Profile: Jeff Canham

The visual language of this San Francisco-based typographer’s graphic style is heavily influenced by his love of traditional hand sign-painting and the Victorian-era typography still prevalent in his adopted city. John Stones talks to him

California dreaming has become a bit of a threadbare business of late, but one place where it is alive and well is in the hands of typographer Jeff Canham. Steering clear of pastiche and one-dimensional retro, his graphic style plugs into the evocative charm of vintage West Coast typography to seductive effect.

Canham is not Californian by birth. He studied graphic design in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and then messed around looking for work, doing a short stint as a roofer, which he realised ’wasn’t much of a career path’. Then came the lucky break and a job at Surfer magazine in Los Angeles, the very same that David Carson cut his teeth on in the early 1990s, before designing the seminal Ray Gun. ’It was never my intention to move to Southern California,’ says Canham. ’But I grew up in Hawaii, surfing a lot, so it was a dream job. I was very proud that I had the same telephone extension that Carson had.’

He was soon promoted to art director, but after five years began to get itchy feet. ’It got a bit redundant – there were people who had been there 20 years and I didn’t want that to happen to me,’ he says. ’So I quit and moved to San Francisco and began freelancing. I did a book for Chronicle Books and continued doing the typography-based artwork that I had started doing some time before.’

A chance encounter with New Bohemia Signs, one of only two companies that still produce traditional hand-painted signs in the US (both were founded by the same people), led to something of a life change. ’I just fell in love with what they were doing,’ he says. So much so that he joined New Bohemia Signs as an apprentice, learning the ins and out of traditional hand sign-painting. He stayed for five years, until, as with Surfer magazine, he felt he had learnt as much as he was going to.

Canham still has a close and warm relationship with New Bohemia Signs, it’s a year since he left and set up on his own. He now shares a studio with three woodworkers, one of whom handcrafts surfboards, while the others produce furniture. ’It’s great to have a place to build all my panels, but the pure graphic design stuff I do at home, where it is less dusty.’ Proximity has also given rise to some collaborations, such as the quirky Avian Establishments for the Urban Bird (painted bird boxes) he created with studio-mate Luke Bartels. ’We have the same sense of humour,’ he says.

Now Canham devotes himself equally to design, art projects and sign-painting, and isn’t bothered about categorisation, other than the suggestion, with a sarcastic laugh, ’Renaissance man’. ’It depends on the kind of job I am doing. I think my graphic design training upped the level of my sign-painting, and vice versa. I try to make the work function on more than one level, so that it is not digested in one take.’

Likewise, he is happy to straddle the digital-analogue divide, saying that there will be an element of both in all of his work, and that he was lucky to be trained in the late 1990s, when ’you could be taught Photoshop and Illustrator alongside traditional stuff like cutting and pasting’. Either way, his adopted city continues to be a big inspiration. ’I love all the Victorian-era typography that’s still around San Francisco,’ he says, adding that he often travels around taking pictures and notes. Others, too, are waking up to the charm of the rapidly disappearing craft of hand-painted signs, and he has recently been interviewed for the film, The Sign Painters, due for release next year.

Commercial design briefs have tended to come from local surf-related business, but there’s been increasing interest internationally, mainly from Japan and Australia, and from bigger brands, such as Patagonia and Snapple. ’I will do anything as long as it is interesting,’ he says.

Latest articles