Frank & Mimi | The contemporary revival of hand lettering

Frank & Mimi | The contemporary revival of hand lettering

Artists, Emily Devers and Rick Hayward, are the creative minds behind Frank & Mimi. Based in Brisbane, Frank & Mimi is a visual identity studio that specialises in hand-painted sign writing and murals. With an astute focus on combining traditional methods with contemporary design, their practice incorporates both small and large-scale projects that celebrate a handmade aesthetic. From shop signs with shimmering gold leaf lettering to large-scale outdoor murals, Rick and Emily have certainly created a distinctive signature style that honours the unique achievements of the human hand.

Traditional sign-writing is one of many crafts that have been almost completely swallowed by the advent of digital technology.  With the demand for cheap services and disposable visual outcomes, digitally printed design often comes at an environmental cost. By honing hand-painted signwriting techniques Frank& Mimi are able to take a more ethical approach to signwriting that produces far less waste than that of digitally printed signage, whilst making a timeless, traceable mark.

For The Apprenticeship exhibition, Emily and Rick were invited to showcase their work and tell the story behind it.  The duo also designed The Apprenticeship identity, which they beautifully hand painted on our gallery window and wall.

Richard Stride and Aaron Barton caught up with Emily and Rick to discuss the story behind Frank & Mimi and how the value of the handmade elements of their craft has enabled them to go from strength to strength.

See their work at artisan until 25 June.


Can you tell us more about the ethos behind Frank & Mimi? 

Rick and Emily: Frank & Mimi is a Brisbane based visual identity studio. Rick is a qualified sign writer with almost 15 years experience, and Emily is an accomplished multidisciplinary fine artist. Together, we are Frank & Mimi.

Frank & Mimi celebrates the beauty reflected in both the nuances and triumphs of the human hand. With a strong focus on developing unique and timeless concepts, we combine traditional sign painting techniques with contemporary design and execution. Our practice includes everything from branding to large-scale artworks, specialising in traditional hand painted signage and gilding techniques. We are driven to support projects with a focus on people and planet over profit.
What drew you to hand lettering initially?

Rick: I serendipitously found myself in a Sign Writing apprenticeship in 2002, but after many years of contributing to a very wasteful industry I made the decision to redirect my path in a more hands-on, creative and conscious direction. Meeting Emily has played a huge part in the continuation and expansion of that new direction.

Emily: My background is in the arts; however, when I met Rick I started to take more of an interest in typography and design. Eventually, of course, this begged the question of how these creative elements could all work together.


Mural by Frank & Mimi located in Arch Lane. Image courtesy of the artists

Frank & Mimi, If Only You Knew. Location: Arch Lane. Created as part of the Brisbane Canvas Project. Image courtesy of the artists.


What has been your favourite project and why?

Emily: I think we can both agree that our favourite experience as Frank & Mimi has been our last two weeks spent in Napier, New Zealand. We were invited to represent Brisbane as feature artists at Sea Walls – the first conscious public art festival of its kind. Run by the non-profit foundation PangeaSeed, Sea Walls calls on artists from all over the globe to raise awareness around the dire state of the ocean and our collective responsibilities as stewards of the environment. For us, it was the perfect project for the culmination of our skills, as well as an opportunity to create something for an important cause.


What does a normal work-day look like for you?

Emily: We start most days with the golden trifecta – yoga, a good breakfast and a walk through the park with our dog Pete to the studio. Once we get into the studio we catch up with our Foundry family and get stuck into whatever we may be working on at the time. If we’re not working away on things at the studio, we will be out on site somewhere in Brisbane or beyond!


How was signwriting traditionally learnt in the past, and does this path still exist?

Rick: Sign Painting has always been best learnt under the tutelage of someone with plenty of experience, generally as an apprenticeship but maybe not always formal. Apprenticeships certainly still exist in the Australian industry, but only a tiny fraction of the training, if any at all, is devoted to hand painting lettering. This path still exists, but only in small pockets and mostly overseas.


Emily Devers at work - Image courtesy of the artists

Emily at work . Image courtesy of the artists.


What pressures do you think have led to the traditional pathway becoming problematic today?

Rick: The introduction of computer generated vinyl-cut lettering saw many craftspeople put away their brushes in favour of a quick dollar. Digital printing put further nails in the coffin of traditional sign painting.  That said, it seems that people have become somewhat disenfranchised with fast, cheap products and are beginning to again yearn for the “human-ness” or handmade aesthetic.


How did you learn the techniques and theory behind your craft?

Rick: I learnt basic brush technique and the proper use of materials through my apprenticeship here in Queensland. However, spending time with sign painting legends at New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco really strengthened my understanding. Also plenty of online research, acquiring books and loads of practice!

Emily: I’ve learnt most of what I know from Rick.  The rest has come from my personal observation, books, research and practice! Every job is an opportunity to push our understanding of the craft resulting in a more expansive and creative pursuit.


Rick & Emily for the Grocon Hoardings Initiative. Image courtesy of the artists.

Rick & Emily for the Grocon Hoardings Initiative. Image courtesy of the artists.


What have been some of the main challenges in acquiring this knowledge and skills?

