s Pizza, Logo designed by Louise Fili (image courtesy of John Passafiume)

I don’t know that old signage inspires me directly, but it gives me immense pleasure to find these signs and then, back in New York, look through the photos on a regular basis. It’s not just the typography itself, but the context – the beautiful colors of stucco backgrounds, the painted wooden shutters, and the jasmine or ivy framing the signs – that gives me great delight.

Sign Photos by Louise Fili | Danthonia Designs Blog

Sign Photos by Louise Fili (image courtesy of Shelley Davies)

I’m inspired by any of the Italian and French poster designers of the 1930s, and all of the anonymous designers who made the packaging and signage that I love to collect/document.

Louise Fili's Vintage Italian Tin | Danthonia Designs Blog

Part of Louise Fili’s Vintage Italian Tin Collection. To see more, take a look at this page on Design Observer.

Recently, I’ve noticed a definite shift towards ‘craft’ in design. I think that the loss of tactility in our tech-driven lives has fostered an interest in craft. Designers crave the use of their hands.

Perfetto Pencils by Louise Fili | Danthonia Designs Blog

Perfetto Pencils by Louise Fili – an excuse for designers to use their hands!

I remember exactly when I first became interested in Italian typography: I was 16 and on my first trip to Italy when I spotted a billboard for Baci Perugina chocolates. In the years that followed, Italian designs would have a profound influence on my aesthetic — and I remained particularly fascinated by the country’s elegant signage. Grafica della Strada: The Signs of Italy documents my obsession with Italian lettering, with photographs I have taken of restaurant, shop, hotel, and street signs from all over the country. The collection spans three decades and countless materials and styles, from classical to futurist and gold leaf to neon.

Grafica della Strada  | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Spread from Grafica della Strada (image courtesy of Coolhunting)

A few more of Louise’s designs:

Label by Louise FIli | Danthonia Designs Blog Louise Fili Logo | Danthonia Designs Blog Labels by Louise FIli | Danthonia Designs Blog

Jon Contino, Alphastructaesthetitologist

Jon Contino

Jon Contino

To my knowledge, ‘Native New Yorker’ Jon Contino is the world’s only Alphastructaesthetitologist (a self-proclaimed distinction). From his home in the bucolic Hudson Valley, New York, Jon produces an astounding volume of gritty, hand-drawn letters for customers around the world. Jon’s is a distinctive style which draws inspiration from the Layered history of New York City and the Northeastern US. A few weeks ago, I chatted with Jon about his work and inspiration:

Basically, I’ve been designing as a professional freelancer since age fourteen. I was part of a band and I was the guy who designed all the T-shirts, logos and all that. Then my friends and family would refer me to other people, and it grew from there. Just little twenty-five, fifty-dollar projects, you know.

Jon Contino Sketches

(image courtesy of Logo Design Love)

I’ve always liked the clean, minimal sensibilities, but I can’t do that sort of design. I find using my hands to be a lot easier than using a computer, and so my work just always has that handmade, gritty look.

Jon Contino Lettering

(image courtesy of Allan Peters)

I’ve designed a lot of different fonts, but none of them are available commercially. Normally, I’ll design a font for projects that are just too big to be one-hundred-percent hand-lettered. Or, if it’s rolling out in multiple languages, that sort of thing. I don’t plan to make my fonts available commercially (at least not at this point), and I basically don’t use other people’s typefaces in my work at all.

Jon Contino Alphabet

A Font Jon Designed for an event Called ‘We Run’ (image courtesy of Satellite Office. See the whole project on their Behance Page)

I do my lettering with pencil, ink, markers…I gave up on tracing paper years ago. So, I’m constantly drawing, erasing and redoing. It’s a destructive process. A lot of my work has a patina effect, and I try to keep it as natural as possible. Sometimes I overlay a texture in Photoshop. I’ve been photographing different textures for years. Often the smaller clients are happy to just let things turn out how they turn out, but the bigger corporate clients are more detail-oriented, so having the ability to make those changes in Photoshop is a huge help.

