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The Anonymous Artist: Meet the Man Behind Toronto's Best Signs

The work of artist and designer Ian Milne is some of Toronto’s most recognizable. His pieces are seen by tens of thousands of people daily. Yet the artist himself is largely anonymous. Residents of Hillcrest Village might know him as a fixture of the wait staff at Ferro, a longstanding Italian restaurant in the midtown neighbourhood. For restaurateurs and shop owners across the city, however, Milne is their go-to artist when the time comes to make a curbside statement.

Milne has designed and created iconic signage for some of the city’s top restaurants. The sleek metal signs of Enoteca Sociale, Note Bene, One, Marben, and People’s Eatery are all Milne’s handiwork, as is the hulking coved metal structure of The Rushton. Buca’s three outposts owe their colourful orbs to Milne’s vision, as does poutine joint Poutini’s, whose illuminated call of “Om Nom Nom” is a beacon for late-night munchie seekers.

Whether rendered in steel, waterjet aluminum, glass, plastic or punctuated by light, a hallmark of Milne’s work is the depth and dimension he brings to each sign. “When I think of a sign, I immediately see it in 3D. I just understand how light disperses and shadows gather; I can translate a logo or wordmark into 3D and see exactly the physical result in my head,” he says. “I guess that’s my calling card.” Sometimes clients come asking for his trademark style applied to their logo; other times the process involves more creative direction.

“Whenever possible I will incorporate a three-dimensional aspect to a sign or other project. It is what separates what I do from others. You can’t just print off one of my signs. They are layered fabrications that take advantage of light and depth, and that’s what makes them dynamic and attractive to the eye. They’re like bling for buildings,” says Milne.

“My friends don’t think of me as an artist, and I can’t call myself one. It feels like calling myself cool or funny. If you have to say that, you’re not cool or funny.” 

One of his first encounters with bringing his vision to life came with The Rushton, which sits on the same block as Ferro. While pondering the construction of the new resto one day, Milne says he was struck with a flash of inspiration for a cool sign. The idea was to bottom-light the letters, which would be encased in a curved sheet of stainless steel. To Milne, it seemed like no problem. Except, it was a problem. Wrapping a 14-foot sheet of steel, it turned out, was more complicated than it seemed.

“I was renting space in a stainless steel shop at the time, so I had access to machines and brains, but no one could figure out how to bend the big sheets the way I wanted them, short of some very expensive industrial processes,” says Milne. “I was desperate for a solution when I saw another worker in the shop using clamps to hold together a concrete mold. So I borrowed the clamps (when he was done), and laid all 12 of them along the sheet, tightening each one a half-turn until the sheet popped and bowed exactly as I wanted it.”

Ian Milne

Milne's edge-lit sign for Poutini's.

Milne has also been innovating with lighting. While lit signs are ubiquitous, the effect that Milne crafts with light is unique, and can be seen on signs for Pizzeria Libretto, VOX, Naked Red, and Poutini’s. Rather than backlighting his work, Milne uses a technique that involves etching into glass or plastic and using LED lights along the side. The technique is known as edge-lit plastic. “It takes advantage of the fact that light will travel through glass or plastic until it meets an edge and then it will light up that edge. This makes a sign look really deep but, in fact, it’s just a few inches.” LED lights, he says, allow him to create signs that can go anywhere. “They effectively run on batteries.” 

While there’s a similarity among some of his projects, Milne says every piece is effectively a prototype. Each sign requires a fresh approach, one that takes into account materials, aesthetics and, quite pragmatically, the length of an establishment’s name. In short, Milne says, the longer the name, the more complicated – and expensive.

Despite the fact that Milne has adorned some of the city’s hottest spots with his work, he still struggles with calling himself an artist. “My friends don’t think of me as an artist, and I can’t call myself one. It feels like calling myself cool or funny. If you have to say that, you’re not cool or funny.” But his work tells another story. The inventiveness and craft are evident at street level.

You can still find Milne serving the locals of Hillcrest the occasional night at Ferro, but these days he’s focusing his creative energy on his artistic endeavours. He’s getting back to his early work of clock making, which he makes out of recycled materials, and he has a keen photographic eye as well. He makes custom furniture, and is developing his industrial eye toward sculptural art. “I’d like to get to the place where I’m creating things that you’d want on the wall of your condo – badly.”

Published Wednesday, August 5th 2015

Header image credit: The Rushton, Ian Milne

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