Noel B. Weber has devoted his career to hand lettering and the craft of sign-making.
He was classically trained in Chicago at the Institute of Lettering & Design. While living in Denver in the 1970s he helped start an influential sign artist group called the Letterheads. Later, he moved to Idaho and founded Classic Design Studios – an award winning sign-shop in the heart of downtown Boise.
Noel continues to design for clients and share his expertise via creative workshops. Classic Design Studios continues to operate under the direction of his son. The Letterheads have grown into an international organization with more than 40,000 members. Their 40th reunion is scheduled for September 2015 at Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum.
Mentorship is the grace note of Noel Weber’s artistic narrative. After having learned from others for so many years, he now finds himself in the position of being a mentor to those rising up through the ranks. It has been one of the most satisfying elements of his career to learn, develop, and now share the processes and techniques of his craft with other artisans. His studios have turned out an amazing crop of talented designers and craftsmen, of which he couldn’t be more proud.
As a kid growing up in Rogers Park during the 1960s, Weber’s earliest inspiration and his first opportunity for mentorship came during high school watching Chicago sign painter John Hunt hand letter school buses. He became fascinated and would sit and watch him work every day after school. “The graceful movement of his brush,” Weber recalled, “I was just mesmerized.” Hunt’s kindness and encouragement helped spark his love for letters and design.
I asked if he could recall what it was that excited him? What was the nature of his aesthetic arrest? Was he already artistically inclined? Not really, he answered, though he was always doodling and drawing things. He probably did have good art skills, but had no training whatsoever, as nothing was offered by way of art classes where he went to school. But to see somebody put a brush in his hand to deliver a message and actually deliver a beautiful graphic impressed him. Even moreso, he was really impressed with how independent Hunt was.
“He’d say, ‘Well, I’ll be back tomorrow’ and then wouldn’t show up for two days. It wasn’t because he was out goofing off somewhere. It was because he was so busy and he just couldn’t get back to that job. When he came back, he’d always do a flawless job.”
After high school Weber served 14 months in Vietnam where he got his first experience as a sign painter slapping serial numbers onto the sides of helicopters and painting company identities. His hand shot up when his platoon commander asked if anybody had any artistic ability (though he’s the first to admit his first letters “were pretty hideous”). Notwithstanding, the assignment got him out of being the door gunner on a helicopter.
After his tour of duty, Weber returned home and met up with John Hunt to tell him that he had painted some signs in Viet Nam. Hunt asked him, “Well, what are you going to do?” Weber told him he’d decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend Chicago’s Institute of Lettering and Design, where he studied for two years. After, he met up with Hunt again who said, “Let me introduce you to the union business agent.” They started him out as a third-year apprentice, crediting him for his two years of school, which was great. He worked in the suburbs for a while before deciding to move to Denver.
“Denver in the 1970s was my Paris,” Weber recalled. He became one of the founding members of the “Denver 7”, the precursors of the Letterheads: a group of young designers disenchanted by their commercial prospects and invested in bringing back the art of their craft. They felt their trade was in decline and committed themselves to becoming the “keepers of the craft.” In retrospect, Weber realizes that it wasn’t so much that their trade was in decline as it was simply at a lull, but their impatience and disillusionment proved beneficial.
“We were finding all these old books with beautiful, spectacular sign work in them and we all knew that was what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to just paint real estate signs. We wanted to do beautiful art because at one time signage was an art form. We were looking around for the old guys to learn from, but couldn’t find them. So we started teaching ourselves.”
The Letterheads immersed themselves in the study of hand painted signs, gold leaf lettering, and other classic techniques and would share what they discovered at weekly meetings. From the original seven—Rick Flores, John Frazier, Bob Mitchell, Mark Oatis, Mike Rielly, Earl Vehill, Mike Author, Joe Tedesco, Jim Schultz and Noel Weber—the Letterheads have since grown into an international organization with more than 40,000 members. Their 40th Letterheads reunion is scheduled for next September at Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum. One of the subjects that will be approached at that meeting will be the transition to water-based paints to minimize health and environmental risks. Over the years lead has been slowly removed from the paints they use. “Consequently, they don’t work as well,” Weber grinned, but assured me they always use caution. The younger set, especially, often use respirators and everyone avoids getting the paint on their skin.
Another term that came out of the Denver experience was “walldog”, and—as someone who has extensively studied public mural art, particularly by way of its urban Chicano inflection—I was surprised to have never heard the term before.
“Walldog is a sign painter’s term,” Weber explained, “to describe the hard work of painting on a wall. Years ago, a walldog was a guy who would be on a wall for one or two days, using block and tackle, old rope and staging, and it was really physical. It wasn’t the most glamorous type of work, but it was fun work. I really like painting walls today but I wouldn’t want to do it on a daily basis.”
In 1979, Weber and his wife Lucy moved to Boise. They didn’t really have a long-range plan—they just wanted to make a living—but they were drawn to Boise because the city still had some attractive old buildings and they wanted to design signage to complement them. “We weren’t settlers here,” Weber explained, “we were pioneers.” The business began in their garage / home studio and consisted mostly of hand-painted signs and gilded windows. Nothing was yet automated and most of the work was done by Weber himself with some assistance from his wife and kids. A 1946 Chevy panel truck with its distinctive hand-lettered signage was some of the company’s best advertising.
Their first big break came in the 1980s creating signage for over 30 small businesses in Boise’s newly-remodeled Eighth Street Marketplace. Weber’s western flair of lettering—which had not been so popular in Chicago (and might have been partially responsible for why he left the Windy City to look for work elsewhere)—fit Boise perfectly. He explained that a sign must work commercially first of all, but that there’s no reason why it can’t also be artistic and aesthetic. Their signage is likewise pedestrian-oriented, meant to be appreciated by passers-by who aren’t insulted by it or overwhelmed by something flashing or out-of-scale. This ties in to my own love for public art and I appreciate that Weber has melded commercial necessity to pedestrian, public art. Around the same time, Weber began teaching gold-leaf workshops for which he became well-known.
When Steve Jobs and Apple Computers released the first home computer in January 1984, it featured a graphic user interface rather than a command-prompt interface, and had a devastating effect on his trade, but only momentarily. Though anyone without any training whatsoever could type letters into a computer and print them out on vinyl quickly and cheaply, it didn’t take long to recognize the inferior product. The Letterheads learned to bridge the technology. Classic Design Studios relocated to their current space in 1989 and had more room to develop services. In 1997, they added a CNC (Computer-Numeric-Controlled) router that allowed complex three-dimensional designs to be achieved more quickly and efficiently than hand-carving. But, even then, the detail work was always done by hand.
“There’s nothing like having a brush in your hand,” Weber insists. “I can see the difference, and even hear the difference when that brush hits the surface and I’m pulling a stroke. That feels good.”
Having been taught to believe that quality craftsmanship can be recognized as the result of the soul of the craftsman whorling out of the fingertips into whatever’s being worked upon, Weber’s comment resonated with me. He noted as well that all good design begins with the pencil.
“That’s one of the things we really like here. When we design something, we know we can build it. From the point we start designing, we know it will be something we can make. When I draw a letter, I can paint it, I can produce it. I know that it’s going to read and fill a need. When I draw a sign, I try to draw it so that it says a statement and delivers a message without even reading it.”