If you’ve wandered around London or Instagram in the last year or two then chances are you will have stumbled across a sign made by Alex May Hughes. Working almost exclusively with precious metals, 23ct gold and mother of pearl, her works adorn shopfronts and the walls of private collectors alike. Her recent solo show, ‘Triple Double’ saw 3000 people RSVP for guestlist. She is very in demand and we’re delighted to say Alex has created some of the new signs you’ll see around the hotel this summer, make sure keep an eye out for them. We’re very excited that Alex will be putting on a show exclusively at Pikes in September.
What’s the best font, Alex?
I don’t think that there is just one. It really depends on what it’s going to be used for, because if I’m making a sign for somebody and it’s a romantic thing then I’m going to choose something appropriate. I try not to force the same thing on every single person. Sometimes people will have an idea of what they want and we go with that. But there isn’t just one font I love – how boring would it be if there was? I’m not some kind of Helvetica evangelist.
Are you a serif or san serif person?
San serif mostly. I do like to shout at people, I guess there is also a time and a place for a daintier things. I can be delicate! Does a lot of inspiration for your work come from physical objects in the real world rather than the internet? Big time – frequenting pubs provides a lot of inspiration. Not just because I like going to them, but beacause they are full of the most amazing stuff. Breweries and beer labels always have great work and there is a real art in getting amazing design into tiny spaces. I love those kind of labels and objects – also the way that colours are used on these things are purposefully made to be really high contrast and memorable. All kinds of packaging influences me – I’ve got tons of books that are just about packaging and labels and stuff like that.
Are some fonts trickier to gold gild and paint than others?
A lot of it comes down to scale. It’s fine to paint something really ornate if it’s massive because it’s all relative but if someone wants something that’s postcard-sized then it’s just not possible. The more detailed a piece, the more processes are involved and more layers you have to do with more materials means that the job gets harder and harder the more it gets shrunk down.
Have you managed to come to terms with the fact that if a piece breaks you have to restart – there’s no fixing it.
Ohhhh! It used to drive me really mad. Especially when I was first starting out as I couldn’t charge that much money so I wasn’t making very much money! It is really annoying but when the glass breaks you have to immediately start making it again as soon as possible. If I fuck something up then if I can, I’ll clean everything off the glass and start again but you cannot sit there mourning what you’ve just done. People sometimes offer to buy broken stuff though, after I’ve put it on Instagram.
Do you enjoy the fact that you work in an old school medium, which translates so well to the relatively new world of social media?
The most enjoyable part of my job is using my hands and getting to work with amazing materials like gold so it’s a bonus that it translates well to social medias like Instagram. It opens people up to the idea of traditional sign making processes that they may have never seen before.
Is the worst thing about fucking up that you are solely to blame?
It is, but I get that with so much of my whole life. I am so mean to myself so anything that goes wrong. I’m like, “this is all your fault, if only you’d done XYZ to prevent it.” But saying that there’s a lot of power in something being your fault – you can get over it a lot quicker. And if there was someone else to blame, they wouldn’t fucking be here for very long!
Do you prefer making a shop sign that loads of people will see or work on a private commission?
Hmmm – I have been commissioned to do a lot of wedding day and baby birth pieces and I get really nice messages about them, which is always really lovely. It is really cool though when people take lots which is always really lovely. It is cool though, when people take pictures of your shop sign and loads of people see it and mention it. It’s kind of like advertising as I get commissions from people who’ve seen a shop sign. Those signs are few and far between for me though because they cost a lot of money! The smaller things I do for people are cool but I do really enjoy producing the bigger pieces.
Your shop sign for Palm Vaults in Hackney blew up on Instagram – was that a turning point for your career?
I was already pretty busy and then the owner of Palm Vaults got in touch and asked if I’d make their sign. I’d actually never done something that big so I rang my friend and mentor Ash to help me make it. I designed everything and then we made it in his workshop as it was too big for my studio. In terms of people seeing that I could do signs at that scale it definitely was a turning point as I then started doing more shop signs. The Instagram effect was all good but people just love taking pictures of anything don’t they?!
Talking of mentors, you did an apprenticeship with Pete Hardwick after art school. Did he teach you to forget things you’d learnt at art school?
Not necessarily because when I was at art school I was doing graphic design and typography and they tried to make it very computer based with InDesign and all this stuff, which I fucking hated. When I went to art school I had no idea how to even use Photoshop. I spent loads of time doing stuff like screen printing and things, which my brain knew how to do. When I met Pete and he asked me to paint with him I don’t think it was about unlearning things as I don’t think I’d learnt anything that would have helped me sign paint! Pete’s quite rough and ready whereas some sign painters take themselves quite seriously and say things have to be done in a certain way. Pete would be like “oh shit we don’t have a cup,” and he’d cut a Coke can in half with a scalpel give it to me and tell me to put paint in it and
start working. I realised that sign painting wasn’t this scary thing where you had to do all these things and be constantly precise with stuff. It was a good way of learning.
