Leia Bell graduated with a BFA in Printmaking and started out making poster art for bands at a local concert venue. Now she and her husband Phil run Signed & Numbered. Since its founding in 2008, Signed & Numbered has been through a number of iterations, but it’s now a custom frame shop and art gallery. While Leia and Phil both wished they’d gotten business degrees (or something similar), they’ve found ways to stay relevant by noticing what people want and adapting to meet their customers’ needs.
In our conversation, Leia shares:
- How she “got discovered”
- How she and Phil run their business as a married couple and the different ways they earn a living
- Ways they’re able to help artists in their community
Can you give us a brief overview of who you are as an artist and what you do?
My major in school was art and printmaking. After I graduated I didn’t know what I would use my degree for, or if I would even use it, I just knew I was going to do art. My parents were willing to help me with college so I’m like, Alright, I’ll be an art major.
Nowadays I don’t know if I would actually recommend that to people who want to go into art because if you’re an artist, you’re always going to be an artist, you don’t necessarily have to pay for art school— you just do your thing. Especially nowadays when everything is online and you can just put yourself out there. I wish I had gotten a business degree or something that would help me push it to the next level.
But I got this degree in printmaking and at the same time I was going to see a lot of shows at Kilby Court, which is a music venue downtown. Phil [Sherburne], who is now my husband, owned that place. We met and started hanging out. I asked if I could help because he seemed stressed with the business and he’s like, Can you help me make flyers for the shows? And I was like, Oh, sure. So I started doing just black and white Xerox flyers and then he’s like, Don’t you have an art degree in printing? Why don’t you screen print these flyers?
He helped me set up a studio down at Kilby Court and I just started printing hand-bill sized posters because we were putting them up around town and there’s limited space on telephone poles and at coffee shops. I was doing them in small sizes and really short editions, maybe 20 or 30, and the rest we’d give out at the show.
So we did that for a few years and then I “got discovered.” I found this online community called Gigposters.com (which is no longer) and they were having a convention in Austin. So we’re like, Let’s just go to Austin and check it out. I brought all my stuff with me and these poster collector guys who wrote The Art of Rock were writing a new book called The Art of Modern Rock and they saw my stuff there and bought everything I had with me and put me in their book. And these other collector guys from England saw that was happening and they bought everything else that was on the wall behind me.
I didn’t have any expectations going down there other than I wanted to meet some of the other art poster nerds who did the same thing as me. From there, I started having people collect my stuff and before I even made them, they’d say, I want number 21 out of the edition — all the number 21s you make. So I had that going for a while.
At this time Phil and I were also still running the venue and had one, and then two and then found out we were having a third kid. We were like, We need a day job. And we were getting really burned out on the shows every night. We basically lived there at the club and it was just getting to be too much. And we were feeling kind of old because it’s an all ages club, so most of the people there are under 21. We just wanted to move on and Phil was done with it. So he sold the venue to an old employee who we trusted and it’s still going now. This year is the 20th anniversary.
How long ago did you sell it?
In 2008. Phil started it in 1999.
When we sold it we were thinking about maybe moving from here but we didn’t really know. We decided after thinking on it that we really liked the schools so we’d try to find something else to do in Salt Lake. And because I had been doing the poster thing for so long and had met so many other poster artists, we had this huge collection of posters. So we basically started this little gallery called Signed & Numbered to sell limited edition prints from all these artists I had met along the way.
Did you buy all those or were they given to you?
Both. Some were traded, some were personal collections. And I spoke to the artists who were friends and said, Hey, we’re opening this gallery, would you want to consign your work here? Most of the art was on consignment. We had enough that it filled the space in the basement of this record store downtown.
We were there for almost a year and people kept asking, How do I get this framed? I love the poster but I want to hang it on my wall in a frame, I don’t want to put pins in it. Since Phil was a carpenter (he did that before he did the music venue) he’s like, I can build a frame, that seems easy enough.
So he started building frames for people’s posters and it just took off. The frames ended up becoming more of our business than the posters and we grew out of our space. We had a little woodshop out West that was really gross, but we wanted a place where we could do everything together. Then we found this building [their current shop] in south Salt Lake.
Salt Lake is really strict about where woodshops can be, but south Salt Lake, they wanted businesses here. There weren’t very many at the time when we took over the space. So they were like, We’ll change the zoning for you and everything. We had our little store and gallery in the front and the woodshop in the back.
