Ye Olde Sign Shoppe: Denmark's Adolf Andersen

A remarkable archival collection reveals the story of Danish sign painter Adolf Andersen.

Archival photo of a sign painter standing at the entrance to his shop with is adorned with numerous signs.
The Barsøe Olsen sign factory where Adolf Andersen served his apprenticeship in the early years of the 20th century.

For a relatively small country, Denmark punches above its weight when it comes to sign painting and its history. It is home to one of the world's last remaining vocational courses teaching the craft, and two significant books have been published in recent years documenting its history there: Danske Skilte (Danish Signs) by Jakob Engberg, and Fra penselstrøg til print (From brushstrokes to print) by Bent Grølsted.

Last year, a remarkable collection lurking in the basement of a Copenhagen technical school was almost lost during a major clearout. However, it was saved by Mikkel Mehlbye Tardini (@mehlbye_skilte), and offers up a rich seam of material for a future publication to add to those above.

Adolf Andersen: Original Danish Letterhead

By Mikkel Mehlbye Tardini

My late colleague on the painting course at Copenhagen's technical school, Keld Kurdahl, had a keen interest in the history of the painting profession in Denmark. He spent his working life collecting numerous artefacts which passed into my possession when he died in 2019. Everything was kept in the school, but I was the only one aware of the treasures contained in these unremarkable boxes—I recently rescued them from near-certain disposal.

A significant part of the collection consists of pictures and a portfolio from the distinguished Danish painter Adolf Andersen. In addition to his pounce patterns and sketches, there are numerous alphabets, notebooks, and price lists. Many of these items have little or no contextual information, but the photos span the bulk of Anderson's working life from the early 20th century to the 1940s.

Using notes found on some of the pictures, and with the help of the city archive, I was able to form a picture of where Anderson had worked, and approximately when. His various employers are all listed at the city archive, and in the records of the Copenhagen's painters' guild.