Alex May Hughes
Posted on February 07 2018
This week, we were lucky enough to catch up with the amazing Alex May Hughes - sign painter and glass gilder extraordinaire. Alex developed an interest in traditional Victorian signage and mirrors whilst studying Typography at The London College of Communication, and went on to take an apprentice with acclaimed London sign writer Pete Hardwicke where she began painting signs for numerous shops and restaurants in East London. She works almost exclusively with precious metals on glass and has a penchant for all things related to The Simpsons.
Alex has exhibited her work at several solo and group shows, and has been commissioned by a myriad of clients from private customers to businesses, including the much-loved Palm Vaults sign.
Newnham: What were you like growing up? And what did you think you wanted to do?
May Hughes: I asked my mum, she said I was 'testing' in my teens which is code for a bit wild - I think i was very headstrong, and was mostly doing what I wanted, when I wanted. I finally managed to channel that energy into something creative and productive - I'm also a middle child which makes me super competitive
In terms of what I wanted to do, it's not something I ever thought about much. I always enjoyed using my hands to make things - I think at one point I wanted to be a physiotherapist!
Newnham: Can you tell us a little about your career to date?
May Hughes: After finding sign painting at the end of my degree, I graduated from Uni and managed to find some classes and a great network through Sam who runs Better Letters. I apprenticed under Pete Hardwicke and that allowed me to experiment with sign painting and explore techniques. I also worked out pretty quickly that working on glass with gold leaf was the aspect that really interested me most so I started focusing on that full time, and I’ve been doing it full time for about three years now.
Newham: The work you do is pretty unique - what drew you to that career?May Hughes: Working with my hands was always important, a lot of the work at uni was often focused around computer based design for web etc - I mostly stayed in the screen printing department - I adored the instant physical gratification of it. The more I learnt about sign painting and working with materials like gold leaf and mother of pearl, the more I fell in love with it.
Newnham: What are the pros and cons of your job? And what are some of the favourite jobs you have worked on?
May Hughes: Making work I'm proud of that means a lot to the customers is always lovely. I do a lot of signs for weddings and new babies and it’s nice to be a teeny-tiny part of those celebrations. I can’t think of many cons - working with glass and chemicals are starting to take their toll on my hands but I don't really mind.
Some of my favourite jobs have been doing shop signs for Tessa Metcalfe and Palm Vaults, a book cover for penguin, large scale work for pubs like The Anchor Tap and Wenlock, and the magazine cover for Stylist was amazing too.
Newnham: What and who do you get inspiration from?
May Hughes: All over the place the really. I'm always looking out for colour combinations that work really well or a nice bit of lettering. London has such a rich sign painting history, I'll often take trips to buildings or pubs to see a specific sign or window. A lot of the materials I use are naturally occurring (gold, mother of pearl, butterfly wings) and you can’t really beat nature for inspiration - the colours, materials and textures are infinite and sumptuous.
Newnham: What would your dream job be?
May Hughes: Ah that's a good question - I really don't know! I'd love to own my own pub when I'm older, it would be the perfect place to painting signs for.
Newnham: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
May Hughes: 'Bird by bird' - I can be pretty impatient and sometimes bite off more than I can chew which can be overwhelming, but I try to remember this phrase from the book of the same name by the writer Anne Lamott. It basically just means: one thing at a time. (Here's the quote: 'Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.')
Newnham: What are your goals for 2018?
May Hughes: I'm hoping to have my third solo show this year which is something I really enjoy, it’s great to take the time to make work for myself and then have a big party so everyone can see it.
Newnham: If you could go back in time - what advice, if any, would you offer a teenage Alex?
May Hughes: Probably to give my poor mum a break.