Literati Finds a Sign
Design and installation were a communal effort
by Steve Gilzow
On a cold, drizzly Tuesday in early December, a six-person crew gently eased a distinctive sign into place above the windows of Literati.
The sign uses giant versions of old-fashioned typewriter keys to spell out the bookstore's name. How it got there is a story of friendship and local networking.
Last spring Literati's owners, Mike and Hilary Gustafson, told their friend Phil Stead of their frustrations in finding a design for their store's sign. Stead, a local author and illustrator of children's books, recommended a friend from his days in art school at the U-M: Oliver Uberti had just left his job as senior designer for National Geographic in Washington, D.C., and was back in town.
In D.C., Uberti had designed the storefront for "The Museum of Unnatural History," the local branch of the literacy organization 826. Since returning to Ann Arbor in 2012, he had contributed design ideas to 826michigan's storefront, "Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair."
"One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the shop is they didn't have enough metal," Uberti recalls. "It's a robot shop, and there should be metal!"
So Uberti turned to Claudette Stern, co-owner of METAL, a fabrication shop and gallery on Felch. "Claudette said, 'You've got to meet W.A.P. John!' So she took me over to W.A.P.'s business, Grafaktri, and introduced me. Between them, they sourced me some scrap metal they weren't using, and that went in the 826 window."
Playing off the image of a manual typewriter in the store's logo, Uberti came up with the idea of a typewriter-key sign. The Gustafsons liked it immediately. "Oliver listened to what we wanted; nothing too flashy or too big; something in line with the scale, something in line with our aesthetic," Hilary says. "Previously we went through numerous designs, and none of them seemed right. Oliver got it on the first try. It was pretty amazing."
To get the exact look he wanted, Uberti studied "tons" of typewriters. He then made
black paper mock-ups of the circular keys he liked and put them up in his house, stepping back to see how they looked at different distances. He describes a Goldilocks process: "The ten-inch diameter seemed too small, twelve inches was too big. Eleven inches was just right."
The sign also had to conform to Historic District Commission guidelines--but that wasn't a problem. "They said it was exactly the kind of sign they want to see in downtown Ann Arbor," Hilary recalls.
To build the sign, Uberti again turned to W.A.P. John. "The pieces are made from powder-coated aluminum," John says, "which gives you that rich, black, rounded look. We cut them with a water jet. We had to go in and hand-soften all the edges. The actual keypads themselves I had made by some people in Detroit. It's turned, high-density urethane foam.
"This stuff will last forever," John adds. "All the connectors and fasteners are stainless steel. You don't want to be going by this sign five years later and see rust coming down. You'd kill yourself."
John says he gave the Gustafsons "a helluva deal" on fabricating and installing the sign. Uberti kept his costs down, too. "I would actually have settled for some book credit," he says.
Hilary smiles at that suggestion. "Oliver offered that, but we said no, we want to do this properly and pay, especially for local people who probably need the dollars."
John's North Main business neighbor, Tom Hosford, welded the sign's support bracket. According to John, the whole thing was "kind of wiggly and delicate" until it was secured to the bracket, so the Gustafsons pitched in to lift it into place.
So did Phil Stead, the person who got the whole communal project rolling. "Seeing the sign go up really made me feel proud to live in Ann Arbor," Stead says, "where so many people are willing to share their creative talents to make great things happen."
[Originally published in January, 2014.]