As you see, it’s not like that anymore because we ended up outgrowing this space too, so we had to move our woodshop further west. It’s about five minutes down the road in more of an industrial area. We just have our woodshop there where we make the frames and we drive them back and finish them up in the store.
Now a lot of our business is online. At this point probably 60% to 70% of what we do is selling frames online.
And it seems like you also have a lot of work from artists for sale in your store.
Yes, there are not nearly as many posters from all over anymore because after so many years of being focused on the framing, it was hard to keep up on bringing in new art all the time. But we try and keep it to local artists and are trying to get back into it because I prefer that side of it, rather than just the monotonous frames every day. We’re kind of in a transition period.
So what’s next do you think?
The hard part is that even though so much of our business is online, it is getting harder and harder to sell online because everyone expects free shipping and you have to compete with Amazon and it’s impossible. We keep having to raise prices, give free shipping and all that stuff, but we don’t really make anything online.
We’ve been trying to scale it back because the only way we can actually make money and thrive as a business is when we bring in local customers. We can’t decide if maybe we should bring the woodshop back and stop doing mass production. You can’t have it both ways — you’re either a manufacturer or you’re an artist. It’s hard to do both and make money out of it. And we’re trying to pay people a living wage at the same time.
People online aren’t really willing to pay what it’s actually worth. Our frames are made from scratch, starting with the raw wood. We mill it all, sand it, putty it and they all have finished corners, which means there’s not a seam on the corner. They’re all designed by hand and touched by ten people through the process. But people who buy things online just want the cheapest thing.
So I much prefer focusing on people who come see our place locally and see that we’re actual people who are making things by hand.
How are people finding you locally?
Locally, we don’t advertise. Word of mouth 100%.
I think it’s people seeing something in a friend’s house and saying, Where did you get that done? And they say, Signed & Numbered. Because the frames do stand out from other frames. You can tell they’re different. We’ve also had stuff in different restaurants around town. That’s another way that people find us. It’s literally just word of mouth.
And then going back to the storefront and working more with artists, can you tell us about your plans for that?
Yeah, I would like for the focus to be back on the gallery side. Bring in more art as soon as the online thing settles down and we aren’t doing as much online. We’ve just been so overwhelmed.
We were doing so much mass production on Etsy that the volume was too high and that’s why we needed a bigger shop. But I feel like there will be an inevitable slowdown with us having to raise prices and people will just be like, I’m going to find something else. We’re going to scale that back and hopefully have room to bring in more art.
By bringing in more art from different local artists, do you think you’ll be a good platform to help them out?
Yeah, I really like being involved in the local art scene. And if artists who are doing a show here can’t really afford framing for all their pieces, we loan them frames. If it sells, they pay us for it. If it doesn’t sell, they give it back to us.
That’s something that I enjoy doing to help out the art community because I really hate going to shows and seeing people’s art in shitty Ikea frames. It bums me out. This piece is so cool and it’s in this plastic frame — it’s a bummer.
We’ll also build frames that don’t have a finish on them so they’re a lot cheaper and artists can afford to frame their stuff professionally instead of in plastic.
So the artwork that’s in your shop right now, is that on consignment?
Everything in the shop is consignment, yeah.
And how do you bring those artists in?
Currently Andy [Joy Chase], who is in there [points to the store], she’s an artist too. She talks to artists and asks them to bring stuff.
We like to keep it all limited-edition stuff, that’s why we don’t really sell photography. Because there are so many photographers and we didn’t want to open up that can of worms and have people come in saying, Hey, will you sell my photos? Not everyone can do a limited edition run of prints, etchings, screen prints, woodblocks or whatever. So if we keep it to that, it keeps with the name, Signed & Numbered. It has to be limited edition and signed prints that fit with our model.
Are there other ways artists can get into your store to show their work?
People can just come in or email us their work. I’m down to look at stuff. But I like finding and asking them to show. I like going to Craft Lake City and other festivals and being like, Hey, your stuff is cool, you should bring that to our store. But it’s kind of like pulling teeth because it’s hard to get a lot of artists to actually bring stuff in. I’ve ask some to bring over their art and they just never bring it in.
And then what about your art? Because you started out doing all of those posters and spending a lot of creative energy doing that. So what’s your focus right now?