Do all sign writers have to go to Coney Island on holiday?
[laughs] I guess loads of them do. I haven’t fucking been though. Maybe Coney Island is just full of sign painters wandering around looking at the signs. I’d love to go – I saw it in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix and thought how cool it was. That’s the closest I’ve been.
Tell us about the special book cover commission you did.
Penguin emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do a book cover, which to me was a total dream job. It was a series that they were doing of getting artists to create covers for classic books to get younger audiences interested in them. They’d picked The Help for me and I’d liked the film. We went back and forth and created the design, which I went away and painted. Then they took it to a photographer who shot it and then they did some post on it. I managed to spell Outstanding wrong on the sign, which nobody noticed. It was hanging up in my second exhibition and someone pointed out I’d written ‘Oustanding’. I was like, “Ooooh” No one else had ever mentioned it before.
It’s no secret that you’re fan of The Simpsons. If Matt Groening commissioned you to make piece for him of one single Simpson’s moment, which would you choose?
Ah! That’s a tough one! I think it’d be a Bart from the late 80’s Simpsons, I LOVE the style of drawing in those episodes – really loose and stylish.
Would getting a commission from Matt Groening be a dream job?
I don’t think it would – I bet he’s got loads of Simpsons images. You know who would be a dream commission? There was a woman on Instagram who was one of the original colourists on The Simpsons – so she was one of the people hand colouring each cell. She was selling some of them and I was thinking that that’s literally what I do! I get a scene and paint all the outlines then hand colour them then put gold on them. If she emailed then that would be fucking cool.
Will you ever tire of getting Simpsons commissions?
I won’t tire of them, no! There are so many options that I can never run out. But people are starting to ask for things that I have done before, which isn’t a problem but I always want to do new stuff and get really niche shit! I don’t know if people are younger but a lot of people are asking for newer characters and I prefer to do the older seasons. The short answer is no, I don’t think I could tire of people asking be to do Simpsons pieces – I really like doing them.
Is 23ct gold valuable? Why don’t you use 24ct? What difference does a carat make?
It is valuable, the higher the carat, the better the quality of gold – the difference in price between 23ct and 24ct can be fairly large but the overall finish is very, very similar – so that’s why I usually use 23ct.
Do you constantly have gold fingertips?
Yes I do indeed. I guess there are worse things to get from your job. There have been times when I’ve had small kids inconspicuously trying to pick little bits of gold leaf off my jacket on the train.
Your last exhibition was a massive success – how will you top that?
I try to have an exhibition of my own pieces every two years to force myself to take a break from commission-based work and to get all the things I’ve had in the back of my mind committed to glass. My job has changed so much in the past few years; the stuff I’d been making for the show late last year was a lot more involved and ambitious (in terms of technical processes and content) than my show in 2016.
What is the process behind it all for you?
There is a way of almost screen printing the pieces onto the glass, but I don’t do that. Although that is something I would like to do as it looks fucking brilliant. I have my plotter, which I use for certain things like if I need to recreate a logo or something. I can run it through that as it will produce exactly what the client wants, but for my work some of it can be hand painted. For instance, if it’s something like a bunch of lemons, there’s no way of getting around that other than me painting it. All the mother of pearl and shell elements and glitter elements are done by hand. Any machinery that can make my work quicker and cleaner I will absolutely love. In sign writing there are a lot of people who talk about everything being done by hand. That’s very admirable, but I have a lot of signs to make for people and I don’t want to have to charge them loads of money because it takes a long time to make them. Even the way I do it, it still takes ages!
What actually is glass gilding?
It’s the process of putting gold onto glass. There are different types though – there’s water gilding and oil gilding. I do a lot of water gilding, which is what makes the reflective mirror gold. Oil gilding is more matte but is still very eye catching. But that’s it, it’s just putting gold on glass. You use gelatin and deionised water and mix it up to make something called ‘size’, which is basically gelatiny water! You make sure the glass is super clean and then you use a gilders mop to throw onto the glass and then you put the gold leaf on using what’s called a tip – a wide brush.
So it’s not very vegan friendly?
No it’s not – I don’t think a lot of people know that. Not very many people ask. I did see a sign painter who says he’s vegan friendly and I was like, ‘you’re not going to make anything!’ The tips I use are made of squirrel hair, the brushes are made out of duck or swan and badger hair, all kinds of shit! I guess you could use synthetic stuff but you can’t not use gelatin really. I’ve made my peace with it.
Is creating pieces for your own shows harder than doing commissions?
In some ways it is much harder – I’m my own worst critic and I constantly go back and change things, but on the other hand it’s very freeing and I get to experiment with ideas and concepts that have been sitting on the back burner.
Will the pieces for the Pikes show be extra glinty to catch the sun?
Absolutely – the sunshine and bright colours of Pikes are a huge asset. I can’t think of anywhere better for my shiny gold things to live.