Jon Contino

New York City has been a commercial place for so long. It’s been jam-packed with signage since the very beginning. It’s just part of the town and you can’t ignore it. I especially love the older signage that you can still see around. It’s so cool because it was just purely functional, just getting a message out there. There were no carefully crafted brands like we have now. It was just ‘Hot Bagels’ or whatever. I find that stuff totally fascinating. These old signs had personality, little mistakes… I’m obsessed with it!

Old NYC Signage

(image courtesy of Christopher Richey)

I now live in a small town called New Hampton, right on the Jersey border in the Hudson Valley of New York. It’s only an hour’s drive from Manhattan, but a beautiful place to raise a family. It’s full of history as well, and actually, although it’s less densely packed than Brooklyn, the historical stuff is better preserved out here in the country. We’ve got a lot of antique shops, old stores, creative people…a lot of stuff from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Our house is actually a restored schoolhouse.

Jon Contino's Studio

Jon Contino’s Studio (image courtesy of Freerange)

For a few of my projects, I’ve gotten signs made by okMitch Studio, here in Brooklyn. They’re a great little shop. They’re experts at what they do. They know how to do a wide variety of styles, and they get the job done, without slowing everything down with unhelpful suggestions or recommendations that some of the bigger, non-creative shops tend to do.

Mitch, from okMitch Studio

Mitch, from okMitch Studio hangs the sign for Silk Road Cycles.

 These days there is such a growing interest in hand-lettering. Years ago, I couldn’t sell the hand-lettered stuff. Now, it’s all anybody wants. Actually, it’s a bit of an over-saturation at the moment. People who shouldn’t be doing it are doing it. Hopefully those who know what they’re doing can stay in business!

Yardsale App

But the internet provides so much inspiration now, with Instagram and all these design websites. I get inspired by so many people, I can’t begin to list them all…veterans like Kimou Meyer, Invisible Creature, and the guys at House Industries have been huge influences for so long, and now a lot of kids in their early twenties are learning how to do things right, like the old-timers. It’s great!

Jon Contino from Kevin Steen on Vimeo.

Will Lynes of Lynes & Co.

Will Lynes

Will Lynes (image courtesy of The Design Files)

Have you noticed a growing number of gilded logos on cafe windows around Sydney? It’s likely that they’re the work of Sign-painter Will Lynes, of Lynes and Co. Will is one of only a few glass-gilders in the country. His work has an air of well-established quality that is all the more impressive when you consider that he has only been gilding professionally for a few short years. This week, Will was kind enough to answer a few questions for us: Who did you learn the craft of traditional sign-painting & gilding from?

When first starting out I looked into courses at Tech but they were mostly geared towards vinyl and computer based signage, something I wasn’t really interested in. So I got down to practicing…. having no one to learn from first hand I jumped straight into trying to paint letters and quickly realized there was a lot more to it than just banging out painted letters. I started reading as much as I could and drawing loads.

Will Lynes Painting

About a year into it I came across the work of now good friend Dave Smith from Torquay in England. I was familiar with Glass gilding and had tried some of the techniques but his work just floored me… So technically on-point and awesome to look at! So I saved up for a while and went to see him for a week-long intensive gilding course which was unreal.

Gilded Whiskey Bottle

Gilded Whiskey Bottle by Dave Smith (image courtesy of David Smith)

I learned so much from that one week and have just been excited to keep going and try and progress in every aspect of it from there. I really enjoy the whole process of glass work, the smell of the size, laying of the leaf, blending colours. The list could go on!

Which projects are you working on now?

We have just finished up fifty mirrors for Stella Artois that had their logo etched into the glass and then water gilt with 12 Karat White Gold Leaf. A couple of bars and cafes around Sydney, and a few commissioned  glass panels in the workshop.

Stella Artois Etched Mirror

Stella Artois Etched Mirror, reflecting Will’s shop

Are there artists or sign-makers who you take inspiration from, for your work?

Absolutely. I think there are a lot of great artists and sign painters out there who are doing great things! Its inspiring to see the differences in approaches and techniques from these guys, they are all using similar mediums and processes yet the work produced is vastly different due to their individual style.. it blows me away sometimes the creativity that people have! Just to name a few…. Dave Smith, Nathan Pickering, Ken Davis, Shannon Peel, Revok, Josh Luke, Greg Heger… these guys really inspire me and keep me driven to keep pushing and working hard!! There’s too many to name really though.