After we sold the music venue, we both needed a break from that whole scene. And my kids were going through school so doing the framing was a nice diversion and a change from what I was doing. I enjoyed making art but I was feeling pigeon-holed as a poster artist and people would say, Can you make this look like a fake poster?
I don’t know, I was just like, I’m tired of the posters, I want to get away from it. So I didn’t do art for a long time and I’m slowly getting back into it. The last poster I had done was in 2010, but then I got persuaded to do the Kilby Court 20th anniversary poster. So that will be the first one I’ve done in nine years. I’m a little nervous. I’m like, I hope I remember how to print posters. [Laughs]
Is that the Death Cab for Cutie poster we’ve seen around town?
Yeah. I’ve done the digital design already because they had to have that in a day. He’s like, By the way, we need it tomorrow. And I was like, Okay.
I did the digital design but now I have to screen print it. But the screen print will look like the digital design because I do the same process where I layer it like I would the ink. So each color layer is a different drawing.
So beyond that being used for the concert, you’re also doing a limited edition run?
Yeah. I used to put the posters up in coffee shops because back then there wasn’t Instagram so that’s where you found out about events, going around and seeing a flyer on a billboard or on a telephone pole. And for Kilby Court we had drawers of cassette tapes people would send and they’d call and try to book a show. Nobody does that anymore. The whole way it’s done has changed.
Now I think posters are done more as a commemorative collector’s item at the show. So those will be sold at the show.
How many will you make?
I’m going to do 100. I don’t want to do an insane amount. I print by hand, so if I print more than that it hurts my hands. I got tendinitis a few years ago and now I get it again really easily. So that’s about my max.
Le Tigre. I like this one because it was drawn from a photo of my 2 older sons (now 17 and 15) and a friend jumping on a bed. The image gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling about innocence and youth in general. —Leia Bell
Did you have any other creative outlets during your break from posters? Or did you really just switch it all off?
I mean, I was doing stuff, designing products for the store, designing the website and things like that.
I was also doing these paintings on lunch bags for my kids. It was just kind of fun, but they ended up being pretty cool so after they were used I would frame them. I had a show of those a couple of years ago and sold all of them. Other than that, little paintings here and there just for fun.
Creatively and inspiration-wise, what fuels you and where does that come from?
I like photography too, so most of my work comes from photographs I take. When I was younger, before kids, it was young people at parties. I liked the way I could take the photograph and edit out any of the fuzz and unnecessary things when I drew it. I was starting with this photo but simplifying it and bringing it down to the simple lines, as simple as I could. It’s more of a cartoon style.
Then as I had kids, the focus became more them of course, but people don’t want to see just portraits of your kids. So mostly I would use animals in place of my kids, sort of personify the behavior of the animals to mimic what my kids did. And then lately, I guess I just draw from life. And still my kids.
The Pixies. This illustration was based off of a magazine collage plus a weird blind contour sketch of my dog, Cade. It was also very special to me to be able to create a poster for one of my favorite bands during their 2004 reunion tour. —Leia Bell
For your style, are you trying to experiment with that a little bit, to move away from the poster look?
I don’t really think about it that much. I guess it’s still a similar style, it just doesn’t have words on it. That’s really the only difference.
I read a few different interviews where you said with Kilby Court you weren’t really making any money and posters weren’t selling enough to make a living. So what are the ways you guys have figured out how to make it work financially?
It’s true, we didn’t make money.
Basically we lived off of my art sales for a few years when we were still doing Kilby. And when we had Kilby we bought an old house, it was the cheapest house and it was awful. We remodeled that (we remodel houses too) and sold it for three times what we bought it for. So we used the equity of that to start this business. I mean, real estate is probably what I would say is how we’ve been able to keep going.
That’s interesting to know.
Yeah, because it’s definitely difficult. The first couple of years in business we really struggled to make any money at all. We still don’t make a lot, but because of our real estate investments, an Airbnb and rentals, we make enough to get by. We’re not getting rich. We’d like to get rich, just to be comfortable.
One of the things about being an artist, I think, is everyone has to kind of figure out how to patch things together to keep doing what they love and to have that freedom.
Totally. The freedom is nice. I love being able to not go to work if I don’t want to or to work and do art. Because I don’t have to be here at the store now, we have employees who do the work and I’m kind of a bonus employee. Except for right now — I’m doing shipping today. I fill in when I have to.