Emily:  Some of the challenges we faced in the beginning included travelling to meet peers, sourcing tools from overseas and maintaining the business side of things for ourselves. We’ve been fortunate to become a part of a solid network on a local and global scale. We have put a lot of energy into maintaining and propagating this and the internet has been incredible for making new friends and sharing tips across oceans at warp speed.


Have you established specialised signwriting and mural work as a viable living? If so how long did this take, or if not what stage are you at in pursuing this? How challenging do you think it is for others to achieve this today?

Rick: Frank & Mimi snowballed really quickly building on our previous networks and became full- time in our second year. It may perhaps be more challenging today due to the sheer rise in the number of different hands-on creative craftspeople and makers, coming out of the woodwork.

Emily: When we first started working together I was still studying, and Rick was working part time. After a year of working part time together as Frank & Mimi, it very quickly gained momentum and turned into our full time (plus some) passion and livelihood. We are at a great point in Brisbane’s history, as no one else offers traditional sign painting services. Frank & Mimi redefined this industry in Brisbane and as a result we always have to keep our eyes on what’s next!


Rick at work - Image courtesy of the artists

Rick at work. Image courtesy of the artists.


Have you had any mentors? Or have the skills of your trade dissipated and needed to be relearnt?

Rick: I’ve been fortunate to have a few along the way, sign related and otherwise, but all contributing to Frank & Mimi in different ways.

Emily: I consider so many people I know as mentors, most especially my closest friends, and creators who I admire. Their pursuits and mediums of expression may differ considerably from mine, but I enjoy feeding off the alternative approaches and attitudes they have to the things they care about.


Are there any speciality tools required for your sign writing and mural work, and if so has it been challenging to find and learn to use them?

Rick: Yes, the average artist’s paintbrush does not make for a good sign painting brush! Unfortunately Australian sign suppliers don’t carry much (if any) stock. We tried a few different brush makers before finding our preferred brand, they all respond in different ways when painting.

Emily: The learning just comes from using the tool itself, so extended practice on and off site helps us determine which materials work best for us. Things may look good in the packaging, but they need to perform over and over again and still hold their integrity. We need to know we can rely on everything in our toolbox, so that when we begin work our variables are limited.


Emily at the APC open. Image by Benjamin Tupas.

Emily and Rick at First Coat Festival. Image by Benjamin Tupas of ABC Open.


In hindsight, what resources would have been useful in developing your skills and establishing the business?

Emily: Despite all the challenges we have faced and our experiences of learning just about everything the hard way, I’m pretty chuffed with how we have pulled it all together! We were lucky enough to receive plenty of creative feedback, advice and guidance from people we admire.  Not to mention the great opportunities that have come from influential creative people along the way.



The Apprenticeship exhibition identity designed by Frank & Mimi. You can find hand painted version of this identity in the exhibition.


Are the products you make also produced on a large scale by mass-production, and if so what has that meant for the design and quality of the products?

Emily: Absolutely, the mainstream sign industry is an ugly one, and comes with a huge cost to the environment. For every sign applied, almost three times as much in material/bi-product waste ends up in landfill. This waste consists mostly of plastic that will never break down. From a design perspective, it’s not fantastic either and, consequently, it becomes hard for businesses to establish themselves with a unique visual presence in an oversaturated visual market. Our response to this is to provide something tactile, unique and visually traceable to a human. In return, it’s not only our clients that respond well to it, but everyone who views the work. This authenticity flows over and works wonders for the client’s brand.


Is there a revival of the traditional means of production in your signwriting and mural work today, and if so why do you think that is? Are makers creating new value in traditional production methods or are consumers now simply perceiving value in it?

Rick: There is absolutely a fundamental shift going on in the very fabric of our modern Australian economy. Experiences are becoming the predominant economic offering for small-scale independent businesses and the basis of which people make their consumer decisions. We’re so proud to be able to tailor a service and experience for each and every one of our clients.


What skills have been important in contributing to a revival in signwriting in today’s economy that were not historically a part of this work?

Emily: It’s no secret that the trusty computer can be incredibly helpful with design challenges. When used responsibly digital tools can speed up your creative process and assist with things logistically in literally half the time. I think the key is definitely “responsible” use, recognising that it is in fact one of many tools, and can be used as an enabler for your original creative ideas.



As a contemporary craftsperson, how are you making this craft relevant and shaping it for the future?

Emily: There’s always going to be shortcuts available, temporary alternatives, and fast tracked versions of what we do as craftspeople. There will always be ways to be a little cheaper, more instantly gratifying. In contrast to this, we take our time and invest in a process that helps people connect to the intrinsic value of the work. Whilst actively shifting the consumer culture, we’re producing authentic work worth sharing.

In contrast to older understandings of sign painting, as Frank & Mimi we believe it is our work that creates the market, not the market that creates our work. Perhaps that’s the “artist” in me coming out. From the moment of conception, our brand has remained malleable, flexible and its development can be traced. This was a conscious choice. From those early stages through to now, we’ve been engaging in projects that we align ourselves with ethically, consciously crafting the kind of work that we want to be known for.


Rick and Emily - Frank & Mimi

Rick and Emily – Frank & Mimi. Image courtesy of the artist.

Feature image: Emily at work. Image courtesy of the artists.