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.
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’.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.