The Ashland Entry Signs are public art

Ashland Entry Sign, Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group, North Main St, built 2016

The Ashland Entry Signs are public art

Combining “sign” and “art.”
2016: Three new Ashland Entry Signs.
2023: Then why can I find only two?

If you live in Ashland, you have seen them a thousand times (or more), yet you may not know the unique story behind them. Read my photo essay to begin to appreciate these bold steel signs that announce you are entering Ashland, Oregon. Learn how they were created, step by step, and why they are part of the city’s public art collection. Also learn why you will temporarily see only two of them, as of January 2023.

Ashland Entry Sign, Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group, North Main St, built 2016
Ashland Entry Sign by Rogue Design Group. This photo shows the north entry sign on North Main Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

“The signs are made of steel and laser-cut brushed aluminum. The durable steel will rust in place, evolving with time and the elements. The contrasting brushed aluminum is super bright and reflects the light as the viewer drives by.”

Eric Warren

Why are the entry signs Public Art?

New Ashland entry signs were among high priority recommendations of a Downtown Beautification Committee in May 2014. Their report stated: “Design and install artistic signs at north and south entrances [to Ashland].” Because of the emphasis on “artistic,” the city gave the sign design assignment to the Public Arts Commission (PAC). Commission members were actively involved in the design process.

In 2015, the Public Arts Commission chose Eric Warren and his company Rogue Design Group to create three new Ashland Entry, or Gateway, signs. Eric had previously done work for the City of Ashland, Southern Oregon University Foundation, and Britt Festival, among others, so he was well respected locally.

I asked Eric what had motivated him to apply for this job through the Public Arts Commission. He replied, “I grew up in the Rogue Valley—first in Ashland, then Jacksonville—so it was a special honor to design the Gateway signs. As a local, I was excited about the opportunity. As a designer, I welcomed the challenge.”

The photo below shows what the previous “Welcome to Ashland” sign looked like on North Main Street. It was very traditional, and very different than the 2016 Ashland Entry Signs.

Ashland entry sign, N Main St, first design for PAC, too corporate,
This is what the previous North Main Street Ashland “Welcome” sign looked like. It has been replaced by the artistic steel and aluminum entry sign. (image provided by Eric Warren)

The process: first PAC meeting August 2015

“The signs should be artful, contemporary, sculptural and well crafted.”

Public Arts Commission consensus, August 21, 2015


Eric began by asking a series of questions to the public arts commissioners. This way, his initial design ideas could respond as much as possible to their vision for the project. Here are a few of his questions the PAC commissioners considered. You can see that some deep thinking was involved.

Questions from Eric Warren to PAC commissioners:

What should the Welcome Signs communicate? < their purpose

What feelings do they evoke? < emotional resonance

What do the signs say? < actual words

What about style? Should the signs be:

  • Classic
  • Contemporary / Modern
  • Artsy
  • Eco / Green
  • Historic

Commissioners decided to ask for the entry signs to reflect the uniqueness of Ashland, with both a cosmopolitan and a small town feeling. I was not at the meeting, so I don’t know the nuance involved in their discussions. Just reading the minutes, it seems to me that “cosmopolitan feeling” and “small town feeling” would be contradictory. However, incorporating multiple themes is sometimes the challenge an artist faces – and as Eric said in a quote above: “As a designer, I welcomed the challenge.”

Further, commissioners asked for the signs to have the quality of “public art.” Guidance to Eric, as expressed in the minutes of PAC’s August 21, 2015 meeting, was that “the signs should be artful, contemporary, sculptural and well crafted.” 

“My team started brainstorming ideas,” Eric noted. “Dave Marshall, our Production Designer, suggested using the Siskiyou mountains as a backdrop. As an avid Telemark skier—I learned to ski on Mt. Ashland when I was seven years old—I thought Dave’s concept was brilliant, so we created a design with the layered ridge lines of the Ashland watershed, capped by Mt. Ashland. Of the concepts presented, the PAC liked this design best and it ultimately became the finished pedestal.”

Ashland Entry Sign by Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group. This photo shows the three-dimensional nature of the north entry sign on North Main Street.
Ashland Entry Sign by Rogue Design Group. This photo shows how the layered ridge lines of the mountains were incorporated into the north entry sign. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

The process: Community input and second PAC meeting, February 2016

After PAC approved the final drawings with more contemporary lettering, Rogue Design Group worked with a sign building company on budget and fabrication details. With that resolved, they built scale models of the signs and placed them in dioramas with their surrounding environment. This helped people visualize the signs in three dimensions.

