In the past few years, a return to handcraft skills – perhaps as a response to our increasingly digital lives and a chance to disconnect – has led to pockets of a revival of craftsmanship. Luckily for Archie Proudfoot, sign painting is currently considered to be ‘viable’ by the Heritage Craft Association. Although, we’re not sure when that list was updated as ‘armour and helmet making’ also features! We visited Archie in his North London studio to talk circus signs, gold leaf and his biggest achievement to-date – a giant Test Card F work for the new Soho House in White City. Enjoy the read – we’re off to go and revive wagon making…
So Archie – can you tell us why you have an axe hanging on your wall?
I designed the branding stamp for the leather casing on the blade.
Is it sharp?
Yeah – a functional axe! This guy makes axes and started to make the leather casing too. He’s a tree surgeon.
That is awesome. So – sign painting. How did you arrive here after a degree in English Literature?
You can’t really study sign painting, except for one or two courses in the world. It used to be a common technical degree or apprenticeship, but it died out in the 90s. Now there are intro courses, one to two days or even a week. I did a week-long course with Joby Carter of Carters Steam Fair, a Victorian funfair with original, restored rides. He does all the sign painting for the rides.
Oooh – does the fair still exist?
They still tour around England – it’s a great day out. Joby has been sign painting since he was about 17; his father set up the fair and his father had learned the technique from another sign painter. Joby’s course was my first chance to get my hands on the brushes and try it out – I’d heard of sign painting but hadn’t had any experience. I knew I was in love with it at that point, but I didn’t think it could be a career. Joby said it was take about two years to feel comfortable with the skill, and that freaked me out a bit!
After the course I tried getting in touch with other sign painters I’d heard of and didn’t get any replies except for one guy called Ornamental Conifer. He was going it alone, completely self-taught and getting a lot of work. His advice was that there’s no right or wrong way – just start making stuff. So that’s what I started doing! When a family friend saw a sign that I’d painted at my parents’ house, he asked me to paint the sign for an antique shop he was opening. That was my first job, and I’d never felt any satisfaction like it at all! I knew that this was definitely it.
How did the jobs pick up after that?
It was a slow process, going door-to-door with business cards, approaching shops that had no signage. Eventually it started to build momentum, I got a studio and things went from there! It’s been surprising how quickly the work built and sustained. I went full time nearly four years ago, after painting my first sign about five years ago.
I can’t believe I’m actually getting away with making and selling artwork and providing a service for someone that uses my skills both creatively, and cognitively I suppose, that’s very satisfying to do! It’s great to meet shop owners and add to the urban landscape – hopefully I’m making it a bit nicer – and to be involved in the revival of sign painting.
How do you start securing big commercial jobs?
I haven’t got a clue! They just call you…
Less from Instagram than you think – that’s my impression of it anyway. It doesn’t bring in as much work as people think. It’s definitely more word-of-mouth, someone hearing your name at the right time, even from people Googling ‘London sign painters’, which I find ridiculous that I come up in the search. There are a lot of other sign painters in London, and certainly ones that have been doing it for longer and that are very skilled. I think it must be my personal work and typographic artwork that’s attracted attention and pulled in the clients.
Do you get to focus much on your own work?
Not as much as I’d like…
Are these glass ones [hanging on the wall] your personal work?
Yeah this is my own stuff – actually, the glass gilding is a big part of why I went full time. The technique isn’t being used in a way that I imagine it can be used – much more playful and explorative.
Is it painted on the reverse?
Yeah, it’s called ‘reverse glass gilding’, and is created in layers with sections masked out. Glass gilding used to be a technique used for business windows, like the gilt letters you’ll see at an old bank or lawyer’s office. I love the ridiculously glorious and reverential feel and I wanted to play with that.
What’s been your favourite piece of work so far?
Definitely the Test Card piece I did earlier this year for the new Soho House White City in the redeveloped BBV Television Centre. It was the biggest, most complex piece I’ve done and even now, looking at it, I can’t believe I pulled it off.
How did you come up with the concept?
They said I could do whatever I wanted, so I started having a think, and then they came back and said the founder of Soho House really wanted something done with the iconic Test Card F design. At first I wasn’t sure what to do with it, and then I decided to invert the colours from the outer edge to the inside, with a big grid of gilt gold, exactly to scale with the original Test Card. The final element was screen printing, onto glass, the image of the girl with the clown. I had to do that after having spent over two weeks of work on it up to that point. I got one shot – my first time screen printing onto glass – and it came out perfectly.
I’ve done it quite a few times since, and I haven’t got it anywhere near as perfect. So yeah – that piece is my favourite. I didn’t know where they were going to hang it, and it’s right inside the entrance as you walk into White City House. A definitive piece for the space. I’m very proud of it and I’ve had a great response as well.
Did they give you free membership?
Yeah they did…
Really! That was a joke.
That’s part of the deal! I did put my all into it.
Is it the biggest piece you’ve done?
I did a huge wall mural for Ogilvy & Mather a few years ago, which is the biggest work I’ve done. About twelve metres along and two metres high.
What do you want to do next?
Good question. I want to play around more with furniture, coffee tables, things that can be art objects in the home. I’ve played with moving away from typographic pieces but I definitely see a future where both [typo and non-typo] themes are involved. I’m also just open to working on lots of different things – I’ll be doing some t-shirts and pin badges to sell on the website.
There’s also a lot more glass pieces I want to make, and I want to explore that medium more. I want to try glass pieces in situ, as a type of mural instead of company name as has traditionally been used, I want to be a bit more abstract with it. Glass is a big canvas for public-facing work, and I like the idea of that – brightening someone’s day as they walk by!
For more information about Archie and his work, visit his website. Pro tip: We recommend watching Archie’s process videos – they are mesmerising!