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Signs of the Times
Young practitioners take up an old craft

by Allan Haley

“It was a huge project in several ways,” says Luke. “It started with two small pencil sketches we submitted to Korn. One of the type-styles was an art deco design that I liked because it complemented the buildings in the area. The other was more of a simple gothic style inspired by a sample in an old Speedball lettering book. Korn chose the latter, and I was able to give the design a little art deco flourish.”

Most sign painting projects begin with full-size letters drawn on butcher paper, which are then outlined with a punch wheel to create perforations. The paper drawings are then taped to the installation and chalk is pounced through the perforations to transfer the letter shapes to the surface to be painted. This was the process for the “There’s Never An Off Season” sign. Well, sort of.

For a new gift shop in a refurbished terminal at the San Francisco airport,
New Bohemia's Damon Styer employed a variety of letter styles
to describe the city's iconic neighborhoods.

“We drew the letters,” explains Luke, “and we digitized them. Then we sent the digital files to New Bohemia because Damon has a digital plotter that he’s converted for making perforated patterns [a unique device that allows NBS to service other sign painters, mostly in San Francisco]. He took our files and gave us back 300 feet of punched paper—except that the letters, because they were so big, were cut in half. We put them back together on the side of the building.”

The month-long project was not without its challenges. “We started working on the first of April,” Luke recalls, “but had to stop for several days because the Marathon bombing was just down the street. Boston businesses basically shut down for that week.” Another, far less serious incident also delayed the project’s progress. Luke tells the story, “My apprentice and I decided that we would transfer the lettering from the paper patterns to the side of the building in one effort. It took us three days to do one side. And then it rained.” About half of the work was washed away, and Luke decided to do the next side of the building a few letters at a time.

While Best Dressed’s biggest gig to date took 30 days start-to-finish, New Bohemia has been continuously working with one client for over eight years. “This guy just came into my shop one day,” recalls Styer. “He needed a sign for his storefront. He was pretty easy to work with and one thing just led to another.”

The “guy” was John Garrone, the owner of Far West Fungi, a unique shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, specializing in cultivated and wild mushrooms, fresh seasonal truffles and unusual forest products. He had been selling his wares at local farmer’s markets, but was now opening his own store and needed a sign. The sign became the company logo and foundation for its branding.

In-store shelf signs for a foodie shop in San Francisco's Ferry Building
are part of New Bohemia's ongoing identity project for Far West Fungi.

“Now they’re addicted to hand-painted signs,” says Styer with a laugh. “I do several a year for them—mostly shelf signs. They will add a new product to their offering, and then stop by my shop for a new sign.” Styer says, “It’s a great gig. I provided a few pencil sketches for the store logo, and there was a little ‘back and forth’ on some of the details. But from then on, they’ve just asked for a sign and left the rest up to me.”

This artistic freedom allows Styer to spend time with his growing assortment of lettering resources—everything from old sign painting manuals and type-face specimen books to a collection of California orange crate labels. His reference library also includes hundreds of photos and sketches Styer has made to capture lettering styles he sees in use. “For Far West Fungi, I get to pick whatever type of lettering style I want,” says Styer. “It’s a carte blanche project, which makes it terrifically fun.”

Young sign painters like Luke and Styer see their craft as a multi-faceted art that encompasses much more than just painting with a brush. Gold leafing, glue-chipped glass, marbleizing and various other techniques add richness to the craft. While some signs may take a hundred or more hours to complete, and some projects can last for years, these sign painters see nothing precious about the end results. There is an irreverent sign painter’s motto that says it all: I.O.A.F.S. (It’s Only A Fucking Sign).

It may only be a hand-painted sign—but as their numbers grow, the landscape becomes a bit less industrial and a bit more humane. ca Haley
Allan Haley ( is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.