By Peter Saunders
The Banff Sign Co., which was co-founded in 1986 by Larry Whan, recently changed ownership. As the only sign shop within Alberta’s Banff or Jasper National Parks, the company continues to keep busy serving a very specific niche.
Bylaws in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, Alta., mandate dimensional wooden signs with no internal illumination, which are the artisan shop’s specialty. It sources kiln-dried Western red cedar from British Columbia, clearcoats it for long-term durability and custom-fabricates signs for dozens of hotels and hundreds of restaurants and other businesses in the parks, in many cases creatively exploiting the sunlight reflectivity of 23-karat gold leaf to make up for the absence of electrical illumination.
Schooled in sign arts
Whan moved to Banff as a self-described hippie with little more than a guitar. After a friend paid him to paint a banner, he decided he could make a business out of it. He teamed up with Gord Fisher to found the Banff Sign Co.
After Fisher passed away in 1993, Whan took over the entire business and continued to build its profile by diligently perfecting his craft of carving and finishing wooden signs for stores, restaurants, hotels, resorts and other local attractions. As his reputation grew, he also shared this craft with others, hosting workshops at the Banff School of Sign Arts and educating students from around the world in specialized skills like hand-carving and glass-gilding.
Indeed, Banff’s booming tourism industry brought global attention to Whan’s work, which played a major role in defining the look of the town. While his unique style was particular to the local market, some visitors from away who appreciated the esthetic ended up ordering their own wooden signs from him after they returned home, thus extending his artistic influence.
At the same time, Whan kept up with changesin the broader sign and graphics industry. He added computers, a 1.4-m (4.5-ft) wide inkjet printer and a 1.2 x 2.4-m (4 x 8-ft) computer numerical control (CNC) router to his 209-m2 (2,250-sf) shop—comprising three sections of the industrial compound, dedicated to woodworking, painting and digital design and printing—to expand his production capabilities. This allowed him to create everything from storefront window graphics to trade show booths.
Eventually, Whan sold his house in Canmore, Alta., 20 minutes away from his shop, to move right into town. After months of looking for rental accommodations, however, he became frustrated with the zero vacancy rate of Banff’s housing market and he began to look into alternative options.
In 2014, the town’s municipal planning commission granted him permission to break with precedent, construct a 74-m2 (800-sf) one-bedroom apartment above his shop and thus become the first person ever to convert commercial space in Banff to residential space and live legally within its industrial park.