Brewing Great Signage

Studio Sign bedecks a Pacific Northwest icon
Feb 10 hotels -- McMenamin 1.jpg

Whereas brewpubs serving handcrafted ales represented a relatively short-lived fad in some parts of the country (and one sorely missed by the author), they’ve existed as a staple of Pacific Northwest culture for decades. Mike McMenamin helped lead the charge in 1974, when he joined the “good pub” movement (as opposed to testosterone-laden, rough-and-tumble taverns) by opening Portland’s (OR) Produce Row Café.

After an unsuccessful foray into a distribution business, Mike and his younger brother, Brian, founded the Barley Mill Pub. Even in the McMenamin’s early entrepreneurial days, signage played a key role in creating the company brand (especially neon and murals), and those signs still remain.

Today, the family’s empire has grown to nearly 50 properties across Oregon and Washington. Renee Rank, McMenamins’ marketing manager, said its establishments create a cozy, welcoming vibe, with music – especially the Grateful Dead, and current jam bands and acoustic performers with similar influences – serving as a vital catalyst.
The McMenamins operate seven hotels within the portfolio. All sites share a common bond: They were retrofitted from historic sites. For example, the Kennedy School Hotel features 35 guestrooms that were fashioned from former classrooms of the namesake school built in 1915 (complete with original chalkboards and cloakrooms).
Such distinctive properties would be sorely neglected without novel signage that reinforces their personalities. Lyle Hehn, the company’s inhouse graphic designer, creates the signs’ ambiance with a vibrant, red hue and typefaces that hearken to the era of Art Deco and speakeasys.

He integrates his designs with the McMenamins’ sign fabricator, Studio Sign (Portland). Studio Sign’s owner, Melvin Lee, who’s been in business for 40 years, has produced most McMenamin signage for 20 years. He primarily uses MDO panels, which he primes and handpaints with 1Shot® and Chromatic enamels. To create patterns, he uses an Electro-Pounce machine or pounce bags and a projector, and still develops his lettering with a lettering quill and mahl stick. Over the years, the McMenamins have transitioned their signature sign color from pea green to fire-engine red.

The most ambitious McMenamin hotel property to date, the Crystal Hotel, is slated to open in late spring or early summer 2010. Built in 1911, the site has served as several hotel incarnations, as well as a bath house and nightclub. For that property, Sign Studio plans to fabricate many ID and directional signage, as well as awnings and interior murals.