Potter's Show Sign of Work

Wood & Wood's approach to sign-making, and life, goes beyond the mere creation of attractive products.

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

"Welcome to the Bull Pen!" beams Sparky Potter, standing in the office of Wood & Wood, the sign-making business he has owned with his wife, Peggy, since 1972. Perched on a hillside high above Vermont 100 in Waitsfield, Wood & Wood operates out of a rambling complex of buildings designed and built by the Potters. Their house, complete with German-style tower and ornate fretwork detailing, stands above the workshop, which is entered through huge double doors adorned with more of the Potters' signature woodwork.

Peggy and Sparky Potter, owners of Wood & Wood in Waitsfield, designed and built a rambling complex of buildings where they live and work.

"Nothing's finished," Potter laughs. "We're in our maintenance years right now. But we've learned a lot about raw materials we've used everything known to man. Like the roof we wanted thatch, which we'd seen on visits to Britain. But no one here knows how to thatch, so we decided foam was the closest thing!" Indeed, on closer inspection, it's apparent that the roofs of the Wood & Wood complex are formed from blown foam that seems to cling and hang in the organic shapes of real thatch. "Peg and I are really Old World," says Potter, "and we wanted this place to reek of it!"

Nearby is the Pavilion, where Peggy designs and makes the distinctive wooden bowls for her own business, Casa Madera. Next to it is the Wood Shop, where signs are carved and assembled. "We outgrew this space 10 years ago," says Potter. "Dick Lane, our master carver and foreman, does the big assemblies and laminations at his own place. We use a lot of subcontractors," he continues, "Friends and colleagues we've met over the last 15 or so years who can pick up the slack when we can't handle it here." The signposts and beams are still assembled in the yard. "We do it like this year-round it's a bit of a problem!" confesses Potter. "We're thinking of moving this part of the operation to an indoor space down the hill."

The Potters met as students at St. Lawrence University ("We're designing a new sign system for them now," says Potter). Peggy is originally from Basking Ridge, N.J., and Sparky was born and raised in Wethersfield, Conn. "We both grew up in towns with great American histories," says Potter. "We moved to Vermont together right after college. I'm a skier, and I worked on the ski patrol for our first four winters here, and played with woodwork in the summers.

"We got into signs because there was a need for signs," says Peggy. "We started off making furniture and crafts."

"We would go to the craft fairs, and people started asking us to do house signs for them, Potter adds "Wood & Wood grew from there – slowly! ... Our breakthrough piece was the sign for the Ice House in Burlington," he continues. "Our first big client was Sugarbush Ski Resort."

The company still makes forays into other aspects of woodworking. "We do a lot of doors," says Potter. "I love doors – they're a way-overlooked part of the greeting card for a business. We've built a bunch of bars and back-bars, and tables tables people will talk about, I guess you'd call them."

"We started on this ping-pong table and just built on that," says Sparky Potter of the large table that is the spiritual center of the business. Pictured from left: Kim Hopper (marketing), Sparky, and Linda Collins (assistant/bookkeeper).

Wood & Wood is responsible for attention-grabbing signs all over the country. The company creates the signs for Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream stores. Visitors to ski resorts like Stratton Mountain, Stowe or Mad River Glen are guided by Wood & Wood-designed sign systems. Their signs can be high-profile, like the giant bear-emblazoned plaque that announces the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory in Shelburne; or restrained, like those at Killington Resort. The sign company has national corporations like Universal Studios, Coca-Cola and Bruegger's Bagel Bakery on their client list as well as local Vermont businesses like Mad River Canoe and Wake Robin Retirement Community.

Wood & Wood also does work for clients outside the United States. "We've done a lot of work in Montreal," says Potter, "and we've shipped a lot of things to England." Potter sent a table in the shape of a fish to an English friend with royal connections, "and I think it might have ended up with the Queen Mother," he ventures.

"This is a good example of the Wood & Wood style," Potter says, pointing to a Ben & Jerry's sign hanging outside the shop. The sign is bright and visual, with ice-cream cones and lettering in the familiar Ben & Jerry's cartoon style standing out in high relief. "There's a lot of contrast, a lot of relief and a lot of shadows. We try to make crafted, memorable signs," explains Potter. This particular sign is a prototype. "We always field-test things – we insist on it in our design process," he continues. "This one is being tested for shadows."

Stepping inside the shop, he indicates another sign hanging above the door, a long ribbon carved out of wood, with a Victorian-style painting in the center. "American Girl in Chicago asked us, 'Can you make a maple ribbon?'" he says. "So we did it in foam first, then went to wood to prove to them and ourselves that we could do it. We did seven of them in the end." Part of the yard called the "Wall of Wonder" is set aside for testing the longevity of signs. "We're very deliberate as to how long things last – we're looking for seven to 10 years," Potter says. "People respect that.

