Old is the new NEW and Connecticut-born-Houston-based Peter Vogel of Nutmegger Workshop has been making new old signs that are beautiful. He studied graphic design and advertising after falling in love with composing-stick typesetting and letterpress work in high school graphic arts class. He went right to work as a designer and has been at it for more than 35 years. Vogel told me that he started at the bottom in agencies and design shops setting headline type on a Phototypositor, mastering the line camera, Rapidograph pens and marker comps (“the good ol’ messy days”). The Macintosh was a game changer, and he says he was “lucky enough to be with a Phoenix creative firm for 15 years that went all in on the technology, so I made the transition (without resistance!) through the last defining shift in the industry,” he told me. “I’m proud to say that ‘I was there!'” Since those formative years, I’ve been working as a creative director for the last 20 years concentrating on print design in Phoenix, and Portland, Ore.” Peter currently works at a small law college in Houston. We spoke about his new vintage signs designed, he explains, for “inside, not outside.” By the way, a Nutmegger is a Connecticut native.
Why and how did you decide to make these replications, not just as stylistic conceits but as actual artifacts?
Every sign has a story! It all started when I made an 11-foot sign to commemorate a trip my wife and I made to New England. Friends asked, “Where did you get that cool, old sign?” My intentions were never to do exact reproductions, but to create signs that serve as a reminder of places people have been, or dreams they may have. Or, something that is totally random, like a flea market find that reads “Loading Dock,” for example. Many customers like to commemorate their family’s business. One recent project was for a client who’s late father started a saddle factory here in Texas. An original design was needed, as he had no real logo or photo of an actual sign to work from. I consider my work to be interpretations of old signs or of my client’s history. I often give examples of what’s possible when people wonder what type of sign they might like. If they like to travel overseas, why not a sign that says “Tickets to Europe,” that looks as though it may have hung over a window at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers in 1920? How cool would that be? The simpler, the more believable. Some people get it, and some don’t. I now decline all requests for man cave and kid’s room signs, company logos or anything that you’d already find at Pottery Barn or Target. Can’t go there.
Nutmegger Workshop is all about creating pieces with texture and color that capture the spirit of places and memories for those who wish to never forget what means most to them. Important stuff, right? I feel as though this endeavor has been woven into my DNA.
I would like people to see my work as a viable option for that unique interior design element, much like architectural salvage pieces that create so much character and interest in well designed spaces. Correct period detail is something I take seriously and it only adds to the value of my work. I’ve had the pleasure of working with interior designers, architects and creative firms, and research and period detail is what they expect (as you well know). The Auberge Jules sign I just finished is a good example. I involved the French Alliance here in Houston for accuracy with handful of possible tag lines. After they approved a few as “making sense to a French person,” I painted out the sign. After sending the link to the final image, they emailed me back to say my accent in the tag line was facing in the wrong direction. And, because I was using all caps, I didn’t need the accent at all. I photoshopped the accent out on my website but still need to fix the sign itself. And I found much inspiration for this sign by flipping through your Scripts (Thames & Hudson) book.
My main inspiration for finding ideas is looking at century-old photos of city street scenes where sign writers’ work hung in abundance like galleried art. Shorpy.com is a key source. Been there? You can zoom in on these old glass negative photos and read the store window signs, see how the frames were made, study letter forms, and so on. Click on the main photo in this link and tell me this isn’t just incredible, Steve, it’s like time travel …
All designs are executed in Adobe Illustrator. I stay clear of common computer fonts and use letters drawn from page scans from old sign writers books and photos of signs that I collect myself, or find online. I do cut stencils (by hand) much to the annoyance of at least one traditional sign writer. One of my videos shows me painting with a stencil and one comment was, “Very nice … but he’s using a stencil.” That hurt. Definitely two schools of thought there.
I use construction-grade boards for most of my work and use latex paint exclusively as it is worked easily for the aging techniques I have developed. No fumes, no mess, and it drys quickly, which keeps things moving when layering colors or adding drop shadows. Never opened a can of oil-based One-Shot. Many emails I receive are questions about my aging technique—from all over the world. Chechnya! It took me a long time to get this process down, so it’ll be a while before I divulge my step-by-step process. The same video I mentioned is meant to show process, but we left out the aging steps. I learned from watching online videos and kept developing it further. Years of experience painting houses and refinishing antiques has given me an understanding of how surfaces age, what looks believable, what doesn’t, etc.
Actually, the first question I had upon seeing your work was if you do props for theater, film or TV?
I’ve been asked this before. I never considered prop work. Though my designs have been lifted, and used as inspiration for use on several TV shows, including a show in Australia.
I’ve made several signs for outdoor use, one for the side of a barn and one for a driveway lamp post I used exterior house paint, MDO board and cedar framing to hold off the elements. The customers didn’t want any aging and I felt as though I was venturing away from my core mission. They could’ve gone to any local sign shop, though they would have been given Times Bold, brutally condensed, and they were well aware of that risk. The widespread design ignorance of these strip mall sign shops is a crime. (Exterior sign link here.)
How long does it take to make a piece?
I require 6-8 weeks to make a sign, but I can get a sign designed and made in a week’s time working a few hours a night and a weekend and possibly three days if working eight hours a day. There’s the signboard and frame milling and glue up, distressing the raw wood with a chisel, hammer, and chain, priming, painting, then the output of the full-size template, stencil cutting, lettering paint out, more antiquing and distressing, and lastly, the finishing of the back side with a coat of black paint, felt pads, and hanging hardware.
Do you also make type or lettering for print?
Never designed a typeface. It’s was always a dream earlier in my career. They used to call me Mr. Type and Sir Fontalot. So many independent type designers out there now doing really nice stuff.
What is your favorite out of all these wonderful pieces?
My favorites always seems to be my latest works. Auberge Jules and SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, the sign honoring my ancestors and the steamship they came to America on in 1907. Both are personal projects finished in the last month. I have a soft spot for design that represents the golden age of dining and oceanic travel. The Portland Monthly magazine cover was a memorable project, as the sign was photographed in its entirety and included the hand painted masthead.
What’s next for you as maker and artist?
While I always worked as a graphic designer, I always had something else going on in the workshop. I invested in woodworking machinery years ago thinking I’d make a go at making custom furniture, but being a husband and father of three kept it to an expensive hobby. After many years now, sign making still serves as my creative outlet and I am finding new ways to keep it challenging. My latest projects have adding dimensional lettering, old gold and smalts, and convexed sign boards to the mix which people seem to be responding to. And, for years, I’ve been wanting to make a huge, hand-carved whale for hanging on the wall.