I’m a graphic designer, so it’s easy for me to create a sign. With a computer and the right program, I can reproduce images and letters, over and over, with no loss of fidelity and no mistakes. Perfect every time. But in the old days (though really not that long ago) signs were actually painted by hand and though each letter may not have been computer perfect, the sign’s distinct personality was revealed in those imperfections.
We’ve seen these hand-painted signs. We’ve photographed and Instagramed them. We’ve bought reproductions of them and hung them on our walls. We love their weathered patina. The pealing and chipping of the paint. The faded colors and rough, indistinct edges. We’ve made an industry of reproducing these signs of yesteryear to hang and admire in our homes or to upload to various social networking sites, yet on most storefronts we see nothing but clean lines and bland, clinical order. For the most part there is nothing wrong with that, but there is something beautifully ornamental about a handlettered and painted sign. It’s the imperfections that bring personality, that draw you in for study. Perhaps even make you go into the store being advertised (which is the sign’s primary function).
In short: A hand-painted sign has character.
I have a friend who is in the sign business, as was his father. He shows me old books and examples of the sign painter’s trade. Gets a bit misty eyed about the past and frustrated when he talks of clients wanting nothing but styleless black lettering on white backgrounds.
As I read Sign Painters (Princeton Architectural Press) by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, I began to understand what my friend has been going on about.
Sign Painters talks to more than two dozen first class tradespeople who practice the art of the hand-painted sign and they all have something in common: passion. A passion for something done by hand and a love of what they do. Each one of them undeterred by the advent of modern technology and proliferation of computer perfect, vinyl cut lettering. Each of them embracing time honored methods and appreciation of quality and craftsmanship.
Sign Painters is about a once vibrant industry that has been sublimated by the sterility of the computer, but it also of a resurgence of this once highly valued art form. How the men and women who do it, do it for the enjoyment of taking time to create and craft something that’s genuine and beautiful and at the same time functional.
Filled with examples of their work, some simple some highly detailed and complex and all of them real art, Sign Painters is an ode to a bygone era that still has some teeth and to the men and women who are helping to keep the art form from being completely forgotten. ◊
David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine as well as a highly acclaimed photographer and graphic designer.