This Great-Grandpa Is Way Cooler Than You

My name is Shannon, and my great-grandpa just had a font named after him!

Let me start again. Hello, I’m Shannon D. I’m a brand new writer here in the spirited Threadless blog land; some of you know me from my post last week about how street art in Ireland has been stirring up some pret-ty powerful cultural brew.

I have to say, the feedback on that post was just so gash-derned friendly that I thought to myself, “Gee, Shan, you really should introduce yourself to these urbane, happening folks and explain just what the hell you’re doing here.” (Besides, of course, scoping sweet tees, hoping for a discount).

I’m here to write about art. Or, more accurately, the kind of art that makes a person like me (likes art, not a jerk), living in the kind of place that I live (Dublin) tick. And I suppose I really can’t start anywhere but at the beginning, so with the recent news that my dapper grandpappy has had a font named after him, I figure that’s just where we’ll open.

First, here’s my great gramps, himself, looking stone cold chill as he sizes you up from the early 20th century. Bonus badass points for not bothering to light that cigarette. Why puff, I guess, when a thorough gumming will do. Real gentlemen nibble.

Edward J Duvall. Cooler than you. Or me.
Edward J Duvall. Cooler than you. Or me.

I never knew Mr. Edward J., but growing up, I did know about his work as one of the last great American sign painters. Back in his day and age, if you had a business and wanted to attract customers, you couldn’t just go order a custom sign from Kinko’s or do up your website all fancy – no! You had to employ a real live man to come down to your real live shop and measure and fit and design a display or a sign or a billboard saying “Bob’s Apple Emporium – Always Sweet, Never Sour”… or whatever it was that you wanted to say.

A real live shop window.
A real live shop window.

And then that real live man had to show up to your shopfront or billboard and spend a few days or weeks hand drawing every single part of the sign, making it legible and consistent and appealing to the purse-string-holders of yon day. He had to be a skilled typographer, painter, designer, and sometimes carpenter. This was no boutique trade, either; this was a booming business, with every shop and car dealership and hotel everywhere in need of the services of a talented artist. Amazing how times change, eh? Even beer.

So, it goes without saying, that in order to stand out from the crowd and make them dolla dolla bills, you’d need to be good. You’d need to be better than good – you’d need to be a hot ticket indeed. Just like Edward J. He was an artistic force to be reckoned with. He spent his entire career honing his talent and trade, never settling for less than the absolute best. He wrote books on the subject, taught classes on lettering, took apprentices, and maintained a high-rolling roster of clients that he kept as friends well after his hands had stopped cooperating, heralding retirement.

One of Edward J. Duvalls' books.
One of Edward J. Duvall’s books.

His type of art may be long-gone from the ‘essentials’ budget of modern-day businesses, but sign painting survived in its own way – primarily as a specialist trade. Lately, the resurgence in post-war, DIY style and ethic has caused much of it to bob to the surface again, gracing our eyes today on bar menus and apps, and inspiring a whole new generation of typography hounds. (I’m one!) FullSizeRender

Everyone responds to honest art, and it doesn’t get much more honest than the the hand-painted typefaces and artistic styles of the old advertising masters. That’s art that never goes out of style. The next time you drive or walk past one of those old, faded, hand-painted signs peddling buttons or barbers or beef, tip your hat (imaginary, if necessary) to the guys like my great-gramps, reminding us – artistically, as well as generally – to keep it real.

And PS, you can find the Duvall font here!


Avatar photo
Shannon Duvall

tacos. drums. salt water. repeat.