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Signs as Art

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been putting the finishing touches on Browder Springs Hall. The transformation of the Print Shop into Browder Springs Hall has been slow and steady—we weren’t in a huge rush, so we were able to take our time in making choices and decisions about what this space needed to be as flexible and functional as possible.

When this building was the Print Shop, it had a painted sign on its windows.

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When it came time for the new sign, it took a lot of hunting and research to find a sign painter. It wasn’t really a question of choosing the right vendor—it was a question of finding any vendor. Today, there are a lot fewer sign painters than there were when the Print Shop sign was first painted. Luckily, Sean Starr, owner of Starr Studios in Denton, was exactly the right vendor, and his work is beautiful. In fact, it’s one of my favorite details–almost like the icing on a cake.

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Like all of our friends that preserve historical skills, there is always a story behind the passion. We had some lovely chats with Sean as he was working, and I realized that other people might want to know a bit more about Sean’s work. So here are a few questions I e-mailed him and his responses:

How did you become a sign painter?

I was first introduced to sign painting working for my father’s company, Starr Custom Paint which operated until his death about 15 years ago. We traveled all over south and west Texas during the 80s and 90s doing custom paint work on everything from cars and trucks to airplanes and buses. After my father’s death I accepted a job offer in Seattle and spent a decade working at different sign shops in that area before moving to San Francisco and starting Starr Studios in 2005.

Tell me more about your studio space.

Our studio is located in Denton and we wanted to build an environment that was not only functional, but inspiring as well. It’s very funky and is kind of a mix between an old 1940s sign shop and modern design studio. We have lots of old signs and miscellaneous found treasures hanging all over the place. Its what we like to call “sensory overload”, you can’t help but to feel inspired being surrounded by over a hundred years of signage and sign making equipment. We collect vintage sign making tools and we have a pretty respectable collection of vintage sign making books.

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What makes your company and work unique?

We still work with our hands. Its something my father taught us and we are really glad we have kept alive. Our business revolves around family and art and its a lot of fun. We still use a computer to keep things organized and to speed up certain processes, but everything we do starts with a sketch on paper with pencil. It’s a shame that it is such an oddity nowadays, but we work the same way sign painters did 100 years ago.

In this day and age, why is this skill something we should hang on to?

Hand crafted work is the heart and soul of our communities. In this era of big box retail and consumption, it feels really good to take dozens of hours making something that people will enjoy on a daily basis. Here in Denton, we can walk around the town square and watch people taking pictures next to the signs we have painted and it feels really nice to see that happen. It’s something special to them because they know it was hand painted, by an artist, and isn’t just some generic sign spit out by a computer. To them, and us, it’s functioning art.

Do you have any other fun, history related interests or hobbies?

We love to collect old stuff for the studio. My wife and I will stop at antique stores on road trips and dig through their stuff hoping to find something sign related. I guess we are kind of nerdy in that way. I have had antique shop owners look really baffled when I get excited about something that they consider junk. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I guess. We have also amassed a huge collection of turn of the century through 1940s era photographs that are either sign painting related or just have amazing signage in them. We were recently contacted by the folks who just released the trailer to a documentary called “Sign Painters” (https://vimeo.com/61006621) who asked us to share some of our vintage photos to be included in the film. Our studio is featured in the film as well as the book (http://www.amazon.com/Sign-Painters-Faythe-Levine/dp/1616890835) of the same name and is being screened for the first time at the Smithsonian later this month.

For more information on Starr Studios, check out his website at www.starrstudios.net

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