The first sign that the writing was on the wall for sign writing came in the 1980s when vinyl cutting first made an appearance and craft began to make way for computers.
The 90s proved even more disastrous, with inkjet printers and digital design putting everything from window stickers to building wraps mere keystrokes away.
Before long the Victorian facades of our city centres were buried beneath the incongruous backlit signage of big-box stores and fast-food chains – a saturation of plastic and vinyl that led to high street bleeding into indistinguishable high street.
Thankfully, then, it looks like we’re finally getting bored with plastic, businesses no longer happy to just blend in with uninspired, identikit neighbours – much to the delight of traditional London sign writer Nick Garrett who dismisses modern signage as “offensive”.
Instead, retailers are increasingly turning to sign painters to convey a sense of individuality, to stand out and communicate that their products aren’t run of the mill.
For Garrett, whose grandfather was a letter cutter (a stone mason who cut the letters on the statue of Boadicea on Westminster Bridge) and who himself has been involved in sign writing and gilding since 1975 as well as running workshops to pass these skills to new generations, the handpainted resurgence we are in the midst of can be traced back to the financial crisis of 2008.
“That really shook people. They, we, I… took a good look at what really matters. It got real.
“You can love something loved and crafted. But you can never love a vinyl letter and so it’s seen for what it is, future rubbish. Painted letters on the other hand are future icons… nay, art.
“Font designers by and large have never built a letter or run an orbit with a brush that loops and coils into a serif or a ligature. Running a brush around a gentle arch of Edward Johnston’s letters or a more poetic cursive changes you, forever, because you could fail. You could slip, fall, lose something beautiful. It could die in your hands.”
Lettering artist and sign painter Ged Palmer similarly puts the revival down to renewed interested in craft and handmade work.
“There’s been a big comeback for lettering in general and a lot of younger folks are looking into painting techniques and all of the amazing history that surrounds the trade. On the flip side of that, shopkeepers and business are also more aware of the possibility of having something handpainted.”
Jack Hollands, who goes by the name Sign Writing Jack, furthers this thought, explaining how there is a wider trend of interest in “how things are made and by whom,” which filters from the food we eat to the clothes we buy. “The general public are starting to understand and appreciate the art and craft of sign writing,” he says. “There’s big demand for these rare skills.”
Hollands himself picked up these rare skills by first immersing himself in sign writing books, many of which were over a century old. Despite their antiquity he found they remained relevant as “the tools and methods have changed very little for hundreds of years”. This was followed by working with Garrett day-to-day for over a year, and for the past few years he has been working on his own.
For Hollands, the digital world is restricted by processes and techniques: “Anyone designing within these confines ultimately ends up with produce looking, in one way or another, the same as the next guy.”
For sign writers, however, whose tools of the trade are so simple, the possibilities are almost limitless. Hollands points to last year’s ’Business As Usual’ gallery exhibition in Shoreditch, organised by Palmer, where some of today’s finest sign painters from all over the country came together.
“The uniqueness of everyone’s work really shone through. Seeing everyone’s styles and techniques side by side showed how much life goes into handpainted signs.”
Archie Proudfoot, a sign painter and gold leaf artist from North London who was also part of the exhibition, puts the resurgence of craft down to “boredom at the uniformity of digitally produced lettering, and a hunger to see something hand done with a human touch”.
This human touch, he argues, offers a more tangible feeling of involvement for business owners. “Vinyl signage often has a feeling of temporariness by comparison, having your sign hand done suggests you intend to hang around for more than a few years.”
And it’s not just small independent retailers. As Garrett explains, “at this point it is widening out and nearly everyone in the market is applying a handmade lettering feel at some juncture or client touch point”.
Take Pret A Manger, for instance. A huge number of the high street food chain’s outlets boast handpainted signage on their exposed brick surfaces (“a seriously challenging thing to do” according to Proudfoot).
Pret’s creative director James Cannell says of the brand’s signage: “We pride ourselves on our natural handmade food and coffee, so handpainted signs and graphics felt like a very good fit.”
In 2010 Pret worked with interior designers David Collins Studio to review and refine its shops, with white and red brick walls becoming a more deliberate part of Pret’s design language during that process.
“This gave our team a new canvas to work with and now every Pret shop around the world features painted logos, graphics and brand stories,” says Cannell, with the first designs very much inspired by the old, faded graphics in midtown Manhattan – “beautiful, bold and very authentic”.
Over the years Pret has built good relationships with many sign writers, and in particular Ash Bishop of the Brilliant Sign Co who has become the ’go to man’ for trying anything new – “he’s quite brilliant and so are his team”.
Where signwriters are invaluable, according to Cannell, is in their knowledge of paints and finishes. “It is quite an art to create clean bold graphics on brick, soft weathered words on wood and gold gilt on glass. Last week Ash created Pret’s first handpainted, all natural, neon graphic. Amazing.”
But as “brick walls and painted graphics become commonplace” in coffee shops, cafes and restaurants up and down the country, Cannell says painting is not an exclusive design treatment for Pret – that it is constantly exploring ways to make sure its shops remain distinctive destinations. Ubiquity, it would seem, has the potential to curtail this trend. It’s not its only threat however.
“In London in particular it’s a highly competitive business,” explains Garrett. “Forget all the new age community, when a job comes in most are aggressively pricing to win out.”
Garrett encourages his students to go out and charge going rate – something some other older writers “spit the dummy at”. For him though, price must be maintained for the craftsmanship industry.
“Undercutting is as big a threat to this revival as vinyl cutting was in the 80s.”
This feature was first published in The Drum's 23 March issue.