Next, the PAC held a public forum during the February 2016 First Friday Artwalk to share the scale models with the community. It was very well attended. According the PAC minutes of February 8 in which public input was described, “PAC discussed the First Friday event and commented that they lost track of the number of attendees after counting 167. Of the attendees, 78 provided their written comments.” 

Ashland Entry Sign by Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group. This photo shows the model of the north entry sign created for the public forum
This photo shows the model of the north entry sign created for the public forum.
(Image provided by Eric Warren)

After detailed discussion, commissioner Sandy Friend moved “to recommend to the City Council entry signs with the curved pedestal base with the three-layer mountain silhouette on the north and south entrance and a single layer silhouette on the Exit 14 sign.” The commission’s vote in favor was unanimous.

Eric described the process of working with the Public Arts Commission as “incredibly collaborative” because of the professional backgrounds of the commissioners. He added that “their input was articulate, sophisticated and invaluable.”

Longtime PAC member Sandy Friend expressed similar positive feelings in this note to Eric and his team: “It’s never easy working with a committee of people, all with differing insights and opinions. Somehow you made it look easy. Your talent and inventiveness brought a coherent vision to the Ashland Gateway signs, which have turned out to be a work of art. I thank you for your patience and graciousness throughout the entire process.”

The process: City Council approval February 16, 2016 

In his presentation to City Council, Eric said that “the PAC requested the signs be creative, unique, quirky, playful, artful, contemporary, sculptural, well crafted, and communicate a sense of place.” Specific to the letters on the sign, he added that the lettering font used “met the criteria for fun, quirky and contemporary.” As mentioned above, PAC had made clear the signs should not look like corporate or retail store signs. Following discussion, the designs were approved by the council in a 5 to 1 vote.

Making the signs

Ashland entry sign, N Main, Mechanical drawing,
This image shows a mechanical drawing provided to the fabrication company of the north entry sign.
(image provided by Eric Warren)

The signs are made of steel and laser-cut brushed aluminum. The steel is designed to rust over time, giving the sign a subtle connection with nature. The brushed aluminum will continue to shine in sunlight for many years, a contemporary contrast with the dark rusting steel. Rogue Design Group chose Steve Morgan and his business to do the fabrication. As of 2023, Morgan had retired and sold his business.

After February council approval, the three entry signs were made and installed in time for the 2016 tourist season.

Do you know where the Ashland Entry Signs are located?

The “south entry sign” is on Siskiyou Blvd, near its intersection with Tolman Creek Road. This sign greets people who enter Ashland from I-5 at exit 11.

Ashland Entry Sign, Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group, south entry on Siskiyou Blvd, built 2016, photo 2021
Ashland Entry Sign by Rogue Design Group. This photo shows the south entry sign in context, by Bellview School on Siskiyou Blvd.
(photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

The “north entry sign” is on North Main Street, next to the railroad bridge. This sign greets people who enter Ashland from I-5 at exit 19, or who drive south into Ashland on Highway 99.

Ashland Entry Sign, Eric Warren and Rogue Design Group, North Main St, built 2016
Ashland Entry Sign by Rogue Design Group. This photo shows the north entry sign on North Main Street.
(photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

The “east entry sign” was on Ashland Street, on the overpass near Clay Street and Faith Avenue. See photo below. This sign greeted people who enter Ashland from I-5 at exit 14, or who drive into town on Highway 66. It was removed on January 23, 2023, so you won’t see it as it looks in this photo. According to Ashland Public Works Deputy Director Mike Morrison, the sign had to go because Oregon Department of Transportation plans to remove the island where the sign was located. Hopefully the sign will find a new home along Ashland Street in the near future.

Ashland Entry Sign, east entry sign on Ashland St,
This photo shows an overview of the east entry sign on Ashland Street as it looked before it was removed in January 2023.
(photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Design Statement

As you now see the three entry signs in person or in these photos, I hope you will have greater appreciation for the creative and community-involved multi-stage process that it took to bring them into being. Perhaps this design statement from the Public Arts Commission and the Rogue Design Group will make sense to you now:

The TYPOGRAPHY is CONTEMPORARY AND FUN.