A Sign by Josh Luke

A Sign by Josh Luke (image courtesy of Follow The Honey)

How much of your work is self-initiated, as opposed to commission work?

I guess most of my commercial work is commissioned. I’m constantly working on my own personal artworks and signs in my spare time though… not that I really have any so I guess that stuff is all self initiated. I think that answers the question?

Sign in Paddington

A Sign for ‘The London‘ in Paddington, Sydney

You did a piece for Colossal Media in NY. How did that come about?

We follow each other on Instagram actually, and my partner is originally from the states. We were there a couple of years back for Christmas seeing her family and I contacted Paul from Colossal to catch up and check out their workshop. He took me on a shop tour and introduced me to all the guys there.. even bought me lunch! Those dudes are super nice and their work is really on point. Its amazing the scale they work on. A month or two later Paul contacted me asking if I was interested in doing a bespoke glass panel for their shop… I was stoked! He gave me creative freedom with it so I just had fun with it and it made it there in one piece!

Gilded Sign for Collossal Media Why is it important for small businesses to invest in hand-crafted signage?

This is a funny one. I think unfortunately a lot of people still don’t see the relevance and importance of a hand-crafted sign. A lot of small businesses are really going back to that hand-crafted aesthetic and putting a big investment into their fitouts. Real timber floors, copper piping, hand made tiles…and then a nice vinyl sticker for their shopfront signage! There doesn’t quite seem to be that connection made yet in a lot of cases that a hand crafted sign is beautiful and lives in that world. It too deserves that same attention to detail and respect.

Lobby Bar Sign

Painting a sign for The Lobby Bar, Sydney

I think having a hand-crafted sign really makes such a huge difference in engaging people on a daily basis. It’s not sterile and lifeless like vinyl, you can really see a human connection to it and I think that’s what draws people in and makes them feel comfortable which ultimately is what a business is after and besides that they just look cool!

Signwriting Easel

Will’s Easel

Do you see a growing interest in hand-made signs in Sydney?

Yeah there is absolutely a growing trend in Sydney at the moment. Its worldwide. Both businesses and craftsmen/artists are engaging in it more which ultimately I think is a positive thing.

Gilding Brewtown Newtown Window

Gilding the window of Brewtown Newtown

A Sign Made from Old Pallets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Sign Made from Old Pallets, by Will (image courtesy of Josh Pinkus)


Michael Doret

Michael Doret

Michael Doret (image courtesy of Astute Graphics)

As a boy, Michael Doret spent many happy hours in New York’s Coney Island amusement park. Now, as a well-known graphic designer, he can see the influence of all that flamboyant and colourful carnival lettering on his own design work. In this week’s post, Michael takes the time to tell us more about his life as a man of letters.

How & why did you first get into graphic design?

I don’t think there was ever that moment when I said to myself ‘I’m going to be a graphic designer’. It was more of a gradual process. I was lucky enough to have had some great art teachers in high school who believed in me and gave me excellent guidance and encouragement. That led me to apply to and get accepted as a college student by The Cooper Union in NYC. The ‘Foundation’ year at Cooper included Architecture, and for a while I thought I might pursue that but, in the end, art won out. Cooper had some graphics classes, but the Art School was more oriented towards fine arts. After a year or two at Cooper I realized I was not cut out to be a fine artist, and so looked to take more graphics classes. At the time Cooper offered those, but they were at night and more for people already working in the design field. I took those classes anyway, and that was probably the first indication of my commitment to graphic design.

Cooper Union Letters

Dimensional Letters on Cooper Union Foundation Building (image courtesy of Richard Tucker)

After college I held a series of jobs involving various levels of design expertise. I learned a lot at these jobs, and about five years after graduation made the decision to go out on my own and pursue a career in graphic design.

Graphic Artists Guild Wall Plaque

A Metal Wall Plaque for the Graphic Artists Guild New York Headquarters, designed by Michael

You grew up at Coney Island, NY. What effect did that have on your design style?

