South London artist Nick Garrett talks to Victoria Purcell about the art of signwriting and the need for artists to diversify…
It’s with caution that I ask Nick Garrett if signwriting is a dying art. He’s just returned from painting a sign in Clerkenwell and it’s cold and blustery out there.
‘Signwriting was all but killed off in the late 80s,’ says Nick. ‘I had a sign shop in West Norwood and I was working for top breweries, stacked out with work. Then the Competition Commission forced the big breweries to sell off half of everything, and with the advent of digital vinyl cutting, there went the rest of the business. So a lot of us guys diversified and I went into painting furniture because, working in pubs, I’d seen guys doing French polishing and wood graining and I was really fascinated by it.’
You’ve got powerful young creatives in London making amazing designs
Nick worked with Designers Guild for around 15 years on various publications and retail ranges. He worked closely with the company’s founder, Tricia Guild, to transform a Tuscan villa with bright colours for the book Painted Country.
He landed the job with Designers Guild unexpectedly, when some failed attempts at a crackled glaze fell out of his portfolio during an appointment with the head of interior design. He finessed this technique over the years and when Designers Guild launched a white collection, again using this ageing, distressing technique, it formed the precursor to ‘shabby chic’.
On graduating Camberwell College of Arts with a fine arts degree in the 70s, Nick found himself pulled towards signwriting. ‘My grandfather was a letter cutter,’ he says. ‘I knew my way around sign posts.’ He landed himself an apprenticeship with a Battersea signwriter and ‘things took off from there’. Nick now hosts signwriting workshops at The Lovely Gallery in Sydenham, run by fellow Camberwell graduate Anna Lovely. Signwriting seems to be in the midst of a revival.
‘You’ve got powerful young creatives in London making amazing designs,’ says Nick, ‘and when Shoreditch became a hub for graffiti and urban art, brands like Urban Outfitters and Ted Baker picked up on it and sought out people to create that urban, retro look.’
He’s also now completing portrait commissions, his first love. Nick has just returned from Florence and Venice, where he shot enough photographs for ‘50 years of work’, some of which he hopes to see hanging in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and at the National Portrait Gallery. He sets the bar high, but what else would you expect from an artist who sold his first drawings from a gallery in Dulwich at the age of 15?