The Sign Man turns commercial niche into art


Irene Torres, KP News

First came the Bionic Man, then the Ironman. Since fall of 2001, the Key Peninsula has been home to The Sign Man, Chuck Kraft.

Raised in North Dakota, Kraft moved to Tacoma with his family in the early 1960s and graduated from Lincoln High School, later serving five years in the U.S. Navy’s submarine service.

He began his sign design career by decorating windows with Christmas paintings. Formally schooled at UCLA under the tutelage of master of fine arts from Otis Parsons School of Art Richard Shelton, Kraft learned the craft of sign making over three years. “I never regretted a day. I’m big on education,” he says.

In animated conversation, the 60-year-old mustachioed Kraft explains the science behind the art of signage — “visual communication and design,” as he refers to it. “It’s a game of sign dominance, to interrupt the subconscious scan patterns. The eye is drawn to the most perfect form.”

In the sign business since 1984, Kraft describes himself as a Gestaltist. “Based on past and previous experiences, the eye develops a meaningful relationship within two seconds — that’s all the time there is to communicate your business’ intentions,” he explains the theory of sign design.

He demonstrates the impact of foreground, midground and background printing using his own business cards as an example: “They are printed on thicker stock than most business cards. Gild the text, like they did in Biblical times. People hold on to shiny things. They won’t throw them away.”

Kraft quotes William A. Lawrence, “On the Plains of Hesitation, bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting, died.”

It’s the same advice he passed along to students at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, to whom he lectured while serving on its board of directors. His personal philosophy is, “Endeavor to persevere.”

Freely offering his professional advice to businesses, Kraft says, “They need to have an advertising budget, and they need to spend it. Businesses become complacent. They should change their signs about every five years, and maintain them, to keep up with changes in the market and competition.”

He promotes “sign dominance, with appropriate use of format, color and negative space.” A “visual-type guy,” Kraft knows how to manipulate the eye, using thickness and height of letters and contrast of value.

A true artist, he admits he dislikes the installation phase of the sign business, but he sees no downside to the location of his business on the Key Peninsula. “I can see the businesses are coming…the changes in store for this area. It’s a gold mine,”  he says. Among his goals is to speak to the Key Peninsula Business Association about the impact of signage — good and bad. “I want to help people understand visual communication,” he explains, “from the perspective of design criteria, versus production (of signs).

“I have an obligation to make them more money. If they have more money, that will make them happy. If they are happy, they will tell their friends,” Kraft says.

Kraft works in a variety of media but most of his work is in glass. His glass techniques include glue-chipped, reverse gilding, clear and sandblasting. His own log home near Carney Lake is decorated with fine examples of his work. He says he gets some of his ideas from other signs: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

Of his technique and equipment he says, “I do it the old fashioned way — with a No. 2 pencil.”

His art “niche” consists of commercial wood and reverse glasswork interior designs for restaurants like Rock’nFish in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where his son is the executive chef, and a chain of restaurants across America.

His work includes “point of purchase” signs for back bars, and what he calls “ham and eggs signs” for smaller eateries. Beer and ale breweries have contracted him for their designs, and he is among the top five producers of those signs, he says. “They will be collector’s items someday,” he muses.

Kraft was among the first to design graphic art for the sides of boats and to add lettering to the tops of billboard signs. He created the artwork for the monster truck “Rolling Thunder,” from which a Matchbox toy model was made.

On a grander scale, one contract was the gilding of a statue of the Virgin Mary for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Mary Star of the Sea Chapel, erected 100 feet in the air. Others were for Reuters International and Universal Studios in Los Angeles. He has even collaborated with Bill Gates.

Hundreds of pieces of his work are on display in California, Washington, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and as far away as Japan. Kraft also makes personal signs to commemorate births, deaths, and milestones in between. He makes address signs and even has designed an entrance sign for a ranch in Colorado. Locally, he designed signs for O’Callahan’s and On The Way Deli, both in Key Center.

He recently designed a logo for a pacemaker company, Micropulse. “Pacemaker patients will be wearing my art next to their heart,” he quipped.

He colors his conversation with an analogy to the sparrow and the spider. “The spider sits and waits for his prey to come into his web. I’m more like the sparrow. I go out and look for the fly. I never know where the next job is coming from. Most of my work comes by word of mouth.”

With his wife, Ruth, and Char Bantula helping with the sign business, The Sign Man has time for a second interest, horse handling, working with difficult horses. He serves on the committee for the development of equestrian activities on the 360-acre park property to be transferred to the KPMPD this year.