Signs Of All Times

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Noel B. Weber (b.1948) is well-known in the sign industry for his outstanding reverse-glass gold leaf gilding work and for the custom dimensional signage produced at his shop in Boise, Idaho. Weber’s new book, A Sign Painter’s Sketchbook, is a gem of lettering, typography, graphic design, and sign painting. In the 1980s he founded Classic Design Studio, his award winning sign shop in Boise and also contributes to Astoria Design Studio, in Portland, Oregon. I recently asked him about his masterful work, which incidentally is done entirely by the first digital tool — the hand. (To order the book and see more of his finished work, visit his website).

Noel B. Weber is well known in the sign making industry.

Noel B. Weber is well known in the sign making industry.

There appears to be, if not a resurgence in hand lettering, a deeper respect for the vintage sign making methods. Why do you believe this is happening now?

I think it’s happening with all the crafts – people want to use their hands again. It’s bringing joy back into peoples’ lives.

What is the aim or goal of this new book?

I want to introduce people to the basics of designing with a pencil – how you can use overlays and a drafting light table to refine a drawing. I hope designers who buy this book will do a study of the work. Drawing with a series of overlays allows you to reposition parts of an initial sketch, and it allows you to avoid erasing. I think it is a great way to develop a piece into a complete design.

Noel B. Weber is well known in the sign making industry.

In the period when sign painting was a common profession it was natural to know how to letter. The times have changed, why have you stuck like glue to the traditions?

There’s a satisfaction with using your hands and your skills. I think good design starts with a pencil, and I’ve never been able to get the movement I’m looking for on a computer.

That being said, when it comes to production, I would never hesitate to admit that we use technology. Here’s the thing: I don’t want to take the art out of the process with a tool. I want to put the art back into the process with my hands. So I start with my hands and I finish with my hands. But I don’t mind using tools, whether that’s cutters or plotters or silk screening. I like to think of technology as a bridge that takes you from one step of your project to another.

Noel B. Weber is well known in the sign making industry.

Is this practice of sign making some kind of nostalgia for an ideal past or something else?

I see myself as a designer as much as I do a sign painter. But when it comes to designing I’ve always been most comfortable in a period style. I like to see movement in letterforms. When you have artists designing lettering, you have more lettering with movement.

My work is ornate, and not everyone likes that. I look at each individual letter as a character and I search for opportunities to create and embellish each one. If I was just a traditional sign painter I wouldn’t have a chance to draw, design and experiment as much as I do.

How difficult is it to teach this craft?

It took me 2 years to learn how to letter, rigid training with excellent instructors at Institute of Lettering and Design in Chicago.

You can pick up some of the basics of lettering in a few days. Brushwork can take years to master. Basic techniques of reverse gold leaf gilding on glass can be taught in a few days, but it takes a lot of materials knowledge and confidence.

Once taught, what does it take to make it art?

Once you’ve learned how to letter, it’s what you bring as an individual that makes it art. Also, when you are making art in a commercial setting, you need clients in your community who trust you to design with your own touch.

You can find more information about Noel B. Weber at his website here.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recip
ient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →