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Melvin and Nick Lee

Studio Signs Co.

Photography by Ashley Courter

Run by father-son team, Melvin and Nick, Studio Signs Co. is tethered to Portland’s history. Founded in 1963 by Dean G. Stanley and taken over by Melvin in 1984, the shop has experienced waves of the industry’s changes throughout the decades, yet has always managed to stick to its artistic promise: made by hand. While the studio has adapted, it’s done so by leading with tradition. Nick became manager in 2017, bringing with him computer graphic design skills, but he now spends his time learning traditional sign painting techniques with his father as a guide.

To this day, years of handed-down knowledge have made the studio sign craft possible. Passion for painstaking attention to details, and the slow and beautiful artistry of hand lettering, have made the work iconic. Melvin and Nick are hosting an event for Design Week Portland 2020 that will offer education and guidance around the old-time techniques, showing attendees how their work is done and arming them with a paintbrush to tackle the basics. So we asked them about the history of their industry and where in Portland we might spot their work.

What are some of the primary styles that have defined the sign industry throughout the decades you have worked in it? Or in Nick's case, grown up in it?

Studio Signs started from a background in outdoor advertising—hand painting large-scale billboards with lettering and pictorials in the late 1950s. Oftentimes, the pictorial was a photorealistic image, hand-blended using enamel paints. The skills acquired by painting billboards were used to paint signs on the sides of buildings and trucks throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was during this time that the two basic brush letter styles, Block & Casual script, were in high use.

In 1982, the first vinyl plotter was introduced, and the whole sign industry changed. Now anyone with a plotter could make signs faster and cheaper. When Studio Signs purchased one of the first plotters, the Gerber 4B, we were able to offer more commercial work, particularly real estate and parking lot signage. During this time, the Helvetica typeface reigned supreme, and pictorial work decreased due to the single spot color capabilities of the plotter. We still kept our brushes wet by combining painted elements when needed and creating hand-painted and gold leaf signage.

By the 2000s, digital printing had entered the market, and full-color gradients and photorealistic images could be produced. This was the tipping point, when many people were getting tired of mass-produced overseas products. Our current environment is still full of digitally produced signage. It is against this backdrop that analog sign painting is gaining popularity as a valuable advertising and marketing medium. The human element, skills, and attention to detail of hand-crafted signage make it an appealing alternative to computer-generated signs. Minimalist sans-serif and classic Roman letter styles go well with traditional sign work.

What about your craft keeps you inspired?

One could spend a lifetime in the craft and still have more to learn, with the depth of knowledge and skill involved in sign painting and gilding. The camaraderie of our colleagues and mentors also keeps us engaged. People value the work we do and respect the time and skill it takes to create something by hand, which keeps us motivated. We put care and effort into our work and take pride in a job well done, and our clients take pride in being part of the process. They know this one-of-a-kind work cannot be duplicated by a machine. By supporting human potential and expression, they can help change the visual landscape of their city for the better.

Why are more traditional techniques, like brush lettering and gold leaf, making a comeback now?

When the vinyl and digital machines took hold of the industry, nearly all of the sign painting trade schools that taught proper lettering and design closed down. During this time, good design became more valued and sought after by those who wanted to set themselves apart from the rest. One hundred years ago, before electric signs were commonplace, gold leaf signs were prized as the most eye-catching advertisements, due to the dynamic nature of the reflecting light on the gold. This allure is even more valued now that there are fewer people doing it, and there are more mass produced signs. Sign painting and gilding have been called a dying art, but fortunately, there are still some old timers and young artists who are dedicated to keeping the craft alive. This void in hand lettering education led us to start hosting our sign painting workshops.

How has Studio Signs' work contributed to Portland's iconic visual identity?

Our work is closely tied to McMenamins, a chain of brewpubs, music venues, and hotels with an eclectic and fun artistic style. The signs usually have richly saturated and contrasting colors with whimsical but proper lettering, oftentimes adorned with the sun, moon, and stars, as well as other characters from the world of McMenamins. Although these designs could be digitally produced, they opt to have them hand-painted, and it really stands out and makes a difference. There is a bit of “soul” in every hand-painted sign that could never be achieved by a computer.

What can attendees expect to take away from your DWP event?

While attendees will get live demos and instruction, including one-on-one learning and plenty of hands-on experience, they’ll also have a memorable time and leave with an alphabet painted by Studio Signs, a lettering brush, and a mahlstick to continue practicing.