"We love change and challenge," he continues. "Everyone here is a designer, whether they call themselves that or not. We design by team. Everything you see here has been juried by our crew. We'll mature a concept through the full-time crew of eight to 10 people and anyone who happens to walk through the door. It's the key to a successful concept. And we've also become good at 'value engineering' taking a client's unaffordable idea and fitting it into a budget. That kind of problem-solving is pretty thrilling."

Carpenter Eric Joslin (left) and master carver Dick Lane discuss signage in the Wood & Wood shop. Owner Sparky Potter says of Lane, "He's one of the best in the business."

The first floor of the shop is taken up by the print room and the computer/layout room. The office is upstairs. The large worktable in the center, almost buried under files, books and drawings, is the spiritual heart of Wood & Wood. "We started on this ping-pong table," grins Sparky, "and just built on that."

Busy on one side is Linda Collins, Potter's assistant and the company's bookkeeper. "I've only been here a little over a year," she says. "It's hectic, but everyone here is awesome. We all like working together, which makes it great. The whole creative process is fantastic too. We're all involved – if I've had it in the office, I'll go down to the print room and gold-leaf for a while."

Dick Lane, who has been with the company for 25 years ("I'm a lifer, you might say"), comes upstairs. Lane is Wood & Wood's estimator, carver and foreman. "I started off doing part-time construction work, then I ran into Sparky. I thought this would be another part-time job, but 25 years later. ... I'm a psychology major, which fits in perfectly with working here!" jokes Lane.

"None of us have any art or trade school background," says Potter. "We were all liberal arts students looking for something to do. Everyone brings their life experience to the table. We've taught each other about quality, innovation, service. Dick is incredible, a messiah! I think he's one of America's best craftsmen. And I would put George [Dunn, graphic artist] and Brett [Belnap, painter] up there with him. Patty Phister has 20 years' art experience now. Her sense of style, of what's right and wrong, is amazing."

The Potters have passed on their incredible creative enthusiasm to their children as well. Their eldest child, Charlotte, is 19 and attends Alfred University in New York state. "She's a true shop-rat," says Potter proudly, "and so's Grace." Grace, 17, attends Harwood Union High School. "It's great having kids around," Potter smiles. "They and their friends have worked for Wood & Wood since they were 12 years old. Vermont kids are so tuned in to design knowledge, it's amazing." The Potters' son, Lee, 15, also attends Harwood Union.

The next generation of Potters seems set to enter the business. This year, Charlotte and her dad started work on a new concept, Fridge Follies, that uses magnetic sign technology to create unique picture-frames for refrigerators. "I kicked off Fridge Follies as an incubator business for her," explains Potter. "Then when she went back to college and Gracie jumped in with both feet."

The Potters love to travel, and their many visits to Mexico, Europe and other parts of this country have had a beneficial effect on the business. "Everywhere we go we look for inspiration," says Potter. "We take pictures of signs and anything else that grabs us." The result is a collection of absorbing photo albums that Potter uses as a valued design resource. One book shows English pub signs and unusual buildings; another focuses on Germany.

"Stratton Mountain was looking for something unusual," remembers Peggy. "They came and looked through the books. They saw a photo of a clock tower in Rothenburg, Germany, and we reproduced it for them."

The Potters' home and the business that revolves around it is a warm, welcoming and even slightly magical place. The house itself could almost be the work of some medieval European craftsman, with its exposed beams and undulating carvings. "I love Tolkien," Potter says. "Reading those books taught me about visuals and about drawing things that I had imagined. I don't ever want to be a cookie-cutter designer.

"Eveyone here is a designer, whether they call themselves that or not," says Sparky of the eight to 10 employees at Wood & Wood. From left: Jessica Binder, Patty LaBarge and Jessica Churchill.

"We're a small company on purpose," he continues. "We're trying to find clients who have an educated look at the marketplace. The best kind of relationships are the ones that come to you through referral, like American Girl. But because we're a small company we have to go in through the side door or the back door. We're not big enough to go through the front. There are years when you don't have to pick up the phone, and other years that are just the opposite," he goes on. "We've just decided to have an in-house sales department."

Wood & Wood's approach to sign-making goes beyond the mere creation of attractive products. "We do site-specific signs – it's brave, but smart," explains Potter. "For example, with Ben and Jerry's we take each site and jury it for the appropriate materials to use there. And we were hired by a company owned by Robert Redford just to test and recommend materials to use in a cinema chain they were building – clean, green materials. We like to use wood, metal and stone best of all," he continues. "We try to steer clients towards the real stuff. We even had an impact on Universal Studios. They wanted us to make them a giant airplane propeller for the Isle of Discovery in their Florida theme park. They wanted it in cast polymer, but we persuaded them to use wood instead."