Recently I had the good fortune to be introduced to Peter Vogel, head of Nutmegger Workshop. In his studio in Portland, Oregon, Peter crafts some truly remarkable sign art. He planes the wood, paints the type, and then ages it by hand. The result is a piece that feels one-of-a-kind: something that you'd be thrilled to find in an antique store, but that you have the good fortune to customize any way you want. His clients include retail stores, interior designers, and non-professionals, too--anyone who wants something unique to deck their walls. We spoke recently to discuss his craft, his sources of inspiration, and his favorite projects to date.
How did you come to your career?
Even as a kid, I was a graphic designer. I could always draw well, and was particular about details when making something. I studied graphic design and advertising in college, before the Mac revolutionized the industry. So I began my career using traditional hands-on rendering and print production methods, things such as Pantone marker comps, X-acto knives, paste-up mechanicals and galley type. That’s all obsolete now. I’ve worked as a designer, art director and creative director at several graphic design firms, but my true passion is working with type and designing with letterform. After 30 years, I still have my hand in it as the art director and designer at the Portland Tribune newspaper.
Vintage sign making came out of nowhere really. I made a small sign to commemorate the place where I proposed to my wife, then a big one measuring 11 feet after seeing an old sign while on vacation in New England. Soon friends were asking where I had gotten them, and the business was born.
How do you come up with ideas for the look of the signage?
My inspiration comes from just about anywhere, from old labels and machine plates to vintage travel ephemera. Old photos of city street scenes are another key source of ideas. Historical photo websites have images with really high resolution. That allows you to zoom in so close, you can see things in amazing detail: not just the signs themselves, but even how the frames on the signs are made. It’s pretty incredible.
There are novelty sign companies out there selling mass-produced tin advertising signs, and big-box retailers selling shabby chic signs that are printed and laminated to particle board. Most of these have really bad type, probably produced by people with little design experience. This isn’t what we’re about at all. We want our work to look like it actually came off the side of a building in one of those old photographs, or as if it were discovered in an attic after 100 years of being hidden away. Our design and typography is simple but elegant. Old-time sign writers were artists who spent years perfecting their letterforms, and we want to respect this lost art form through our work. If the type isn’t believable, the sign doesn’t work. And I always tell clients to think big, as larger pieces are always more convincing. We’re all about authenticity, as well as good design.
Who are your customers? Are your signs used primarily for residential or retail projects?
Finding just the right antique sign or artifact can be next to impossible. This is where Nutmegger Workshop comes in: we give clients what otherwise doesn’t exist. I’ve made pieces for architects, interior designers, retail stores, resort developers, and creative firms (including, most recently, a project for Nike’s Jordan division). Homeowners, too: the large majority of our projects are for residential spaces.
How does it work when you’re commissioned for a sign? Do you and the client go back and forth with research?
We’re pinned quite a bit on Pinterest and other design idea sites, so clients often use our own work for ideas and inspiration. People generally have an idea of what they want, and look to us to guide their ideas through layout and color suggestions. I may ask to see a photo of the space if they are wavering on size or deciding on a shape. Most clients love the weathered look, but some don’t at all. Some clients want family names and dates, which is fine, but many like less specific signs to increase the believability of it being a found object. Lots of people want something related to a passion. For example, if they love vacationing in Europe, I may suggest a sign that says “Passage to Europe,” or the name of a favorite old hotel they’ve stayed in. When doing commercial work, a creative firm is often involved, and they either have artwork that they want recreated, or they’ll ask us to design something after providing a bit of background information and art direction.
How do you make the signs? What materials do you use?
We build signs out of wood, sometimes reclaimed wood, but normally from construction-grade materials that mill and distress easily. We are not traditional sign painters who paint by hand using expensive sable brushes and silky smooth enamels. Our work appears to be hand lettered because it is--on the computer. Staying clear of printer fonts is golden rule number one. Then we use a series of stencils and masks cut directly from the artwork, and paint with water based products exclusively. For what we do, water based paints respond better than oils, and they’re less toxic and easier to clean up. Everything is hand crafted, no sprays or automated processes whatsoever.
What kind of projects are you working on now?
Next up is a sign for a nonprofit pub here in Portland, the country’s very first. Proceeds from each beer sold goes to the charity of the drinker’s choice. A menu of a dozen or so charities is available to choose from, and you walk out of there feeling empowered and good about yourself. The sign will have their motto: ”Have a Pint, Change the World,” and it will hang prominently inside the pub. I also plan on creating some individual letter signs with multiple colors and drop shadows. We think people will like these.
Do you have a favorite project?
Too many to mention. We designed a sign for the cover of Portland Monthly, our lifestyle magazine here. It received several design awards and was on newsstands everywhere--pretty cool. And I just finished a few personal projects that I had been wanting to make for some time: Harbor Tea Room, a fictitious sign based on the teapot shape of a 1930s Australian tea company logo, and Rucker’s Coffee Shop, a coffee-cup shaped reproduction of a 1950s era downtown Portland hangout. After making the teapot, I figured I had to make a coffee cup.
Does being in Portland affect your business at all, in terms of inspiration or in any other way?
We moved to Portland in 2005 and absolutely love it. In fact, we’re making a video that will feature Portland’s Old Town district as inspiration for our work. Portlanders expect more from small businesses. There are makers of all types here and competition is robust to say the least. So to get your name out there and have the word spread about your work, you need to be consistent with creativity, value and customer satisfaction.
How do you feel sign art can add to a space? In what type of spaces do you feel it works best?
Our signs look killer in any space from modern to rustic. They’re compelling visuals that can complete a space in an unexpected way, just like a unique piece of architectural salvage can do. My clients often tell me that their guests say “Wow, cool old sign!”, or “Where’d you find that?”, and my favorite, “Someone actually made that?” We’re all about helping clients put their personal mark on a space by celebrating their family history, a passion or a favorite memory.
How do people go about procuring one of your pieces?
We have a small inventory online, and you can inquire about a custom piece any time. Just contact us. I love tossing around ideas.