Reimagining the golden era of lettering one sign at a time.
His art is everywhere, but unless you’ve been paying close attention, you might have missed it. Ged Palmer is one of the UK’s leading typographers, designing lettering and signs which he paints by hand. His passion for lettering is profound – and he’s determined to bring the undervalued and neglected art form back. “I’m really interested in things that have been forgotten about, that are busted up,” Palmer explains. “Things that are only there for people who are seeking them out and looking for them.”
Two years ago, he opened up a shop, The Luminor Sign company, in East London, (formerly on Bethnal Green Road and now located at a larger space at 47 Roman Road), to encourage face-to-face encounters with the craft and the often painstaking process behind it. Typography is a subtle art, but it can make a huge difference to our perception of a business. As big brands catch on to the value of the independent approach, Palmer talks about the need for artists to truly understand the purpose of typography and why it matters in a community, gets nostalgic about the bygone golden era of lettering, and reveals some of the most unusual requests he’s had.
Why did you decide to open up your shop, The Luminor Sign Company – and where did that name come from?
I have been drawing letters for about fifteen years. This lead me to study design and later pursue a career in lettering and sign painting. About six years ago I began sign writing in Bristol and then went to San Francisco to work at a hand-painted sign shop there. Around this time I discovered an illustration by a British illustrator called Eric Ravilious. He illustrated a book called High Street which came out in the late 1930s. The book tells the stories of old trade shops in London such as Butchers, Carriage Makers, Public Houses etc. One was a sign shop, called The Luminor Sign Company that closed in 1938 so the name of the shop pays homage to that. Having a high street presence is a lovely way to serve the local community and do business in more a face to face manner.
Do you get any particularly weird requests at the shop?
So many weird requests! At the moment I’m doing some signs for a guy who runs something called The Cloud Appreciation Society. He runs seminars on clouds. I’ve got a restoration job at the moment for someone else who sent me down a mirror from 1931 with these really naive illustrations of pork pies and sausages on it. I’ve painted motorbike helmets, vehicles, signs for sandwiches and noodles… it’s a pretty weird mix of things to be honest!
You’re clearly very into the history of typography, and bringing back a classic look. What do you think the value of it is, today? Is it an art form we need to bring more attention to – especially given that it’s out there in the public space?
Yes, most definitely. I think that lettering and typography are very acute cultural indicators of places, tastes and times: a French Art Nouveau lettering style is very iconic of a place and a time. In the same way that architecture, an Art Deco building from the 1920s, say, is part of a wider cultural understanding of style and the message of the time. Nowadays, everyone with a computer is a designer, in the same way that everyone with a phone in their pocket is a photographer. In the past, it was a lot more of a highly skilled trade, taught in a trade school. With the kind of signs I’m doing, it’s not just about clicking a button and producing a Costa coffee sign that will then be put on shop fronts all over the country. When you’re working more sensitively, to do something bespoke, you’re looking at what that customer is doing, you’re looking at the surroundings, and trying to improve the feeling of the spaces around you, you know.
It definitely changes the atmosphere of a whole street. I guess the domination of franchises and big brands has taken over the industry of signs and as you say, that’s an indicator of the times too. But those bigger brands also seem to start to understand that some customers might respond to the handcrafted, independent feel – to use it to seduce that type of customer. How do you feel about that?
I worked with Adobe a few weeks ago, and I’ve worked with Best Western and 7UP, refining their logos a few years ago, but most of the work I do at the moment is for smaller independent businesses. It’s really valuable for me to be working with people in the local community. The other day someone came in who wanted a banner for a kindergarten that’s just over the road; there’s a guy who’s got a Pie and Mash shop that opened in the 1930s and they’re doing a full restoration of that to try and get it as close to the original as possible, and working with a historic feel – it’s a beautiful thing. I’m focusing my work towards the traditional stuff, but I think that the designer’s job is to do the most effective and suitable piece of communication for the job. I don’t think it’s about stubbornly only using vintage styles. I do modern looking designs when the job needs it.
And timeless, in a way?
Yeah, I mean if you can achieve that, that’s the way to go. I’m working with a type-designer at the moment for a typeface for Belleville Coffee Roasters in Paris, who I’ve been working with for the last five years. I think that’s got a pretty vintage-inspired style, but it’s quite clean and modern too. The work I’m doing can be anything from a massive branding project for someone like Adobe to a writing a menu for a pie shop down the road. Signwriting isn’t an easy thing to make a business out of, in the way commercial design is. It requires more time, a lot more materials; you need carpentry skills, you’ve got to be good up a ladder, you’ve got to be able to be fast and accurate with a brush – there’s no Apple Z or anything like that. Nearly all the work I’m doing these days is analogue.
How has the trade changed do you think?
Back in the Victorian Era, if someone was making gold leaf mirrors, then there’d just be that one person doing it all day, it was specialised. But in the world we live in at the moment, there’s so much going on; everyone needs to have some level of being able to turn their hands to a few different things.
Where else do you look for inspiration?
These days I look more at illustration, architecture and product and packaging design. Finding parallels with architecture in motifs, and forms – I think letters are very structural. I’m also trying to bring a bit more image-making into my work at the moment, too. I collect a lot of show cards and ticket books, which is a separate trade within sign painting, of people making posters and paper signs. In the 1930s a lot of shop displays would just be cards and show cards. They look quite dated now, but the skill in them is incredible. WA Vickers is the guy I’m looking at a lot at the moment.
Are there other places in the world you appreciate, in terms of sign writing styles and traditions?
Last week I co-organised Letterheads, an international sign painting event hosted at the Oxo Tower, and we had an Indian artist over who is a Bollywood set and mural painter, and his artwork is so iconic. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in Paris too – all the signs and lights over there are incredible.
How would you define the London sign painting style today?
At the moment I don’t think there’s a particular contemporary style, but I think the British sensibility is Copperplate and Roman lettering, a lot of fancy and formal styles, compared to the brash, approachable, fun American style with their loud colours.
What era was the peak of sign making and lettering?
There’s been a big revival of Victorian styles and towards things that are overtly handmade, rather than computer generated. There’s lots of ornamentation coming back into design that reflects Victorian sensibilities. But for me personally it’s really easy, it’s the 1920s through to the 1950s in Europe and North America. The golden era of design, as it’s known. I’m really into early Modernism. During and between the World Wars there was Bauhaus, Art Deco – there’s just not been something as dramatic as that in the change of design since. When Modernism came along, it was really playful. Then computers ruined it all in the 1980s!