Rilo Kiley. The original sketch for this poster I did when I noticed how carefully my son placed a naked Barbie doll in the arms of his sock monkey. We called it a “forbidden romance.” —Leia Bell
What does a typical day or week look like for you? How do you and Phil split tasks for the business?
Phil is way more scattered than me. He’s always shifting gears and moving from one project to another all day long. A lot of it is maintenance for him, fixing a tool out in the shop or fixing something.
I really like going into work and working all day, even though I don’t get paid. Lately my day has been working on shipping and for the past few months I was noticing postal shipping rates went up again. I’m looking at the numbers and I’m like, Holy shit, we are getting screwed on shipping because of that one tiny jump in post office prices. So I had to stop everything and raise prices online, but we’d already lost probably 5 grand. I raised prices now, so hopefully it will even out.
How did you guys learn the business side of things?
It’s been fly by the seat of our pants. Just sort of flowing with it.
When we started, we thought we’d have this business that was just going to sell art and it evolved into this framing business. Then we also started doing furniture because that’s what Phil did before. But then it’s like, Oh, actually, we don’t really make money making furniture that’s custom because it should cost way more since it takes way more time.
So we scaled back and were mostly kind of learning which products work. What are the products that actually make money and that people want? We both wish we had gotten business degrees instead of art degrees. We’re both artists so it’s like artists trying to learn business by instinct, not really knowing what we’re doing.
Do you have people you can call for help or advice?
We have family who are successful in business, so I’m always picking their brains on what we should do. Phil really wants to open another store, he thinks that’s what will be better and I’m like, I don’t know, that’s scary to me. Because that’s another rent, another staff, another everything. I’m more the hesitant one, he’s always the, Let’s jump in and do it! So we kind of balance each other out.
It sounds like you have pretty open conversations.
Yeah, he’s more the idea person who has this plan and has a vision for things for the future. I’ll just go to work and ship all day and I’m fine because I feel like I’ve done a hard day’s work and I go home. I’m more of the day to day. But somehow, between the two of us, it works. Because I keep him a little more grounded. I’m like, Actually, we shouldn’t do that, we should take it easy. So it works out.
Have you had any major hurdles or failures that you had to overcome?
Well, we kept remodeling spaces that we didn’t own, spending our own money to fix them up and make them nicer and then they’d jacked our rent way up. That’s happened to us twice now.
And then finding the right space with the right amount of square footage. I really love this neighborhood we’re in now. It’s up-and-coming and now there’re all these cool breweries around, all this stuff is coming to this neighborhood finally. We’ve been here for 10 years and there was nothing here besides the Bicycle Collective.
But now we’re like, I really want a space that has 1,000 to 2,000 more square feet so that we can have the woodshop and everything all together. But that’s a challenge — there’s nothing around here now that’s the size we would need that we can afford. And every time we have to move it costs around $20,000 because we have an industrial spray booth and everything has to be custom fit.
When it comes to the frames, do you and Phil view those as your art too?
I think probably more so in the beginning when Phil was doing more artistic style frames that he painted on. Now it’s become a necessity — someone just needs a frame for this and we keep it simpler. We had to switch because our staff is mostly young and mostly women and they’re skilled, but they’re not carpenters, you know what I mean?
Making frames has to be a skill that anyone can learn easily. You chop this way, then you nail it, then you sand it, then you paint it. There’s a process and they’re not inventing things as they’re doing it. This is the product, you make it like this.
Our finish is what stands apart from other frames. It’s seven steps for every finish, for every frame, no matter what size it is. It’s really involved and it shows. When you see the frames, you can see it’s got a lot of layers — it’s different than just a typical frame that you’d buy at Walmart or whatever.
Can you talk about those steps briefly?
I don’t really know them, but it’s very involved. It’s magic.
What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
I really like the fact that we have something that’s preserving someone’s memory — an important photograph, their family history. It feels good to be a part of it and be on their wall.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Andy Joy Chase – painter, printmaker
- Awolnation – rock band
- Bicycle Collective – bike shop
- Craft Lake City – do-it-yourself festival
- Kilby Court – music venue
- Death Cab for Cutie – legendary indie rock band
- Pixies – legendary alternative rock band
- The Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion – book by Paul Grushkin & Peter King
- The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk – book by Paul Grushkin
- Weezer – legendary rock band