Arts & Culture » Visual Art

"A Finely Tuned Anarchy"

Classic Design Studio creates the signs of our times


Stop for a moment and picture the "new" sign that perches outside Boise Weekly headquarters: The font carefully matches the lettering printed on the front of the paper each week. It playfully arcs away from the building as if it is watching the city and waiting to hear about all the current events before anyone else does--just as the staff who linger inside are constantly doing. And lastly, a little bit of red neon announces that the business behind the sign has got some spunk. This sign was made by none other than Boise Weekly's neighbor: Classic Design Studio.

Although their main office remains tucked slightly away from the thriving downtown, Classic Design's artistry and talent are displayed for everyone to enjoy right outside many of the city's best venues. This small but booming business, comprising seven individuals, has been handcrafting signs in Boise for 28 years. Some of their clients include Bittercreek Ale House, Red Feather Lounge, Cafe de Paris, Java, Flying M Coffeehouse, Dawson Taylor, MilkyWay and the entire Basque block.

The founders and driving inspiration for Classic Design are Noel and Lucy Weber. Noel grew up in Chicago, where he attended the Institute of Lettering and Design and the Academy of Art. After living in Denver for a time, he came to Boise with Lucy and together they started Classic Design. Lucy manages all of the business aspects while Noel and his staff--John McMahon, John Yarnell, Kevin Were, Jason Keeble and the Webers' son Noel--complete the design, fabrication, signage, sculptural ornament, enameling, architectural elements and more. The Webers' daughter Anna (an artist who lives in Portland) has also contributed to the family business.

Classic Design does all custom work and quite a range of small and large jobs. Typically, they have 10 major projects scheduled along with 20 to 30 smaller ones. When asked how they work as a group, they all agree with McMahon's description of a "finely tuned anarchy." Because the staff usually works collaboratively, regular production meetings allow them to brainstorm and decide on mediums and needed materials. Individually, they have their own particular skills but are all versatile enough to cover any areas that need finishing, allowing for a nice overlap of workmanship. As each job they accept is unique, they are constantly having to invent things and remain open to change; all jobs morph and evolve as the process continues and finer engineering details arise.

McMahon feels that one interesting aspect about the sign trade is the crossover between the fabrication and the design elements. "Most people think of signs and they think of a trade, but really you wouldn't have anything without design. The identity of this shop is all about the marriage of the design and the craft," he says.

Because Classic Design has contributed enormously to Boise's downtown image through their unique sign artistry, it's easy to agree with Noel Weber Sr.: "If you just look around downtown, it's hard to turn a corner without seeing some of our work. I think we add a lot of graphic vitality to the downtown community." But the truth is, this business is providing more than signs--they do a lot of architectural work, create murals and offer workshops as well.

Back in 2001, Classic Design back-screened and back-painted the windows for the Egyptian Theatre. Keeble did most of the illustration while Weber and his children did the gilding. Classic Design has also provided glasswork for Hawkeye, Zeppole and Grape Escape, and the Alexander, Empire and Fidelity buildings. They have created other architectural elements such as door handles and a conference table for MilkyWay, a 64-foot wine rack for Red Feather Lounge, an awning and handrail for the Adelman building, interior walls for the Ice House, and they'll even use their artistry to create house numbers.

Classic Design has painted murals for Davies Reid, Oaas Laney, Stearns Knight, and also the Basque mural. The staff feel that these murals, especially the one for Oaas Laney, highlight the diversity of the shop. Weber also feels that they exhibit the exceptional talent of his staff.

Classic Design offers workshops to the public to help others strengthen their design and fabrication skills. Last year, they did a mural workshop in Lodi, California, and recently they held a gold-leafing workshop in Boise. Their high reputation isn't only appreciated in Boise and Idaho, but nationally, too: A man from Disney Imagineering came to take the classes.

Although one would never guess from looking at the outside of their small building, Classic Design has created a haven of a workspace with plenty of room to offer workshops. The operation is split into three sections joined by a courtyard. The first building contains Lucy's office, a room for production meetings and a room dedicated to providing customers with visual examples of what Classic Design has made before and what options are available. It contains everything from house numbers and doorknobs to bar rails and examples of different fonts.

Classic Design's second building is their fabrication space and contains a kiln for casting glass and doing enamel work. It also connects with Rocket Neon, the studio of artist Wil Kirkman, who occasionally collaborates with Classic Design. The third building is an old body shop turned into their main production room. There they have a CNC router for cutting composite material and consider this tool a key component in their shop because it allows them to fabricate material efficiently. They recently installed 3-D software that allows them to "machine-out" 3-D images and this building also houses the paint room where all of the finishing is done.

The Classic Design employees all acknowledge that the open physical environment coupled with the Webers' honorable ethics provide for excellent working conditions. Classic Design is a family-first business that allows its employees to have flexible schedules in order to maintain healthy lifestyles.

For now, Classic Design is particularly excited about working for Chandler's Steakhouse (inside Hotel 43, the new boutique hotel in downtown Boise) because they'll be designing not only the sign, but other elements as well. So, next time you're out and about, take a closer look at the signs around you. They're as much a part of the landscape as the buildings they adorn.

Classic Design Studio, 412 S. 6th St., 208-336-2769,