Signs of the times
Chico sign maker’s work provides a window into local business history
One fateful day in 1972, as the sun set on the Sierras on the eve of Pioneer Week, Charles Withuhn followed three beer trucks into Chico and decided he’d found home.
Withuhn, then in his 20s, said he’d spent a few years traveling and doing odd jobs since graduating from UC Berkeley and was looking to plant some roots: “I was having a great time but felt like I wasn’t part of anything that was going anywhere.”
With the long-term goal of settling in Chico, he set out on the short-term goal of finding employment. After a miserable day of going door-to door unsuccessfully seeking any available work, he sat exhausted on a bench.
“Then I looked up, and I saw a sign,” Withuhn said, speaking literally rather than metaphorically. “It was a beat-up, dirty, old sign, just completely shot. So I ran in and told the guy I’d repaint it and make it good as new for $50, and he agreed.”
Seeing further opportunity, Withuhn applied for a business license and, with a bicycle and a few quarts of paint, founded Signs and Graphic Design, which for more than 40 years has provided some of Chico’s most iconic imagery and outfitted businesses large and small.
Withuhn recently sold the business to longtime Chico residents and entrepreneurs Christine Bieberly and Richard Collins, but he remains on staff.
“I love making signs, but it can be demanding for one person to get enough work to keep a whole crew busy,” Withuhn explained in the office portion of the business’ shop, with the new owners also present. “So I advertised that I wanted to do it this way, to sell the business but keep on working to ensure a smooth transition, and they answered. My goal is to stay on and at least work a few hours a week as long as they’ll have me.”
Bieberly and Collins interjected in unison, “We’ll keep him!”
Bieberly came to Chico 12 years ago as a refugee from “large corporate America” and has spent part of her time here consulting local businesses. Collins formerly ran a company that helped small businesses do retirement planning.
Bieberly is particularly enthralled with the mechanics of the sign business, she said: “Of course the image tells the story, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the image, with measurements, where it’s going and what needs to be done to hold it in place. How all the little pieces and parts fit together into a big puzzle is fascinating to me.
“Then, it’s really rewarding to drive down the street and say, ‘We made that sign.’”
“What really appealed to me is that signs are a visual display of the community,” Collins said. “They tell stories about the people who want the signs and the people who build them. There’s great history in that, and signs can really display character. When you have great artists like Charles doing these signs, it adds a great deal of value to the community.”
Signs and Graphic Design’s Commercial Avenue shop is part modern production facility and part museum, with signs of all sizes, shapes, colors and material makeup decorating the walls. Hanging elsewhere and everywhere are framed photos and collages of familiar images Withuhn and his colleagues have created and installed, from favorite local restaurants to large constructions proclaiming Corning as the “City of Olives” to passersby on Interstate 5.
Some of the more exotic pieces include a mechanized, hand-painted sign from a city of Chico safety campaign featuring caricatures of city officials as the cast of Gilligan’s Island, and a large neon sign that, Withuhn proudly pointed out, blinks to read “Delight In Signs.”
There are also plenty of signs from before 1972, as the company’s history goes much deeper. In 1985, Withuhn partnered with Wilson Wellsfry, and Sign and Graphic Design absorbed Wellsfry Sign Co. Wellsfry had been making signs since 1945, and the company was founded decades earlier by his father, Walter, a sign maker since 1918.
Collins said the collection of signs gives glimpses not only into Chico’s past, but also into the history of sign making itself. “You can see the progression in technology over the years, from hand-painting to using a projector to using graphic prints.”
Withuhn is quick to share the stories behind the signs, as well as his adventures in sign making, as he gives the tour. One of his favorite stories, though he no longer has the sign, dates back to 1980: “I got a call from this guy who said he’d like a sign painted but didn’t have much money,” Withuhn said before adding with a laugh, “which is a pretty typical line we hear.”
“So I pedaled my bike over to this steel building in the middle of nowhere, it’s mid-summer and really hot, and this guy pops out of a 10-foot-diameter milk vat holding a Black and Decker drill in one hand and a rotary wire brush in another.”
The man showed him a logo, and that night Withuhn hand-painted and airbrushed a 6-by-2-foot sign cut from half-inch plywood. The man turned out to be Ken Grossman, and the sign was the first to publicly proclaim the existence of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Withuhn said. Signs and Graphic Design continues to do much of the brewery’s sign work today.