Preservation Artisans Guild Member Feature: Lee Littlewood | Lee’s Better Letters

In Calligraphy, Design, Featured PAG Members, Hand Lettering, History, Old School, Restoration, Silver by Karla Pearlstein

For our latest installment of the Preservation Artisans Guild Member Feature Series, Lee Littlewood of Lee’s Better Letters participated in a fun Q & A about his Portland-based hand-lettering and sign crafting business and just what goes into it.

everett_bistroLee Littlewood, who has been a member of Preservation Artisans Guild practically since it’s inception, tells us that Lee’s Better Letters is the result of his love of the fine art of calligraphy hitting the real world of needing to make a living.Lee had the good fortune to take Lloyd Reynolds’ calligraphy class in college, Roy Darby’s Signpainter Union Apprenticeship class, and Doug Lynch’s very last graphic design class – the three instructors forming a trifecta of Portland’s strong lettering scene to give Lee the skills he needed to expose his innate talent and skill. The city of Portland has always been hospitable to small craftsmen and artisans and it was, Lee admits, much easier to start Lee’s Better Letters in his basement in 1972 than to work on someone else’s clock in an established sign shop. Since then, Lee’s successful sign painting company has expanded to a one-man shop with a number of skilled and experienced colleagues in an elegant Portland warehouse space. By operating more as a consortium than a standard company, Lee’s Better Letters applies experience from numerous fields to solve any and every sign problem.

ticketsLee had the good fortune to take Lloyd Reynolds’ calligraphy class in college, Roy Darby’s Signpainter Union Apprenticeship class, and Doug Lynch’s very last graphic design class – the three instructors forming a trifecta of Portland’s strong lettering scene to give Lee the skills he needed to expose his innate talent and skill. The city of Portland has always been hospitable to small craftsmen and artisans and it was, Lee admits, much easier to start Lee’s Better Letters in his basement in 1972 than to work on someone else’s clock in an established sign shop. Since then, Lee’s successful sign painting company has expanded to a one-man shop with a number of skilled and experienced colleagues in an elegant Portland warehouse space. By operating more as a consortium than a standard company, Lee’s Better Letters applies experience from numerous fields to solve any and every sign problem.

piccolo_mondoAbout his services Lee says, “Gilding of all sorts is a major preoccupation of my shop, from doctor’s names to weathervanes, using gold, silver, palladium, brass and aluminum leaf as well as metal powders and chemical deposition methods.

Examples of just some of the extensive window gilding Lee has done all over the city of Portland include: The Director Building (silver);  Pioneer Place leaves (brass) and roses (gold);  Schnitzer Concert Hall stage doors (silver).  Examples of surface gilding throughout the city include:  The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall theater letters; The Newmark Theater theater letters; the projecting sign at Morgan’s Alley;  and the room names at The Central Library.

Q: What do you like about being a member of PAG?

23hoytA: The well developed but apparently random skillsets of the other members. I mean – expertise in old wallpaper designs? How cool is that??

Q: How did you get started in your craft?

A: I went to Reed College for Biology, but I also took a calligraphy class from Lloyd Reynolds. Once I started, I just kept having fun making letters, so I decided not to go to graduate school but to do letters instead. I eventually got a job in a sign shop and that allowed me to take the Union Apprenticeship Class from Roy Darby 1972. Roy was a fine, ‘old school’ craftsman who got started in 1928.

Q: Who is the ‘founder’ or other important historical figure in your craft?

A: Calligraphy is a slightly different thing than signpainting, although both are concerned with letters. In Portland there is one undisputed founder of the calligraphy movement: Lloyd J. Reynolds at Reed College. I was lucky enough to get into his very last class at Reed. Signpainting in Portland is a bit more diffuse, but Roy Darby was always considered one of the major players. I worked for Roy for a little while, and he eventually ’retired’ and just worked out of the back of our shop, so we got the benefit of his experience AND his stories.

urbino_projectingQ: What is the science, skill, art, or alchemy behind your craft?

A: One of the nice things (to me) about being a signpainter is that it does not require any explanation. When I would say, “I’m a calligrapher…” there would always be a pause, then, “Um, what is that?” “Signpainter” is like “plumber” – everyone knows what the job is about, even if they don’t know much about the technique. [To learn more about the science and process behind some of Lee’s lettering including lists of silvering and screenprinting supplies and where to order the chemicals from, read the following detailed article at the company website: Silvering | Mixing the chemicals:  “Old books describe how to dissolve silver salts and mix them with other chemicals which react with the dissolved metal to precipitate it out as pure silver. We will be using pre-made chemical concentrates, just diluting them with water and applying them to the glass. The chemicals are pretty stable – I’ve kept jugs for months while I waited to get back to a project – but it is probably a good idea to discard diluted chemicals after a week or so. They’re cheap, so mix fresh…” Read more.

Q: Who is on your team?

profile_pazzoriaA: For 30 + years Lee’s Better Letters has shared the rent with Peter McKearnan’s Signworks. We have individual offices, phones, and licenses, but the work area is common. Another person in the shop space specializes in reconstructing old backlit advertising signs. And recently a small sign business (J & S Signs) moved from Florida to Portland and is renting space in our studio. and there is a scenic artist who uses our space for big projects. So while LBL is a one-man shop, we have lots of friends.

Q: What do you love about what you do?

A: DamifIknow. For some reason there is a thrill in making letters, and it hasn’t gone away in almost 50 years. One of the unexpected goodies was finding that dealing with customers could be fun – I never would have met some very interesting people if we hadn’t had a business relationship as an introduction.

Q: Why is your craft important?

A: Hard to say. On one level, signs are just small ancillary parts of the the whole capitalist juggernaut and are not all that important to the world as a whole. On the other hand, anything that can be seen by thousands of people a year can affect the tone of an area, and if it is graceful then it may make the surroundings a tiny bit more cheerful. There is always a need for businesses to communicate with their clientele, so signs will always be with us. How they look, how well they function – these are the questions that can engage a signmaker.

Lee’s Better Letters is located just off Foster Blvd at 111th: 5932 SE 111th Avenue. To learn more about Lee’s services and his exceptional skill and craft, please visit his PAG member page as well as his company website.