"At one point in the not-so-distant past, you’d call your plumber to fix the toilet and the sign painter to letter the window," Faythe Levine tells Co.Design. "It was another trade job that has since just dried up to the point of near extinction in our vocabulary." Levine has been a longtime champion of people-powered creative endeavors (see: Handmade Nation), and now the multitalented multi-hyphenate—curator-artist-photographer—has turned her attentions to the life and times of these modern-day artisans with a new book (and forthcoming movie).
The passion project has been in production for almost four years, a collaboration between Levine and filmmaker Sam Macon to document the personalities who keep the profession alive in the face of a booming digital revolution. "One of our goals is to re-educate our generation—and those to come—about who these people are and what they’ve contributed to our landscape," Levine says, in addition to opening up a larger discussion about "process, permanence, and investment."
Macon explains that the trade started to "vanish" in the mid-'80s, reducing the once-ubiquitous need for these niche professionals to, well, a niche. The time is certainly right for a renaissance, as consumer attentions turn to the importance of heritage and provenance, and businesses search for authenticity in a world beset by quick fixes and somewhat empty branding efforts. "There seems to be a new level of attention being paid to process," Macon says. "People want to know who made something, where it was made, and how it was made." But despite this fortuitous, zeitgeist-y appeal, those who continue to practice the craft are interested in the work, not the trend. "One thing we really learned is that sign painters don’t do it because it’s ‘old-timey’ or ‘retro,’" Macon says. "It’s just the best way to make a quality sign. Gold leaf lettering on glass is the best way to let a potential customer know that you are in business to do business."
The enduring appeal of freedom—in many different incarnations—afforded by the trade popped up throughout the featured profiles. "These seemingly simple ideas like being self-employed, making a living doing what you love, the ability to travel from one city to the next and find work—we don’t really think about how incredibly difficult it is to do that," Macon says. "Sign painting enabled these men and women to buy houses, to put kids through college, to buy motorcycles and hit the road." Plus, of course, the obvious appeal of leaving one’s mark on the built landscape. "Another common thread was the desire to have a hand in defining the way the world looks."
The book is full of stunning full-color shots of finished signs and works-in-progress of folks from San Francisco and Iowa City to Mazeppa and Boston. Even artist Ed Ruscha gets in on the action, penning a poignant foreword in which he waxes poetic about, amongst other simple pleasures, "the ecstasy of seeing a sign on metal with a beautifully built-up edge of paint bulging from one side of the letter stroke!"
Ultimately, Levine is optimistic about the future of the field. "It’s something that can be taught," she says. "Having a creative flair or interest in the arts can help, but it’s all about practice, layout, and design." The sign industry will never be what it once was," she continues, "but those who are continuing on the tradition of hand paint will keep it alive for some time."