This week we're talking to some men and women whose contributions to local restaurants happen largely behind the scenes.
Sven Sundbaum knows how to do custom vinyl signs, and even banners for restaurants. He painted the giant Zs on the windows at Zeeks Pizza, and the cool mural inside Rain Shadow Meats Squared. He’s also good at poultry, as evidenced by the chickens and roosters adorning signage outside Fat Hen, Restaurant Zoe, and Bainbridge Island’s Heyday Farm.
But Sundbaum is also a rare artist who knows how to do gold-leaf lettering; by some accounts only a few dozen people in the country can do this any more, especially more complex processes like water gilding. That gleaming gold signage on glass is a subtle detail. Even if you don't notice it directly, somehow the eyes and the brain read a little extra throwback elegance into that bar, that restaurant, even that butcher shop. While Sundbaum applies this artistic ability to all kinds of businesses, you’ll see his handiwork in the windows at Havana, Le Pichet, Dot’s Delicatessen, and Ballard Avenue newcomer Percy’s and Co.
To answer the first and most obvious question, yes—Sundbaum uses real gold. When he did the windows at Percy’s recently, he used the most traditional method, known as water gilding. He dissolved a bit of gelatin in hot water and flows it onto the glass. Next whisper-thin sheets of 23-karat gold are applied to the wet surface, flattened in place by the water. The next step: outlining the letters on that surface, then removing the excess with a cotton ball after it dries. The end result is a deep, reflective glimmer, almost like a gold mirror.
There isn’t a way to duplicate it using cut vinyl or digital printing,” he says. There's also the matte gilding process, done with varnish and 18-karat leaf known as lemon gold that lends a slightly darker gleam. You can see that on display at Dot's.“
Sundbaum grew up in Oregon and arrived in Seattle in 1985, working in various sign shops before striking out on his own. He learned the gold lettering techniques from a longtime sign painter back when he was in high school. As technology advanced, he learned how to do the vinyl lettering and digital lettering and everything else made possible by computers. But his ability to hand letter on glass, with paint, with enamel, and certainly with gold leaf, is both a rare skill and one that's in demand with nicer restaurants these days.
“That’s kind of been my niche—people want an old, authentic look, and to be able to see the brush strokes on the glass.”