Fickles is a traditional sign-writing business based in Ashburton. Fickles is made up of Stephen and Adam, his son – and of course the dog, Mr. (Branston) Pickles. Below, I speak to Stephen about lettering, signs, school, tattoos, Mexican art, tango, canoeing, and other delights.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bolton, Lancashire and moved to Devon about 29 years ago. Bolton was heavily industrial – not much going on in the arty way. Manchester is now far more buzzing than it was when I was growing up. My best subject at school was art, so I went to Bolton Art College, and there I was taught by Tony Forster. He was one of the leading designers of Britain, and influenced me about type and design. At the same time, I was a first division white-water canoeist, so I didn’t go to a college far away, as I needed to train almost every night. It was also the time of Northern soul dancing, so it all kind of messed up and came together – the dancing and the art and the lettering. Tony introduced me to other things, like lettering and graphic design. It made quite a big impression. Nobody I knew at that time went to our college. They went into engineering but never to art college. It wasn’t a route people would take – we’re talking about the late 1970’s.
Were your parents into art?
When I started whitewater canoeing, by luck I worked my way into a first division slalom and paddler. At that time there was a cover that covered your canoe, keeping the water out, and they’d only just been invented. My mother could sew, and worked with my father. Between them, they’re a bit design-y, and ended up winning the British Design Award. They developed a successful business on the back of me being a canoeist. My father, while he was building the company in his spare time, with my mother’s help, used to work at a sign-making company. It’s only now when I think back that I wonder if that was an influence. I used to watch the guys cutting signs out of Perspex, and my sister and I used to go there and play with the old bits left over from the guys cutting out letters. When I went to art college, there was a foundation in fashion, ceramics, exhibition design, illustration and graphics.
It is broad. You had to decide which field to go into and at the time, graphic design was what paid. I hated school and didn’t want to go back into teaching. At that time, sign writing was in decline, because plastic and Perspex and the modernism of the 70’s and 80’s was coming in. PCs and Apple Macs weren’t really invented, and so whatever you did, you did by hand. Any lettering for a logo had to be hand-made, hand-drawn. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now.
You’ve had quite the journey with it.
Yes. I went into graphic design, worked for large advertising agencies in Preston and Manchester, and then there was an offer to run a small agency in Devon. My son was four at the time, and we thought it was a good time to move. I carried on with my interest in lettering while running the advertising agency.
Why did you hate school?
I was dyslexic at school – believe it or not, I’m a dyslexic sign-writer [laughs]! Because I was dyslexic, if I had to, for example, write a story, I could – but my writing was so poor. That held me up in English. I used to come top in Art and History, and I was quite good at sport, but the academic stuff wasn’t really my thing. Today, you’ve got spell check – if you can’t spell it, up it pops! But back then, if you couldn’t spell it, it’d go down wrong, and we couldn’t have dictionaries with us.
Yeah. Even today I still have certain dyslexic things that I play tricks to remember.
Like the word ‘their’ – I can’t tell which way the ‘ie’ should be, so I remember ‘the’ and ‘ir’. I join it together to make ‘their’. I’ve also realised most dyslexic people aren’t good at ball sports, and school was all ball-sports. I was okay, but I wasn’t as successful as I was in canoeing. Through canoeing, I learnt that by practice, you get better. I realised if you were taught by good people, you will progress, so that’s what I do in everything I do now. If you could teach me something, I’d stay with you until you couldn’t teach me anymore. That’s my little system. I dance tango now, quite well
You play ukulele too, I hear?
And ukulele. Learning how to succeed again after school came from canoeing. I learnt from Allan Edge who went on to become the British team coach. He was moving up the divisions, and I was training with him. I realised if you follow someone good, you get better. That, and the art college really boosted me. I was in two environments I was successful in.
You must have made many rich relationships from it, too.
Yes, I was lucky with that. Tony Forster, I didn’t realise at the time that he was so famous. He was inspirational. I’d not been at college long, and there was a stain glass window in the college, and the light was shining through, making a nice pattern on the floor. Tony said, “Wow, look at that, doesn’t that look great?” and I thought, “So there are people who see things differently.”
Were you ever nervous about pursuing it because of that?
Well, I left school and I had the thought of being a PTI as I was quite sporty, but I went to the art college with my paintings and drawings and got in – and that was that, really. I bungled my way out of school and into college – it’s a bungling thing, really. It wasn’t a set path [laughs].
Nothing wrong with bungling.
I bungle now. That’s why I called the company ‘Fickles’ – I am fickle. I’ll say “This is the way” and someone will show me another, better way. I move with what I see.
What’s your favourite job been?
Still letter design. The Apple Mac has now moved into the design world. Before, when designing an advert, logo etc, I’d have to draw it and say “This is what it looks like.” Now, I present clients with the finished article. It’s totally changed. When I started, there were no computers, so when you had an article in a newspaper or book or whatever, you had to specify the type size. You’d have to calculate the correct size of type or font to fit an area. It was quite technical, figuring out how to make 1000 words fit on half an A4 and look interesting. You developed an appreciation of type. Because we all read type, we are more influenced by the font chosen than we realise. Today people type into a computer, pick a font they like, not realising the font they choose can dictate the feeling of an article, image or word.
And how about the Fickles font – what’s it saying?
I wanted it to be traditional. I have two business – Fickles, and some advertising work. I wanted them both different. My ultimate aim is just to have Fickles, and get back to hand-work where I’m happiest, or designing logotypes for companies. When some people design logos today, they simply type a word, and there it is. But, you might see a nice menu and not know why it’s nice. It’s most likely to do with the font chosen, and the spacing between the letters and lines. There’s a lot going on. Fonts change your perception of a product or a name. That’s what we do when someone comes to us with a new shop front. Like designing the Glorious shop front here – we know Rose, we know what she likes. She also wanted us to paint an acrobat outside holding a teacup, probably swinging upside-down. We also wanted the designs to go all the way up the building. We haven’t gotten there yet.
