From the Design Desk: Free Signs by New Bohemia

Last Tuesday, New Bohemia Signs had an art show and a sign painting demonstration at the Guerrero Gallery and I got to see them in action. All of the demonstration signs were free if the sign included the word “free.” Visitors signed up for a word or two and watched as the painters mixed colors and steadied their forearms on long rods to paint. If I had known about this rod trick when I was in school… well, maybe my hand-drawn type would’ve better. Those guys are geniuses! I watched the painters lovingly letter Free Weezy, Freelancer, Freedoom (emphasis on the DOOM), Sucka Free, and Free Willy. I kept on waiting for someone to request Free Sign. Too meta?

Damon Styer working on “Free Willy.” Note that he is not wearing a mask. The fumes!

“Free Willy!” By Damon Styer.

“Free Weezy” By Jeff Canham.

Free Consultations and Freedoom.

“Sucka Free,” “Free Gucci,” and “Free Weezy.” We go so hard in San Francisco!

I’ve long admired the work of New Bohemia Signs (Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Heather Hardison, Ken Davis, Aaron Cruse, Damon Styer, Josh Luke, Corinne Matesich, and Candice Obayashi) and Steve Powers, who are featured in the show called Sign Your Life Away.

I recently read a short statement, (a “word salad”) by Damon Styer (owner of New Bohemia), on selling authenticity: “For better or worse, everything we produce at New Bohemia Signs is ultimately realized at the end of a hand-held paint brush. We are limited, perhaps, by our choice of tools, but also by the quality of our practice. The “weak link” in our production line is in our capacity to render an internally envisioned ideal, with our given set of body parts. I have to guess that that point of reduction, to humanity, to human frailty, is where we’re able to lay any claim to authenticity in what we do. It’s from there…that we’re able to sell authenticity to whoever’s buying.”

Interior shot of the Guerrero Gallery. Photo credit Randy Dobson.

Token shot of someone looking at the art. Photo credit Dave Choi.

What I take from this is an inherent association of the hand-crafted with the authentic, the real, and the true. Certainly the tone of the hand painted is nostalgic and whimsical and the type is playful and indulgent. But I think that what people respond to is that the craft appears to be un-reproducible. Its seeming singularity and uniqueness is part of its appeal and thus becomes part of a brand or store’s identity. Seeing New Bohemia’s work in a gallery space can be jarring, in a way, just like seeing “graffiti” in a gallery. The work is removed from its intended space, a consumer space. And while a majority of the pieces that are part of Sign Your Life Away aren’t for everyday store spaces, the artists use that particular visual language to bring the consumable into the gallery.

Ken Davis, Caitlyn Galloway, Candice Obayashi, and Jeff Canham working on Free Signs.

Ken Davis working on my “Free Gucci.”

Sign Your Life Away is currently on view at the Guerrero Gallery until July 9th. The Guerrero Gallery is located at 2700 19th Street, San Francisco, CA. New Bohemia Signs is located at 281 9th St. San Francisco, CA 94103.

Emily Craig
Junior Designer



  • zuyen July 5, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Amazing! That is some talent.


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  • Swtor February 9, 2012 at 4:29 am

    Wow – future job available as a handmade sign writer!


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