A Few Minutes with Francis Lestingi

Francis Lestingi, Signs of Gold

Francis Lestingi (All images courtesy of Francis Lestingi unless otherwise specified)

According to Sign & Digital Graphics Magazine, Francis Lestingi is ‘a former physics professor who saw the light and got into the sign business’. They failed to mention, however, that sign-artistry has been a part of Francis’s life ever since he was in high school. Back in those days, he used to ‘borrow’ the hand-lettered signs from shop windows at night, to study them at home – working on his own brush technique – but always returning the signs before morning.

Maybe those memories were lingering in his mind, in 1994, when he made the decision to retire from his position as physics professor at State University College in Buffalo and travel to New England to learn traditional sign-making from Jaye Cooke, Paul White, David Calvo and Dimitrios Klitsas.  From there, he went on to start his own hand-crafted sign shop with his son, Stephen. That’s how Signs of Gold came into being – now a well-respected name in the hand-carving and gilding industry.

Paul White Cape Cod Carver

Sign-carver Paul White & Students (image courtesy of Paul White Woodcarving)

Last month, Francis kindly took the time to tell us a little about his work:

You’ve been crafting hand-carved & gilded wood signs for almost two decades. How did you first get into it?

Back then I was getting close to completing 25 years as a college physics instructor which included extensive work in designing graphics for astronomy and for relativity. This design work was an extension of the work I had previously completed for Harvard University and the US National Science Foundation. I had also ventured into computer animation to elucidate the concepts of Einsteinian Special Relativity. I was using a primitive (pre-Apple Mac) Commodore computer with some success.

What I really wanted was to expand my animation work into General Relativity but needed the recently
introduced Apple computer. Computers were few and far between then, so when I requested that my
academic authorities supply me with a new Mac and the latest animation software (such as it was at the
time), the answer was no.

At that point, I decided to direct my artistic talents to something completely different. I went to New
England, learned how to carve ( I had already learned gilding while I was in elementary school) and in a few months I had started Signs of Gold, Inc.
Commodore Computer Advertisement

Advertisement for a Commodore Computer (1985), courtesy of the Commodore Computer Gallery

Signs of Gold started around the time when the sign industry was just starting to become more computerized. Any thoughts on how the industry has changed?

 Computers, especially the Apple Mac, are miraculous machines that can enhance one’s creative and artistic endeavors. I use a MacPro Tower with Adobe Illustrator to assist me in my design work.Computers can enhance one’s creativity, but they themselves are inherently not creative. I think many members of the sign industry are using computers to such an excessive extent that the inevitable output is prosaic, uninspired, and trite.

Your signs have won numerous awards, what’s your approach to design?

In our 20 year experience, the only time we duplicated a sign design occurred when a customer stubbornly insisted on it. That customer’s sign ironically went on to win two national First Place Awards! Every design we create is sui generis. Our goal is to design the most elegant, unique, and beautiful work of sign artistry we can. We once had an ad in a telephone directory that read, “ If you just want a sign, try the other guys. But if you want sign artistry, give us a call.” That is our design philosophy.

Two traditional gilded signs in New England

Francis first produced the sign on the right, which garnered an honourable mention. Later, the sign on the left won two first place awards in national sign contests.

I’ve seen a growing number of typefaces that you designed, for sale from Letterhead Fonts. When did you branch out into type design, and how big of a jump was it from sign lettering and carving to designing complete typefaces?

I have always been enamored with lettering as an art form. I was a calligrapher in elementary school, progressing to brush lettered storefront paper signs when I was in high school. About six years ago I decided to design a calligraphic digital typeface that I could use to produce my son’s wedding invitation. The process is a wonderful blend of art and technology. You have to creatively design each letter form by hand, scan them, and then meticulously and laboriously analyze and adjust every single Bezier anchor point until everyone of the 256 characters is “letter perfect.”

Then comes the spacing and kerning phase. Time and patience are paramount here, but the end result is both rewarding and satisfying, especially when you know others are using your work.

Since my first typeface, “Pierre” I have created “Calileo” and “Verdi” for Letterhead Fonts , and “FranHand” and “Stefano” available on MyFonts. In my sign work, I also use digital typefaces designed by others, but I always customize them to some extent with a flourish or swirl to add a little originality.

