The carved, hand-painted letters in vivid red and blue and rich black stood out against the white, unfinished background of the piece set up on table blocks in the House of Signs design studio. Up close, the white areas revealed the textures of mountains and sky awaiting a painter’s brush to fill in the highlights and lowlights.
Matt Sandberg, publisher of the Summit Daily News, watched as the pieces were assembled to give a general picture of the final product. The newspaper needed a sign for its new building, and the artisans at House of Signs had been deployed to tackle the project. Now in its final stages, the sign revealed all of the care and detail that has become a signature of the Frisco company.
Each project that comes through the doors of House of Signs is unique, but the process, honed through years of trial, error and persistence, is much the same for each piece.
“It starts with a client meeting to feel out what type of project is involved, and we normally touch on important aspects of any project,” Cox said. “Most clients come in with no concept of what they want or what’s even feasible until they get into the shop and see all of our variety of samples and how the shop is arranged with a lot of eye candy.”
Once potential clients see the shop and all the different artistic avenues that are possible to take with their signs, you can see the gears start turning in their heads, Cox said, but they still don’t have any idea of what’s feasible or what the outcome of their project will be.
“We take a lot of pride in looking at the environment, looking at the architecture, and find out what the client needs,” Cox said, describing the process of information gathering. “Then we do a survey out in the field to get a feel of the available location of the sign or important lighting; sometimes, I’ll even go back to a project at different times of day to see if there’s any advantages or disadvantages to the light source.”
Part of the value of doing a local project with House of Signs is the company’s extensive knowledge of local sign codes. The company does work all over the state, and some smaller historic towns have their own sets of guidelines, Cox said. Being able to design within those historical guidelines is also an important part of the process.
“I deal with sign codes and planners on a daily basis,” Cox said. “So a lot of times I’d be able to utilize the best circumstance for a project based on my knowledge of the codes.”
Without knowledge of sign codes, a client also might not maximize the impact of a new sign, Cox said. Perhaps the client purchased or leased a commercial space and planned to replace the previous business’ sign with a new one of the same size, not knowing that they could potentially put up something much larger.
“I go back to the source, and it’s amazing all the things I’ve unearthed on a project where the client was only using one-third of the allowable square footage,” Cox said. “We want the most effective and best outcome, so we’re making sure that the size gets maximized to the codes and it works with the architecture and environment.”
Starting the creative juices
Once Cox and his team collect all of the necessary information about the sign’s location, including measurements and reference photos, the data is compiled in the House of Signs design studio on Main Street in Frisco.
“That’s when I really sit down and methodically start to create concepts with paper and pencil,” Cox said. “That gets my creative juices going in certain directions. I always seem to realize a good direction fairly soon when I enter that creative realm.”
The best of the pencil sketches get transferred into computer drafting renderings for the client to review.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as a black-and-white concept, or if I feel really strongly about a particular direction, I’ll present a full-blown 3D,” Cox said. “The design phase is the backbone.”
After the client approves the concept, House of Signs presents a variety of ways to build the sign, using different materials and applying different levels of detail.
“We have a really tight design that no matter how it’s fabricated, we know the outcome will be fantastic,” Cox said. “We’ll offer two or three ways to fabricate based on their budget. Once they see what they can do, they’ll often leave with a higher budget because they are so excited about the design.”
A sample piece or full-blown mini model is created next, allowing the client to review a variety of textures and special finishes that can be integrated into the design and ultimately enhance the sign. It’s different with every client, Cox said, but oftentimes they’ll spring to go above and beyond to have an absolutely unique product.
Fabricating a piece of art
House of Signs stocks a lot of specialty materials to achieve just the right layers, textures and impact for its signs, and some of the processes the company uses to create these effects and backgrounds have taken years to develop. Once the details of the design have been ironed out, it’s time to start building.
“It’s a matter of getting stated at that point,” Cox said. “It’s a combination of milling, hand tooling, hand carving, and everything is hand painted and glazed after the fact. The actual process is a really good marriage of high-tech technology and years of honed skills to create those outcomes that we’re known for.”
No detail is overlooked in fabricating the finished product, from materials all the way through incorporated lighting and constructing mounting brackets.
“There’s a lot of companies that specialize in one product, but when it comes to lighting or an innovative mounting structure or bracket or installation, they have to farm that out to another company,” Cox said. “Years ago, I realized that I wanted to keep that quality control in house. We design and fabricate all of our mounting structures; some of them are incredibly complex. It’s all done in house. If you’re doing a $20,000 sign for someone, you don’t want to rely on another company to install that for you or integrate a component of that sign within it.”
All about impact
Cox said all of the attention to detail from design through installation sets House of Signs apart from its competition, and the company gets amazing responses to its work.
“We get peppered with so many testimonials for our work,” he said. “Once it’s been displayed for a week or two, I get more testimonials from our clients. In these resort towns where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic, it becomes a photo for people. (Our clients say) ‘We get people coming by our store and taking photos in front of our sign all day long,’ which really goes to show you that a really unique visual communication does get noticed and it’s really rewarding.”
Helping those businesses make an impact is rewarding, Cox said, as is being recognized in fabrication and sign industry publications.
“I have always really sort of had that mind-set of I don’t necessarily like my work to get to a certain level and ride that out in cruise control, so I’ve always been in the mind-set to continuously learn and push the creative envelope,” he said. “Most recently, 2½ years ago, I started taking these sculpture classes in Canada from one of my longtime mentors and integrating that into our work.
“We’re creating these highly three-dimensional pieces within our designs and it’s not stopping there. Now we’re tapping another market of doing these fantastic three-dimensional textures that are integrated into the backs of signs to create the subtleties of the mountain-scape and the sky and the clouds. … We’re really moving upward in this creative and dynamic direction that I’m super excited about.”