I grew up near Coney Island, not in it, like Alvy Singer from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall who grew up in a house under the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster in Coney Island! A few years ago I happened upon a 3-D slide of my brother and me enjoying a day at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. This slide was a revelation to me and played a pivotal role in helping me figure out why my work looks the way it does. In the center of the slide are my brother and me—he’s looking very cool—and very aware he’s being photographed. But I’m off in my own little world, fixated on all that’s going on around me. Around us were all the sights and sounds of the amusement park that are burned into my memory. In studying this photo I realized something very important: all that signage, all those banners and lettering, all those beautiful, colorful graphics were impressed deeply into my subconscious, and many years later had resurfaced and had all come out in my work. They were my colors, my letterforms, my configurations of typography and borders—I’d have been proud to have created any of them! Then it dawned on me: somehow as a kid I fixated on all those graphics, and stored them all away for future use.

Coney Island Michael Doret

Michael and his brother

You run Alphabet Soup type foundry, designing lots of creative fonts. As someone who generally doesn’t use fonts in your design work, how did you get into type design?

I never did use a lot of fonts in my work, preferring to handle most of the typography as hand-lettering (except, of course, for body text). But while we all understand that lettering and font design are two very different disciplines, they do have a lot in common. As a freelancer my workload goes through peaks and valleys—it’s usually either feast or famine! So it was during one of those lulls back in 2003 that I decided to fill my time by creating my own projects that could generate income. Given my knowledge and expertise in designing letterforms for my assignment work, it seemed quite natural to me to try my hand at designing fonts. I soon discovered that I was right about that, but in some of my early attempts at font design I found that it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. While hand-lettering and font design have much in common, there are also some significant differences as well. But those challenges are what made this new endeavor all the more interesting, and it proved to be a great learning experience. As it happens, I haven’t had too many of those in my assignment work, which has kept my font production fairly low—about one a year.

Michael Doret Pencil Sketch

A Pencil Sketch that evolved into Michael’s Powerstation Font

Designing a font is a huge project and obviously very different from designing a logo. Which sort of work do you prefer?

I still prefer assignment work over typeface design. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you complete a project that you cannot get when designing a font. Font design is more of an intellectual pursuit in that there’s nothing you can really point to at the conclusion (other than a collection of separate letters)—there’s not really a moment when you can hold something up as a finished product and be proud of it. And then there’s always the disappointment of seeing your font misused by people who don’t understand good design. But when you design a logo or other piece of design, you can hold up the finished piece and be proud of it, and know that it’s finally done!

Powerstation Font

‘Powerstation’ in use

Was there a project you especially enjoyed?

Many projects through the years have been memorable and enjoyable to me. The title treatment for Disney’s feature ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is the latest one that stands out in my mind. Among others which I have enjoyed are the cover art for the Squirrel Nut Zippers album ‘Bedlam Ballroom’, in which I recreated a neon sign in 3D, and the logo I created for a new Hollywood restaurant – ‘Sassafras’, and others. And going back a few years I created many ‘illustrated’ covers for TIME Magazine that I am still quite proud of. In all these projects I was given free reign by the client to pursue my creative vision and create art which I believed would be memorable.

Sassafrass Logo Sketch

Some of the original sketches

Sassafrass Logo

The Finished Logo

Sassafrass Logo

Another version

Sassafras Gold on Glass

Gold on Mirror

What would be your dream project to work on?

Actually I haven’t done that many designs that have actually been fabricated as three dimensional signage—I could probably count all that I have been involved with on one hand! I’m not sure why this is, but it is definitely the one area that I’ve always wanted to get into, but just haven’t had many opportunities to do so. What makes this especially ironic to me is that it was the signs and banners of Coney Island and the incredible giant billboards of Times Square in New York that were my first inspirations.

Coney Island Mid-Century

Coney Island Mid-Century

Are there any designers/sign-makers/artists who inspire your work?

The work that has inspired me the most has almost always been the work of anonymous artists. Not that they chose to be anonymous, but history has chosen to ignore them. It’s not sophisticated design, but rather the design of artisans who perhaps didn’t have the training to know what not to do. So consequently they designed without the reservations (or the sophistication) that their more educated peers had. To me this was a plus since the work that they produced was not clichéd or tired, and had many aspects which would be considered by others as mistakes. These ‘mistakes’ in their sometimes naïve work are what I find interesting and attractive. It’s most commonly found in the work I look to most—that which was produced in the US between the ’20s and the ’50s. It could be old matchbook covers, movie posters, theater marquees, cigarette packs, airline and hotel stickers, logos, et-cetera



Why is creative signage important to a business or town?