A ‘How-To’ Video, Featuring Francis’s Verdi typeface:

Pierre gikded sign

This sign, made by Francis, incorporates the Typeface ‘Pierre’.

Gilded Wall Letters for Hart to Hart

Prism-Carved Wall-Letters (Calileo)

Can you tell us little about the Society of Gilders?

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society of Gilders (an association dedicated to the practice and preservation of the art of using gold and metal leaf) I have recently been assigned the task a designing a T-shirt for this international, non-profit organization. I employed one of my own typefaces, “Verdi.” and developed some original scroll work inspired by scrolls in a New Orleans church [Saint Alphonsus Church] where the Society has been doing pro bono restoration work.

Every year members of the Society of Gilders give back to the community by participating in Community Projects. For the past 5 years, we have worked on a volunteer basis, in churches that were affected by the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

T-Shirt with Verdi Font

Francis’s T-Shirt Design for the Society of Gilders, making use of the ‘Verdi’ typeface.

Gilding a chusrch statue in New Orleans

Members of the Society of Gilders restore a statue in St Alphonsus Church, New Orleans (Image courtesy of Society of Gilders)

Is there a project that sticks out in your memory?

All of our projects are a joy to work on especially when we install them  for all the world to see. For us, it is analogous to having an opening at an art gallery. However, currently we are working on a signage system for the De La Salle Christian Brothers Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I am particularly proud to be offering this latest work pro bono as a thank you gift to the the religious Order I was a member of for 13 years (long ago).

Sign Ornaments

Molded & Pressed Steel Flourishes for Francis’s Christian Brothers sign project

Sign ornaments gilded

Gilded & Attached

Gilded Sign by Francis Lestingi

The Christian Brothers Sign, from a little farther back

gilded school sign rhode island

Sign Gilder

Francis holds a sign gilding demonstration.

Peeling mask on a gilded sign

More of the same.

Gilded Sign for a Dentist

Gilded sign for a Pizzeria

Gilded Sign for Cafe Bin 620

Thank you, Francis for taking the time to contribute!

 

8 thoughts on “A Few Minutes with Francis Lestingi

  1. I’ve known Fran since his first days as a professor at Buffalo State College. He was an excellent teacher who incorporated his artistic ability in the teaching of physics. Many a class sessions ended in applause in appreciation of the effort he had put forth to explain and enhance a concept. That was a remarkable interaction between students and teacher.

  2. Thanks for the input, Don. I never would have thought of physics as being ‘artistic’, but I guess there’s a certain amount of art and creativity in every discipline, from physics to sign-carving. I have to say, I learned a lot from Francis in putting this piece together.

  3. Thanks, Francis for the beautiful signs on our property. I’ve made picture post cards of them and sent them to interested parties.

    Steve

  4. Thanks, Steve!
    It was on honor and a pleasure to be able to provide the Brothers with some of our work. Attractive sign artistry always conveys a message. I hope we achieved it.

    Send me a picture post card if you can.

    Francis

  5. I had Dr. Lestingi as an instructor in the late 80s for an entry-level course. Most of what I recall was his animated and passionate lectures on nuclear proliferation throughout the Cold War and detailed information about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and such. His was always an interesting class.

    As a final exam grade we were allowed the option of either writing a term paper of creating a poster/project of some sort. Because I was in the Graphic Arts department, I chose the latter. My final piece was a Cold War poster depicting a two ferocious animals snarling at each other, representing the U.S. and U.S.S.R. I never got it back from him… wonder if he still has it???

    His artistry is really beautiful, It is great to see him creating such beautiful pieces of work. I will always remember him fondly.

  6. Thanks for your remarks, Paul. Francis sounds like a great lecturer. I would have definitely gone for the poster option, rather than a term paper!

  7. Teaching in the same school as Dr. Lestingi [St Augustine Brooklyn] was to have a magical experience.. with an amazing artist, a gentleman, and a creative, magnetic teacher. Kind, he was generous with his talent and above all his time. I do recall his saying that as the night wore on he turned the clock around so that he would not know how long he was working! On a personal note, I marveled at his creation of the ripple tank. oh and by the way, he told me he didn’t like to have the class after mine [religion] the “kids” were always lively and laughing. I took that as a compliment…you know, we were probably a combination valuable to our students… a would-be comedian and passionate genius!

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