One day. And Bunyip’s up the road, that’s mine – the needle and button. I like combining type and imagery.
What’s it like walking down the street and seeing your work?
It’s quite unusual. When I design an advert say for The Sunday Times, it’s in the bin on Monday – but a sign will last a long time. What I like about paint is that it ages well. When you go to Italy, you see faded old signs and buildings. The faded look is quite nice. If you stick a vinyl sign on a building, after a few years, it starts cracking and peeling. It doesn’t age well, although it does have its uses. The Glorious sign will be a faded version of what it is now in 50 years time, but it will all fade together. If it had been plastic, it would be rolled up and cracked, and you’d start to see the glue showing underneath.
Do you have a favourite of your own works? You had skeleton arms taking apart the two hearts?
My son Adam works with me as well, and we did think about making automata. It took us quite a bit of work as we made it from scratch – that was our first time. They are quite time-consuming to design and build, and so are quite costly. Earlier this year I went to The Trip Out, which is a bike show for 1970’s easy-rider motorbikes. All the people there got it. I think you need to have an interest in Mexican art, tattoos, vintage type-faces, motor bikes etc.
Why do you think people like that?
I think people today want to have something unique. I noticed at this year’s The Trip Out that there was lots of guys from France and Belgium who had classic, ‘old school’ customised Harley Davidson’s. A customised Harley can cost you a lot of money. These young guys are either very well off, or they put their money and souls into what they like. Before, it was guys in their 50’s who had these bikes, but now it’s young guys embracing the easy-rider imagery and style. It’s great, they’ve taken it on board. I’ve also noticed Northern soul is becoming popular too. It’s quite odd when you were there at the start, and seeing it come back again.
Can you tell me a little about your creative process?
I’ve got a large potting shed in the garden, and a studio in the middle of town, because sometimes we have to produce larger pieces of work. It’s got lots of vintage stuff – an old gramophone, wind-up automata, stuffed toy dog, etc. Normally we’d try to take in what the client is saying, or if I’m doing it for myself, I think about the imagery and the imagery dictates the font. I’ve done it for so long that I almost intuitively know what font will suit the image or colours. For example, if you took an offensive word and did it very flamboyantly with script, you’d still be able to read it, but it would subdue the word. Sometimes they do it in advertising – they juxtapose text and imagery, trying to get a response.
You’ve worked on furniture too, like your ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ chairs.
Yes. Wood is very much like flesh – when you paint a tattoo on a table, it goes together because it’s like a skin tone. I keep metal, old pieces of wood. I don’t want new wood, unless someone wants a new, clean look. We keep old rusty metal, old pieces of wood, etc. We don’t want new wood, unless someone wants a new, clean look.
And you use recycled materials too?
We like to recycle whenever we can. Sometimes you have to buy new screws and such. We have old tools, but sometimes a modern tool just cuts cleaner and quicker. The creative process itself is really just thinking about it, doodling images, looking at materials and lettering, having a play – then I leave it for a little while. The great thing I’ve found with the Apple Mac is I can quickly see if a font works. When we design lettering, we look at the space between letters, too. There is a balance. For example, a capital ‘T’ automatically creates a space for other letters to sit under. An ‘e’ could tuck under the ‘T’. On computers, they’re all equal spaces.
And you mentioned Mexican art – where did that come from?
When I couldn’t read very well, comics were all that I read. My parents bought me lots of comics, and some of the classic horror mags had the Mexican Dead thing going on in them. In fact, I’ve just painted three deer skulls with swirly Mexican patterns on them for a company called Rust and The Wolf. They also asked us to paint half a bomb, with a WW2 glamour lady on the side – you know, like Memphis Belle? We painted half the bomb with the fin sticking up, and they put glass on the top, and now it’s a table. We get involved making really interesting things for them.
Your work reaches into so many different things.
Yes, it’s quite varied, so you never really know. Such as the Mexican skulls. They asked, “Can you paint Mexican art on skulls?”
Why not. You have to research it a bit, see what it looks like – bit like forgery. I’m trying to pretend I’m a Mexican artist.
And music as well, you listen to 1920’s music?
I listen to all sorts. When I started Argentinean tango dancing about ten years ago, my wife and I went to a place in Totnes. We’d never seen or heard of this tango music – it was a bit gypsy folk, Latin. I also like movies with old songs in them. I’ve always liked the old music. I don’t have a favourite – that’s my fickleness.
And what’s next on the horizon?
Using more tattoo imagery. Also, we quite like the old monster movie stuff, like TV Munster’s and The Addam’s Family – they’re fun. We like to have fun with our work. We don’t want to be taken too seriously. Imagine, for example, if there was a picture of Herman Munster’s head – you’d have to find the right lettering. What lettering do you think would suit Herman Munster’s head?
I’m thinking quite… thick?
Yes, thick, strong – it could have bolts in it. It doesn’t have to be painted, either – it could be bolts, electrical stuff, sparks. Is it green? Black?
And what are you working on right now?
We’re working on a wedding sign. We’ve got the acrobat hanging sign to do here at the Glorious. We’ve got three 70’s style hippy, psychedelic poster signs to design. We’re preparing for a custom show next month in Exeter, and we’ve got a Christmas stall in Ashburton. We tried last Christmas with an idea but it was a failure; we had large men with beards and curly moustaches, dressed as fairies for the top of the tree. They were in ballerina positions, with fairy wings and tutus. We thought they’d be a laugh, as opposed to a pretty fairy. Didn’t sell even one – but I still think it was a good idea!