The brushed metal lettering will shine in the light.

The PEDESTAL is SCULPTURAL AND TIMELESS.

The rusted steel pedestal represents Mt. Ashland and the watershed.

I personally love the feeling of strength, stability and nature provided by the thick, rusting, curved steel base. Topped with subtle references to the mountainous backdrop of our town, the signs become more than simple “Welcome to our Town” signs. A basic sign tends to be emotionally neutral and utilitarian. These entry signs, in my opinion, provide the subtle emotional uplift found in art or nature – a creative step beyond utilitarian.

A few days after I wrote these words, a friend told me about returning from a trip overseas. She described driving to Ashland from the Medford airport. When she came to the bold “Ashland Oregon” sign on North Main Street, she had a subtle inner sigh of relief and smiled with a “coming home feeling.”

Eric’s background

“I grew up in the Rogue Valley—first in Ashland, then Jacksonville—so it was a special honor to design the Gateway signs. As a local, I was excited about the opportunity.”

Eric Warren
Ashland entry signs, photo of Eric Warren
Photo of Eric Warren, owner of Rogue Design Group. (photo provided by Eric Warren)

Eric told me: “I studied creative writing at UCLA, then graduated with honors from Art Center College of Design, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honors in graphics and packaging. I worked as a designer at Griffiths and Associates in Los Angeles, and at Laurel Communications in Medford, before starting Rogue Design Group in 1993. I earned a Masters in Management in organizational leadership from Southern Oregon University in 2012.” 

Other work by Eric and Rogue Design Group

The Bard’s Inn logo and branding

Rogue Design Group completely re-branded the boutique hotel with a nod to The Bard and his writing, while being firmly rooted in contemporary elegance. In this case, they combined contemporary and historic, artistic and commercial.

Rogue Design Group's new look for the Bard's Inn in Ashland.
Rogue Design Group’s new look for the Bard’s Inn in Ashland. (image provided by Eric Warren)

Southern Oregon University 

The SOU Foundation hired Rogue Design Group to develop a capital campaign that would seek financing for the proposed Southern Oregon Center for the Visual Arts. The work they created was used in a successful fund raising campaign. 

According to Judy Smith, Director of Capital Gifts at SOU Foundation, “We couldn’t have done it without Rogue Design Group. Their designs helped raise $11.2 million dollars to put the Southern Oregon Center for the Visual Arts on the map.”

Images from Rogue Design Group's work for the SOU Center for the Visual Arts fundraising campaign.
Images from Rogue Design Group’s work for the SOU Center for the Visual Arts fundraising campaign. (image provided by Eric Warren)

Let’s end with a unique story

“I’m a third generation designer.”

Eric Warren

Eric shared this family story. “I’m a third generation designer. As a kid who loved to draw, I was supported by a family who appreciated art and design. My uncle is an Art Director and my grandfather was a Sign Designer in post-war Southern California. Lee Klay created many iconic L.A. signs from the 1950s and 1960s. My grandfather’s work was hand-drawn at a drafting table with colored pencils on black matte board. He had a truly unique style, with a special gift for custom lettering. His most famous sign was the once iconic Dunes Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His stories about working on the project were just like scenes from ‘Mad Men.’ While I’m proud of Gramps, today is a different time. I’m so grateful to have made a career on a smaller scale, working on fun projects right here in beautiful Oregon.”  

Designed and built in 1964, the Dunes Hotel sign was 180 feet tall, the largest electric sign in the world! Sadly, the sign was destroyed in 1993 when the entire Dunes Hotel was demolished to make room for the Bellagio Resort.

Dunes Hotel sign in Las Vegas
The Dunes Hotel sign on the left of this photo was designed by Lee Klay, Eric Warren’s grandfather. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

References:

Warren, Eric. Personal communications and design documents, 2022, including some quotes.

Ashland City Council minutes, including some quotes.

Ashland Public Arts Commission minutes, including some quotes.

Neon Museum website.

2 Comments
  • Wenfy
    Posted at 07:31h, 05 March Reply

    Great article, Peter

  • Virginia L Vogel
    Posted at 11:48h, 04 February Reply

    It is so impressive to see this story of the signs. For 62 years Ashland was our family home. I now live in a retirement facility in Medford.
    It is good to know that Eric’s talent produced those signs. His family background was not known to me. That is a plus in this story.

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