Meet the man behind SF City Hall's golden letters, other memorable Bay Area signs

ByJason Beal KGO logo
Sunday, June 4, 2023
Meet the man behind memorable Bay Area signs
Over the years, Steve Vigeant has been responsible for many of the large, unique, or recognizable signs around the Bay Area.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- In his sunlit workshop in West Oakland, multimedia sign-maker Steve Vigeant, his clothes covered in paint splatter, adds the finishing touches to a large stag -- a sign commissioned by one of his latest clients.

"It's important to me to take historic representation of signs beyond just the superficial," Vigeant says. "It shows in the materials themselves, whether it's gold, wood, metal. (It) tells a story that goes beyond just, say, fonts and logos."

Vigeant is the owner of Berkeley Signs, and has been creating signs all over the Bay Area for four decades.

"People believing in me to do something is very inspiring," he adds.

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Vigeant went to high school in New Jersey, where he would draw cartoons that he saw in the newspaper. People described him as "a Xerox machine" because he was so good at reproducing them. Eventually his dad, who had a real estate company, tasked Vigeant with creating signs for homes. From there, his career as a sign painter began.

"It was kind of an avid thing in the 80s to be able to repaint signs that had been done in the 40s, 50s, 60s, that were all faded," he says. "I started to repaint these weathered signs, I started to travel around the country doing it. I came out to California, did a few signs along the way. Chicago, New Orleans, did a lot in New Jersey, even in Texas, repainting old signs in industrial areas."

Vigeant describes himself in those days as a young man driving around in his 1967 Plymouth Fury station wagon, looking for signs that needed repainting. He would work for low wages, even exchanging his services for other services like repair work for his car.

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Vigeant said, "It wasn't until I found other sign painters who cared about real sign work, real sign painting, that I branched out and became a sign maker, which took about 10 years."

Once he settled in the Bay Area, Vigeant set out to make his mark in the community.

"There was a neighborhood in Richmond, California, that had been ravaged by history, I guess, in 1981," he says. "There were some struggling new businesses that wanted to have signage, and I wound up painting all the businesses around there. It was an opportunity for me to try to create something new that was helpful to the community. That is a good feeling."

Over the years, Vigeant has been responsible for many of the large, unique, or recognizable signs around the Bay Area.

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"For a long time I had some signs along Route 80 and 880 that were very well known," he says. "I'd done the Floor Store, a gigantic billboard on the corner MacArthur and San Pablo Avenue, Maz glass."

Some of his proudest works include Cotton Mill Studios and East Bay Restaurant Supply in Oakland, Macbeath Hardwood and Acme Bar in Berkeley, Cole Hardware in San Francisco and San Francisco Creamery Co. in Walnut Creek.

But his most famous sign is one that has been photographed tens of thousands of times (or more) since its installation.

"I did the traditional gold leaf lettering for San Francisco City Hall, right where you walk out after you're married," he says. "It was going to be a sticker, but through my contacts I was able to have the opportunity to do traditional gold leaf there."

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Vigeant adds with emphasis, "Gold leaf belongs on that window."

Steve believes that old techniques of sign making still have a place alongside the new and emerging technology that make the craft as accessible as ever. Regardless of the method, he thinks the goal of sign making should always remain the same.

"What's the best way to do something that creates the human effect that we find appealing?" He says. "Graphic design is beyond just pictures. It's a whole ambiance of how we present ourselves and how we want to be seen."

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