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

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

Quarterboard

Sign-Making

Bandsaw

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

Gilding

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.

Woodcarving

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!