How One Creative Escaped Corporate Life To Pursue Hand-Painted Lettering On Furniture

Populuxe (@populuxe_) was created after its founder, Lettering Artist Joel Poole, lost his job in 2015. He’d had a breakdown in 2014, he explains, which had been brought on by the stresses of 15 years of corporate life, and found himself at a turning point – searching for something new. “I’ve always loved creating unique items as I don’t like to have the same things as everyone else,” he tells us, “I had developed a keen interest in mid-century furniture over the preceding few years, so it made sense to do something I was passionate about.” 

Before his initiation into lettering and signwriting, Joel says he was mainly “buying, restoring and selling vintage furniture and decorative pieces” – think old enamel signs, fairground art, and lots of teak. “I used to love old suitcases as they often had travel stickers on them from their journeys around the world,” he says, “I think at the time I maybe wasn’t conscious of it but I always seemed to be drawn to things with beautiful lettering!” Populuxe now produces unique pieces based on the idea of taking old things “that were once loved by their original owners but are now headed for the landfill,” Joel continues. We speak with Joel to hear more about how he grew his lettering practice and innovated his business to make Populuxe what it is today.

"Express Yourself" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a vintage chest of drawers – Joel Poole
"Books" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a vintage book cabinet – Joel Poole

Hi Joel! Firstly, tell us about your route into signwriting. What was it like?

I discovered Instagram around the start of 2014, and almost instantly was drawn to traditional sign writing accounts and the street art that was becoming more typography led. Artists like Joby Carter, Dapper Signs, Gary Stranger, Ben Eine, Queen Andrea, Steve Powers, Trav and so on. At that point, apart from one painting I made after my breakdown, I didn’t really do anything other than admire. 

About three years after starting Populuxe, on the face of it everything was rocking, but I still wasn’t completely happy. I read a book called Mastery by Robert Greene in late 2017 which really changed things. He talks about thinking deeply about what gave you joy as a child and pursuing that as it will lead to ultimate fulfilment. I dug deep into my brain and all sorts of things came flooding back. I’d always loved drawing, and drawing letters in particular. I started to remember getting books on graffiti from the library as a kid and trying to emulate the styles making signs for my bedroom door. Then I found a load of old schoolwork in my parents loft and it was only once I went through it that I realised how prolific I was! I’m a big believer in the universe and that everything happens for a reason, so I took this as a sign and went off and bought some pencils and a sketchbook, and started to spend Sunday afternoons drawing letters.

"Nest of Tables" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a nest of vintage tables – Joel Poole

How would you describe your typographic style now?

I’m not really sure how I’d describe what I do, I’ve had no formal training other than an A Level in Art and an Art Foundation BTEC, and that was like 20 odd years ago, so can’t remember any of it anyway! I don’t really consider myself a signwriter though, it’s a medium I use to produce my work, but out of respect for the time served painters I don’t really take on commercial work as it’s a pretty crowded market already. I suppose my style is a bastardisation of trad sign writing, pop art, street art, graphic design and whatever else takes my fancy. I’m a lettering bastard.

"T & Coffee" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a vintage nest of tables – Joel Poole
"NFT" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a vintage painting – Joel Poole

How did you decide to translate your skills into painting on furniture?

At the beginning of 2019 I was really tired of just restoring teak furniture, and had a thirst to do something different. I had some old pieces of furniture lying around that were beyond restoration, so I decided to paint them and see what happened. I purposely didn’t look at what was fashionable or what was selling, I just did what I wanted to do. It was quite a big risk as there was nothing else out there like what I produced – but it all sold pretty much straight away, so I knew I was on to something. 

At that point the lettering was still a separate hobby, but I’d started to paint a couple of canvases based on lettering designs I’d done previously. I put them out there on Insta and they were received really well, so the next progression was to combine the two. I had an old record cabinet and I painted the word VINYL on the front of it, and again it sold straight away. I did a few more pieces and they all sold, and it just went from there really. 

"SLAY" Populuxe hand-painted lettering on a vintage chest of drawers – Joel Poole

What is the process like from start to finish of creating a piece?

That really depends. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and will go out and try and source a piece of furniture specifically. But the nature of vintage is that you can only buy what’s out there at the time. So usually I’ll pick up a few pieces and then the ideas will come based on the style of furniture. There’s always a lot of prep work before I can even start painting. A lot of the furniture requires repair work first, so that’s all done, then I prime ready for paint.

"Fun House" Populuxe hand-painted lettering by Joel Poole

At that point I’ll usually have an idea of what it’s going to say, so in between putting coats of paint on I start to sketch ideas out. I purposely use quite a limited palette of colours as I’m a firm believer that having less at your disposal forces you to be more creative. It also gives my work consistency, as although the lettering styles may be wildly different from piece to piece, the colours will always be similar. Once I’m happy with my final design I scan it, then use a projector to transfer the design onto the furniture, then it’s time to break out the brushes and start painting letters, and hopefully someone will love it enough to buy it!

Thank you, Joel!

To see more form Joel and Populuxe, check out their Instagram and website.