The man who’s designed hundreds of the Bay Area’s iconic signs

0

If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for any significant amount of time, you’ve likely seen one of Steve Vigeant’s signs. More likely, you’ve seen hundreds of them.

Over his 30 years in the business, Vigeant has crafted some of the Bay Area’s most iconic signs. He’s also made some of its more ordinary signs. But whether masterpiece or mundane, his work has shaped the look of our city along the way.

In San Francisco, his work includes the gold-lettered windows of City Hall, one of which shows up so often in couples’ wedding photos that he refers to as the “wedding window.” He calls the Cole Hardware sign in North Beach “the most extreme usage of all of my skills,” since he crafted each letter and gilded it with brass leaf, then painted the store’s offerings in gold leaf, and later assisted with the store’s electric sign . One of his early signs is even visible in a scene from the 1988 movie “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”: Before Goodwill had standard branding, the local shop in Watsonville, California, had him paint his sign.

Photos of signs that Steve Vigeant has created at his studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Photos of signs that Steve Vigeant has created at his studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

On one stretch of College Avenue in Berkeley, he is responsible for the look of more than 15 storefronts. “The feeling that you’ve affected the look of the neighborhood is a special feeling,” he said. “It’s a really rewarding feeling when it becomes part of a very successful business.”

There are myriad ways to make a sign today, but Vigeant got his start hand-painting them in the 1970s. He had a special knock for copying cartoons out of the paper when he was young, he said, and one day his dad realized this talent might be useful for the family real estate business. Vigeant started painting real estate signs at age 16, hand-lettering plywood panels. Soon, he was repainting the sign at the local bar and even the welcome sign in his New Jersey hometown.

Steve Vigeant working on a sign for Re-up Refill Shop in his studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Steve Vigeant working on a sign for Re-up Refill Shop in his studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

Steve Vigeant working on a sign for Re-up Refill Shop in his studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Steve Vigeant working on a sign for Re-up Refill Shop in his studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE


Steve Vigeant working on a sign for Re-up Refill Shop

When it was time to head to college, he chose the University of California, Santa Cruz, but it took him time to get there. On the trip from the East Coast to the West Coast, he stopped in different cities, painting signs along the way. He’s painted signs from Chicago to New Orleans to Los Angeles.

“They called it snapper work if you’re not part of a big sign shop,” he said. “Your business card is you have paint all over your shirt. … I was cheaper, and you just work harder than anyone else.”

Vigeant never had any formal training in sign work, though he briefly held jobs at a few sign shops in the Bay Area. Instead, he set up his own company, Berkeley Signs, which is still operating today out of a workshop in Oakland. He learned by doing and by studying sign magazines in his spare time. When sign makers were willing to share their expertise, he’d soak it up, especially through an organization he joined called the Letterhead Movement, which brought sign makers together. Eventually, he started writing for sign magazines, continuing to share his craft and learn from others through the 1980s and 1990s.

Steve Vigeant shows a sample of an intricate sign in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Steve Vigeant shows a sample of an intricate sign in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

Steve Vigeant shows a sample of the back of an intricate sign in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Steve Vigeant shows a sample of the back of an intricate sign in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

(left) Steve Vigeant shows a sample of an intricate sign; Steve Vigeant shows a sample of the back of an intricate sign

Sign making has evolved a lot over the years, from mostly hand-painting to printing, from carving letters into wood to carving letters into a special type of foam. Vigeant has occasionally even hand-painted whole billboards, something almost unthinkable now. It took weeks perched up in the sky to finish the product.

Even as technology has evolved, making signs can be tedious work. So much patience is required, and when a mistake happens, you often have to start all over. And mistakes are even harder to catch when you’re painting in the dark.

Yes, much of Vigeant’s work has to be done under the cover of night so that businesses open in the daytime aren’t blocked by a sign painter’s scaffold. The famous “wedding window” at City Hall, for example, was painted at night, and it took several nights to finish, since the gold leaf took longer to complete. Other projects take anywhere from a few weeks to a year, he said, depending on the business.

With his gold-lettered

With his gold-lettered “wedding window,” Vigeant’s work can be seen in hundreds, if not thousands, of wedding photos. Tara Walsh, left, and Wen Minkoft waive to the crowd before heading into City Hall to exchange vows in San Francisco, CA, Tuesday June 17, 2008.

AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Some clients know exactly what they want, he said, while for others, he acts as a branding consultant of sorts, suggesting different styles and options based on the building and business. Vigeant said he thinks a great sign can really make or break a business, though it’s almost harder now that there are so many options.

“That’s what makes a sign great, how it can transform the look of a place,” he said. “Sometimes hanging on to the old crafts [like hand-painting] is really worth it, and sometimes it’s really rough. Even the masters use machines now.”

A great-looking sign is crucial, he said, especially with highly visible signs. For example, the East Bay Restaurant Supply sign, which he recently redesigned, must be seen by millions of people each week, given its viewability from Interstate 880.

Vigeant has no idea how many signs he’s made throughout the years, but he said he’s had at least 500 clients by his tabulations.

Interior of Steve Vigeant's studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Interior of Steve Vigeant’s studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

A sign in Steve Vigeant's studio that he created for Howden Tile Co.  in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

A sign in Steve Vigeant’s studio that he created for Howden Tile Co. in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

A sign that Steve Vigilant created for Cole Hardware in his studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

A sign that Steve Vigilant created for Cole Hardware in his studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022


Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE


Signs that Steve Vigeant created

While his enthusiasm is important to do a job well, sometimes the endless creativity that sign making requires can be draining. He takes a break by doing less glamorous work, like painting parking garage murals, and reinvigorates the art he’s paid to do with creative pursuits like the installations he made for Burning Man. He also learns from other professionals, whose work many may not realize is similar to sign making, like tattoo artists.

“There’s a big overlap between tattoo artists and sign [makers] because there are not that many trades where you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Maybe you’re an artist and you have artistic tendencies; there are not many ways to make a living like that. It’s an independent spirit.”



Although custom-made signs have seen a revival in the past decades, there are not many people left like Vigeant, especially those who run a one-man shop. There are lots of young upstarts trying their hand at sign making, he said, and there are plenty of big companies that do it on the cheap. But he’s somewhere in the middle, taking a project from start to finish with a client and employing high-end treatments when he can.

Steve Vigeant demonstrating his I Ching O-matic he created for Burning Man in his studio in Oakland CA.  dec.  12, 2022

Steve Vigeant demonstrating his I Ching O-matic he created for Burning Man in his studio in Oakland CA. dec. 12, 2022

Lance Yamamoto/SFGATE

But you’ll never know a sign is one of his, since he’s never put his name on one in the more than 40 years he’s been making them. “You gotta find your niche, and you gotta believe in it,” he said of his work for his many clients. “You have to have the spirit, and they have to believe in me. Then you feel like you’re a partner in them succeeding. It’s kind of a rush.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *