STREET WRITING: A SIGN OF THE TIMES

Life before technology, can you remember it? (That early internet dial up tone, amiright?) How about a highstreet empty of neon and plastic signs blighting the buildings that they hang on (and sometimes, hang off)? This careless attitude towards the permanency of things – the cheaper and quicker, the better – has led to a loss of visual identity. But as the ironically hilarious motto of the Letterheads – a society of sign lettering artists – says, I.O.A.F.S: it’s only a f***ing sign. Or is it?

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. The same goes for shops. Walk down the street and spot an attractive sign, you are more likely to go in. Hand-painted signs, now seen as a retro extravagance, were once the only way in which a shop could advertise itself. And with the growing difficulties of running an independent business today – such as rising rents and competition with online retailers – having an interesting-looking sign can make all the difference between someone walking past, and someone walking in.

We spoke with Ged Palmer of Luminor Sign Co. to find out more…

It’s only a f***ing sign!

Operating as a master of the modern throwback, artist Ged Palmer is breathing life back into shop signs one steady brush stroke at a time. With paint-splattered trousers, varsity jacket, scarf draped artistically around his neck and well-worn baker boy cap, Palmer could have walked right out of the 1950s when sign writing was at its height.

Were your notebooks at school always covered in doodles?

Absolutely! As a kid I was a junkie for cereal packets, comic books, skateboard graphics and all things bright and bold. I did various internships, but I think I was always hankering after working with my hands. Computers changed the graphic landscape in the 1980s and I have always loved the real stuff that came before then.

So you’re not a fan of digital then? Is that why you came to specialise in sign writing?

I like to make things in an analogue fashion. After I graduated I met a guy called Tom Lane and worked in his basement unpaid for three years while funding myself with bar work. The first time I saw his studio he was illustrating Heston Blumenthal’s book and I just saw this massive drawing on the table with this ornate lettering and hand illustration, and I just thought, “OK, is this a job!?!”

And then you made it yours?

Yeah! It was when I was living in Bristol and this restaurant owner threw me a bone. He asked me to do all the branding – a skill that sets me apart from other sign writers – and sign writing, and even though I ended up finishing the designs on my computer everything was still hand-drawn. He wanted his sign on this 13m tall fascia on one of the busiest streets in Bristol. I left that meeting and called a local sign writer called James Cooper and I said, “I’m in a bit of a pickle and need someone who can paint a sign – I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Ok, is this a job!?!

He gave me the lowdown on the paints and what kind of brushes I would need, and then we did that first job together. I remember, I was outlining this G, a line that I been trying to paint for 8 years, and I just got it on the first day, this half circle with consistent width without too many wobbles. It was this Eureka moment. That was it, I was hooked.

How many sign writers can do what you do now?

At Luminor we offer all of the services of a design studio, but with a focus on hand-lettering and traditional sign making. Your classic picture of a sign writer is perhaps a brilliant crafts person who can turn up to a job without a design and freehand a perfect shop front with only a few rough guides. We love this approach but we also love working on commercial lettering, logos, branding, vehicles etc etc. Many folks don’t realise that sign writers are some of the best designers out there!

Do you think it’s because you have this intimate relationship with every letter you paint which makes you a better designer, because you’re almost viewing these letters as a singular image in itself?

For sure, when you are drawing or painting each letter you are looking for ways to make it custom, to fit perfectly with the other letters or to have some unique twist that works for that context. Typefaces are made to work in a myriad of contexts so you have to make a few sacrifices along the way to make sure they are versatile. Lettering artists make each piece custom, kind of like a bespoke suit rather than an off the shelf product.

Many folks don’t realise that sign writers are some of the best designers out there!

A big part of sign writing is spending years practicing brush strokes for different lettering styles until they become part of your muscle memory. Fonts are typefaces and lettering is the drawing of the letter, so they are two different worlds. You have to have an appreciation of when and where these letters were made; you have the Nouveau letter, such as on the Paris Metro, which is very of its time and place. It’s a delicate world of understanding.

Your shop is a great physical representation of your talent too, has this helped you showcase what a good sign can do for a small business?

A lot of customers are those who were walking past and were intrigued by what we do. We love talking face to face with our clients rather than doing everything via email, people can see the gold leaf effects and get a real flavour of the work. Having a shop in London is a slightly insane venture, but the opportunities it has given us balance out the value.

Do you think the visual identity of the high street has been completely lost?

I think it’s making a good come back. People are becoming more aware of sign writing, and there’s also a resurgence in wanting to get back into craft. There’s more of a conscious consumption on an environmental level of how fast we’ve been using things. But look at the old “ghost signs” in London, they’re listed and viewed as works of art in their own right now. Hand painted signs do age gracefully, and make an impact on even a subliminal level.