To see why creative signage is so important, all one would have to do is come to Hollywood and take a look around. The visual blight here is absolutely appalling. It’s as if business owners here just didn’t care, or have no pride in what their businesses project. Cheap plastic and vinyl signs proliferate without any restrictions. Almost none of them have any creative or interesting aspects to them, and the net result of all this is that you drive down the street here, and just want to close your eyes. If you ever look at photos of old Hollywood you’d realize what the potential was, and how far we’ve strayed from that ideal. I blame the businesses for this in that their only consideration is the bottom line, and I blame the cheap sign shops for churning out any kind of crap that’s requested.

Hollywood Signs

Hollywood in its signage heyday

Could you tell us about some of the signage projects that you have been involved in?

As I said there haven’t been that many. I guess people just don’t feel it’s worth it to spend money on design. So I can cite the work I did for master craftsman Blaine Casson in Toronto for his business ‘Iron Oxide’. He fabricated the signs I designed himself, and did a fantastic job of it.

Iron Oxide Sketch

Wooden Letters

Dimensional Sign

I did a sign for my local homeowners group ‘The Hollywood Dell’ which came out pretty nice—there were several of them which were fabricated dimensionally out of wood by one of the sign shops at Universal Studios. Several years back I did two signs for a local ephemera shop ‘Chic-A Boom’ which were affixed to the front and on the roof of their store. They were painted, and fairly cheaply done . . . the store has now closed and the signs are gone.

Hollywood Dell Sign

The Sign for Hollywood Dell.

Sign by Michael Doret


Frisso: The Norwegian Sign-Painter from Denmark


Frisso (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Carl Frederik Angell, more commonly known as ‘Frisso’, is one of the new generation of sign-painters that are making their mark on the walls and windows of progressive businesses, in cities around the world. After teaching himself to paint signs, and honing his skills for a year at Best Dressed Signs in Boston, he’s back in his homeland of Denmark. This week, he tells us about his life as a sign-painter so far:

My background is basically the fact that I’ve just been drawing my whole life. As a kid growing up looking up to my brother, I always did the things he did. When he was drawing, I sat next to him and drew the same things he drew and I think that helped me develop my drawing skills a lot. Then I just kept on drawing from there.

Typography Pencil Sketch

One of Frisso’s many typographic doodles

When I finished high-school I pretty much knew that I wanted to be a designer. My older sister was working as a graphic designer and my brother was studying furniture design at that time, so there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to follow their footsteps. I just needed to find out what kind of designer I wanted to be.

Handpainted Thinner Can

Handpainted Thinner Can

I first got into sign painting when I was applying for an internship as part of the school program at Kolding School of Design. I stumbled across a video of Dan Madsen painting a sign for his shop and I immediately felt that this was it. I wrote him an email and asked if he would be willing to teach me this old craft as a three month apprenticeship, but he wasn’t able to because he was going on a trip to Europe at the time I was planning to do the apprenticeship. Fortunately I had also written to Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs in Boston who were interested in having me as an apprentice. This was a whole year before I had scheduled to do the apprenticeship, so I bought some lettering brushes and 1-shot paint, and spent that year practicing so I was well prepared.

You did an apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs in Boston.

My apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs was an amazing experience, and from the moment I met Josh and Meredith, I knew that this was the right place for me. After a year of practicing and guessing my way through the process of painting letters, it was great to finally have a real sign painter to show me the right way. And Josh couldn’t have been a better teacher and mentor. They taught me as much as possible in the three months I was there, from making patterns to how you price each job. This gave me a great foundation to build on and keep practicing when I got home. You can’t fully learn how to paint signs properly in just three months, so I’m still learning and that will probably never stop. When you master a technique, there’s always something new to learn right around the corner.

