A sign hanging outside Lily’s Jackson Street Market, an antiques store, reads: “No computer, no web, no fax, no virus.” Next door, Simon Hardeveld’s sign shop is anonymous. Without any sort of advertising or promotion, customers usually have to find it on foot at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street. It’s a sign shop without a sign.
“You’ve got to come here to see what we’ve got,” said the folk artist, whose specialty is one-of-a-kind, hand-painted signs with slogans.
“People need to understand it’s not a sign,” Hardeveld declared in a thick French accent. “It is art.”
The retail operation is so low-tech that images of merchandise cannot be found on a website. Yet, signs emblazoned with the Simon trademark are found throughout the city and instantly recognized by most New Orleanians.
Distinctive capitalized and shadowed lettering, surrounded by stars, stripes, polka dots and triangles, has become almost synonymous with local urban culture, so much so that Hardeveld was commissioned to paint the set for a TV station’s evening newscast.
When Dale Triguero opened Chickie Wah Wah, a Canal Street nightclub, in 2006, he asked Hardeveld to paint the club’s name on the building facade. “He was like a kid, completely delighted,” he said.
Triguero compares Hardeveld to Keith Haring, whose childlike subway graffiti and public art projects in New York City brought him international acclaim in the 1980s. There’s a “wonderful innocence” about Hardeveld’s designs, Triguero said.
The walls of Joey K’s restaurant on Magazine Street are covered with Hardeveld’s signs as well. Owners Cindy and Sam Farnet put up cheerful messages like “Home Sweet Home” and “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” when they reopened after Hurricane Katrina.
“We had no idea they’d catch on like that — people actually loved it,” Cindy Farnet said.
The exterior of Hardeveld’s Irish Channel studio looks like the outdoor patio of a Caribbean restaurant. Customers enter through a bamboo gate under an archway surrounded by palms and crude wooden sculptures. Reggae music plays. An overhead sign warns: “Please hippies use back door.” Two English bulldogs, Lily and Ike, pant in the shade. Signs are everywhere on display. The subjects are blue ladies, snakes, alligators, crawfish and other creatures. Zulu coconuts, crushed soda cans, jewelry, doubloons and other paraphernalia dangle beneath on chains.
“People think it’s Haitian,” the artist said of his brightly colored, primitive-style artwork.
Hardeveld, who has a full beard and shaggy hair and wears a bandana wrapped around his forehead, races around from one project to another. Customers pose for photo portraits, holding their newly acquired signs, to be included in Hardeveld’s scrapbook.
He left France in 1981, planning to cook in restaurants in Florida, where he met his wife, Maria. They ran three restaurants together, but Hardeveld says American waitresses could not describe his food. Later, when he tried running a brasserie in Metairie, customers wanted to buy the sign behind the counter. A career was born.
The signs reflect his jovial personality, Maria Hardeveld said, and the slogans convey a certain irreverent wisdom. He claims not to coin the ironic phrases, giving credit to customers for inspiration.
His wife says the amusing juxtapositions result from his literal translation from French. For those of Jewish descent, there’s “Shalom Y’all.” For pet owners, there’s a “Beware Dogs and Voodoo” yard sign and, for Katrina survivors, “Where is Napoleon When We Need Him?”
Said club owner Triguero: “Simon epitomizes New Orleans.”
By Mary Rickard, contributing writer
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