[Alyson Kuhn] Sign Painters, published by Princeton Architectural Press in October 2012, is a highly illustrated anthology of contemporary sign painting across the U.S. The overlong subtitle for this post could have been: In which a savvy editor entices a curator/author/collector/director to submit a book proposal. Here is how it all came together.
First things first: The photos in this book are fabulous. You could just revel in the “armchair road trip,” but you won’t want to miss the first-person perspectives of 20-some sign painters. We spoke with editor Sara Bader, documentarian Faythe Levine and PAP design director Paul Wagner, who designed the book.
Who approached whom, and when?
SB: When I heard that Faythe and Sam were producing a video documentary on sign painters, I approached Faythe to see if she was interested in the possibility of publishing a book on the subject. She and Sam were still in the process of shooting interviews when I reached out to her.
Sign painter Roderick Laine Treece collaborated with designer Dikayl Rimmasch on mirrors for a Ralph Lauren store in New York City. He reflects, “It’s ironic to get paid to make things appear faded and beat up.”
FL: It was very flattering to have Sara pushing for the book. Otherwise, I think it would have taken a back burner while we focused on finishing the movie. Both Sam and I are thankful for Sara’s encouragement and continual pushing for us to get her a proposal. Sam and I both have other full-time jobs, and Sign Painters was getting done between projects. When we actually signed the contract with Princeton Architectural Press, we were over a third of the way done with our interviews for the documentary. The contract pushed us to complete shooting.
Sara, what made you so confident about this idea?
SB: Faythe’s timing is impeccable: She has a way of seeing and framing a growing movement early on. In her first book, Handmade Nation, coauthored with Cortney Heimerl, she turned her attention to the crafting movement at such an important moment. Since 2008, when the book released, the contemporary craft community has grown exponentially. Faythe and Cortney documented the rise of DIY, art, craft and design at a crucial time. [You can read about the Handmade Nation documentary here.]
How did the content come together for the book?
FL: Sam and I provided it all. About two-thirds of the images are production stills from the documentary; the remaining images were solicited by us for the manuscript.
Paul, can we start with the cover and then work our way in?
PW: Sure. The cover art is actually a sign painted by Ira Coyne, one of the sign painters featured in the book. I’ve never seen the final art—Ira provided a photograph. At the beginning of the design process, he sent us three or four “sketches,” which were actually painted. Sara and I comped up several things, and we agreed on adding a border, so the cover would feel more like a sign.
PW: We kept refining with Ira, finalizing which sign painting treatment worked best for the authors’ names, which for Ed Ruscha’s line, which flourish. The cover is a much smaller scale than Ira usually works at, so he needed to tighten up the placement.
The cover looks so, well, painterly. How was it produced?
PW: It’s offset printed, and it retained the nice details from the hand-painted sign. We used matte lamination and spot gloss to articulate what theoretically would be the hand-painted letterforms. All the letterforms and both of the flourishes are embossed so they catch the light.
And what about the headlines?
PW: Josh Luke, another sign painter featured in the book, painted them in black and white. He sent Sara and me sheets of three choices for titling and names. We had a great back and forth. An italic version for the names worked best within the page layouts.
And what about the text?
PW: I enjoyed coming up with nuances of how the interior typesetting could complement and work with Josh’s lettering for the headlines. I wanted the typography to have a feel of the sign painter era but not call too much attention to itself. So, it’s an odd mix of Old Style 7 for the text, supplemented with Ionic, which is a slab serif from mid-century, plus Corona, which is similar to Old Style.
Was any part of the project particularly exciting—or challenging—for you?
FL: The main challenge of this project has been to represent the sign industry in the most respectful way as an outsider. It’s been amazing to meet some of the living legends in the field—including Mark and Rose Oatis, Justin Green and John Downer, to name a few—and to really get schooled in what a “good sign” actually is.
SB: As an editor, I typically work closely with authors and designers. What was unique about this process was the addition of two sign painters—Josh Luke and Ira Coyne. They are both incredibly talented. This project was a very satisfying collaboration.
Top photo © 2013 StudioAlex. All other photos courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press and the authors.