Best Dressed Signs

Frisso and Josh Luke, of Best Dressed Signs, paint a wall in Boston

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

I don’t really have one favourite project in particular, but one that stands out in my mind is a reverse glass gild I did for the vintage book store in Oslo, Cappelens Forslag. The reason it stands out is because of the freedom I got with making the design, and probably because of how nervous I was before laying down the first strokes, as this was the first real gilding job I had to do solo.

Frisso at work

Gilded Glass Sign

The Finished Piece

Another project is the last sign I did at the port of Kolding. It’s a 24 x 3.60 metre wall, that says ‘Welcome’, and it’s obviously a sign to welcome the boats and ships that enter the harbour. This was a very fun project because of its size and its visual impact on the area around the sign. Here’s a video of the project by Petter Spilde:

At the moment I’m working on some hand lettered quotes for a series of prints. I’m also starting on a storefront sign job for a coffee shop. Other than that, I just finished school so I’m trying to get some jobs here and there, and see if I can manage to make a living on just drawing and painting letters.

Nellie's Coffee Shop Signs

Are there artists or sign-makers who inspire your work?

I would say I find inspiration in a variety of artists. The Victorian lettering and glass work of David A. Smith. Stephen Powers‘ huge projects like the old Macy’s building in Brooklyn. Kenji Nakayama‘s beautiful styles of single-stroke brush lettering. Aaron Horkey‘s amazing eye for details. And my mentor, Josh Luke has been a major inspiration ever since I first got my eyes opened for the world of sign painting. There’s a lot of other great inspirational sign painters and letterers out there and I find inspiration everywhere.

Poster by Aaron Horkey

Poster by Aaron Horkey (image courtesy of Aaron Horkey)

You taught some lettering workshops in Berlin. Can you tell us about that?

I was contacted by Otto Baum and Elena Albertoni who are arranging Berlin based workshops and events. It was a two day workshop where I taught basic brush lettering. Started with Casuals, then Plain Egyptian and then we finished it off with some Script. Hopefully I will do a lot more of these kinds of workshops in the future, as it’s important to learn how to paint letters if you want to work with lettering. It’s the best way to develop an understanding of the structure of each letter.

Berlin Sign-Painting Class

Frisso oversees a sign-painting class in Berlin. (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Signs by Frisso

Frisso Carved Stamp


Jeremy Pelley, of the Official Manufacturing Company

Jeremy Pelley

Jeremy Pelley (image courtesy of Randall Garcia)

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

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

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

Retro Seal

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

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Ace Hotel Exit Door

An Exit Door at the Ace Hotel

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

A Typeface for New York's Jewish Museum

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

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

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

The Gap

Hard at work refurbishing the Gap store.

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

World Map

(image courtesy of Poketo)

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

Pico de Gap Truck

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

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

Natural Selection Signs

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

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

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

Hand-Painted Monogram

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

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

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

Wooden Lightbulb Letters

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

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

Spirit of 77 sign

The finished sign (image courtesy of AIGA)

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

Portland Meadows Signage

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

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

Woodblock Chocolate Bar

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

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

Lightbulb Letters

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

Caitlyn Galloway: Sign-Painter and Gardener of San Francisco

Caitlyn Galloway

Caitlyn Galloway (image courtesy of Sign Painters Movie)

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

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

Margaret Kilgallen

Margaret Kilgallen (image courtesy of Ambrose)

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

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

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

Damon Styer

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

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

Hand-Painted Sign

A Utilitarian, Hand-Painted Sign by Caitlyn

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

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

Heather Hardison Illustration

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

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

Signs by Pickles

Signs by Pickles (image courtesy of Pickles Hyperbole)

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

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

Fruit Stand Sign

Fruit Stand Sign (image courtesy of Kari)

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

Stinking Rose

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

The Stinking Rose

The Stinking Rose (image courtesy of Shruti Iyer)

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

mission pie menus

mission pie menus in progress, in Caitlyn’s shop

mission pie installed

and, installed, at Mission Pie

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

scarlet sage in progress

A sign for Scarlet Sage, in progress

scarlet sage

…and installed.

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

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

Hand-Painted Alphabet

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

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

Handpainted K

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

Tell us about ‘Little City Gardens’.

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

Little City Gardens

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

Farmers Market Sign

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

Pencil Sketch

Caitlyn Galloway Signs

liquor store signs caitlyn galloway

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

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.