Davis Designs the Burg

by M.T. Decker

Davis Design, located at 1404 New York Avenue is the place for commercial design. Be it traditional hand-painted signs, or high tech printed matter, they have what you need.

When I walked into their shop, I was greeted by Owner/Operator Thomas Davis. Davis is a traditionally trained sign painter who doesn’t miss the irony of how he got here.

“I really have to give props to Patina Messerschmidt,” he explains with a laugh. In high school, he was studying Commercial Arts at James Rumsey, and Ms. Messerschmidt was one of his teachers.

She was the one who would give him assignments that involved letters and text. She opened up the world of commercial arts to him and even went as far as suggesting that he go into sign painting.

Thomas laughs about it now, but back then commercial arts was about a grade and trying to find a way to make a living as an artist.

Fast forward three years and Thomas Davis met Brad Sensel, of Sensel Signs, where Mr. Davis learned the art of sign making.

“Looking back there is an irony to be found that I had found where I was supposed to be,” Thomas admits.

“These days I want to go back for nostalgia purposes,” Thomas admitted. But times have changed. “Now people need instant work and ‘I need this by Friday,’ is a more common order.”

He still does hand-lettered signs for customers who want that traditional flare.

“We want the signs to look cool, but we also want it to be useful,” he added.

Things have changed a lot since Thomas started out in the business. “When I started everything was airbrushed and hand carved,” he explains.

“I have done some hand carving, but there isn’t much call for it these days.”

While many people seek out his skills and flair, Thomas knows that that is not the general direction of the business these days. Since he wants to give his clients as many options as possible, Thomas brought Erica Wujcik onto the team.

“Erica specializes in graphics design and is a wiz with Photoshop.”
This gives clients options not only in media but in styles as well.

One of the signs in the front office says “Design Is Everything,” which is something Thomas strongly believes. The sign is designed so that you can only read it head on.

“Designing signs is all about getting the message across in two seconds,” he explains. “If you don’t have it in two seconds, you’ve wasted your time and the designer’s time.”

You want the sign to identify the business, convey the message and– if possible– convey something about the company to the reader.

“I always ask my customers to proofread the work,” Thomas adds because he is more focused on the images and how the letters flow together. He is worried about blocking and balance and uses the wording he is given, so if the text isn’t right in the request it’s not going to be right on the sign.

Fast forward many years and Thomas Davis is now running his own design shop now that Brad Sensel has retired. Now instead of just design, he’s had to create the space to do business and create art.

“I could have gone with a sterile front office,” he admitted, but it just wasn’t him. “I wanted a creative space, a space that would allow us to create, and for customers to see the possibilities,” he explains as I looked around the reception area at Davis designs.

The walls are covered in art of every form imaginable — signs that are waiting for pick up, artwork done by Thomas, his friends, or artists he admires. Even the light fixture on the wall is meaningful and artistic.

The office is where Thomas tries to be creative, so he has surrounded himself with works of art. Some of them are ones he painted, some are the works of friends, while others are works he admires.

The mix of artwork and signs represents many different styles – with a commonality in theme. “I like to create spaces of looseness and improv, create places of detail, and areas of dis-focus, leaving you not sure what to focus on.”

Sometimes artwork is what is shown, but sometimes its also about void space where you fill in everything except on area.

“I’ve been asked to do paintings – improv style paintings – find the theme and protect that part and then paint around that part.

“I’ll plan ahead and mask it out, and then I have that moment of reveal where I pull off the masking layer to reveal what was underneath – and by then it is forgotten.”

The same is true no matter what media you’re working in. Another feature of the front office is the large printer that stands off to the side of the office.

When I asked about the printer, Thomas explained that a lot of people are less interested in hand lettering and more interested in fast turn around. Let’s face it, printing is more affordable and a lot quicker.

“I’d debated about getting the printer,” he admitted. Then he took a look at how much he was spending to outsource his printing and realized, there wasn’t really a question — it was needed.

With the printer, they can supply more solutions for their customers in-house and provide the turnaround they need.

Thomas Davis knows he is truly blessed having found a place where he can make a living as an artist.

Most people aren’t that blessed. “That’s what I try to remind myself, ‘hey, I get to create stuff’.”

Before, people would say ‘This is what I want, but I want your flair.’ No more– people are looking for a cost-effective solution.

“I was trained as a traditional sign painter — gold leaf and classic signs — but there are different levels. We’re trying our best to explore new ideas, finding ways to use archaic equipment — it’s rare that a sign gets sent out for completion.”

“For me, it’s about balance – I tell the customer – ‘Please proof it, I don’t read your sign, I look at the shape of the letters and try to think compositionally about image.

“Design is everything — we’re trying to make a sign with personality‚Ķ”

When talking about his work, he points out. “We want it to look cool/be pretty, but we also want it to be useful.”

Davis Design prides itself on listening to the customer and giving them the design they want at a price they can afford.

So if Design is Everything, you can find everything at Davis Design at 1404 New York Ave, in Martinsburg West Virginia.

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