Once you start looking for Simon Hardeveld’s signs, you see them everywhere. On the set of News With a Twist, in Mardi Gras parades, even in New Orleans-style restaurants in Washington D.C. and New York. His style is as immediately recognizable as it is iconic, with bright colors that catch your eye and the stylized designs that capture the spirit of New Orleans.
Signs with sayings like “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” and “Laissez le bon temps rouler” written in white capital letters cover every surface of Simon’s workshop. He is always painting, he tells me in his distinct French accent he has become known for, and he seems to throw himself into his work with a passion that explains how much the residents of New Orleans love his signs. Trained as a chef in France, Simon never planned on becoming a New Orleans folk artist, but his signs have struck a chord with the city.
You can find him any day of the week, except Sunday, in his workshop next to Antiques on Jackson Avenue. He doesn’t bother with computers or email, but you can call or, better yet, stop by to see his work.
Where Y’at: So you’ve been working in New Orleans for about 20 years. What was it like when you first got started?
Simon: When I first come to the United States, I move to Florida. Florida is very different. In Florida, they do not know France. No one knows where my hometown, Cannes, is. They say, “Cannes, Cannes is where?” I never thought I would be making signs. I was a chef in Cannes and I had a restaurant in Florida, and then I move to New Orleans.
WY: How did you end up transitioning from cooking to creating art?
S: In the beginning, I just thought that I need to eat. So I tried to find a job here as a chef, but I go to work in an antique shop to repair furniture. Since the antiques were coming from France, they know I can repair the furniture. I found some piece of wood, so at night when I finish work, I was starting to do sign. Onion ring, French fry, hamburger, small sign like this. I brought the signs to kitchen in Metairie, Johnny’s Bar and Grill, and cooked in the kitchen. But they were only drinking. At 9 o’clock (in the morning), they were coming to drink beer. To show them where was the kitchen, I start to hang small signs like we were doing: hamburger, onion ring, omelets, po-boy. And they were buying the sign and no food! So after two months I told my wife Maria, “OK, no more cooking.” They were buying all the signs. The owner came and asked me to pay the rent and I told him this is the last time I pay the rent.
WY: So you stopped selling your signs in the restaurant?
S: Straight away. I was in a good antique shop in the back and she told me if you want, put up your sign. So I start to put the sign, and bing and bing and bing and bing. Straight away.
WY: Can you tell me a little bit about the process that goes in to making your signs?
S: I never start working on my signs here. I start home. I got a studio upstairs where I just start painting. And I bring them when they’re all white, like this. People come in and think the only thing I do is to sign my signature. They think I just sign. Some people don’t realize this takes time. A thing like these hanging ornaments, it takes about fifteen days just to prep the wood. I cut the wood, we prep it. Two coats of undercoat, two coats of paint on both sides. After this, I put the white paint on. So it’s 20 days before I can say it’s done. There’s no more real art in New Orleans. There’s not too many who do all the preparation by hand. They finished with the marker in place of painting.
For my paints, I have five colors. Safety red, safety blue, safety yellow, orange Dutch, black and white. It is called safety red after the red stoplights. It catches the eyes of the people. You see something important. I keep these same colors, the same style for all the signs.
Where Y'at: So what kind of artistic training did you have, besides being trained as a chef?
Simon: I did not have art training. Just cooking. When I was a chef, I loved to cook. But after this, nothing. I never liked too much art. I was just cooking, cooking, cooking. Nothing else.
WY: Do you still cook a lot in your own time?
Simon: No, no. No time to waste. I don’t cook anymore. My wife, Maria, who’s Italian, she cooks great. But me, I don’t cook except for a barbeque. Or hot dogs, we do hot dogs. Going out to restaurants does not interest me. We close at five o’clock and I watch News with a Twist on the TV, have a glass of wine and Maria, she cooks, and that’s it.
WY: Well, I guess if you have really good cooking at home, why go out? Do you have any big projects coming up?
Simon: No, not big projects. I keep it simple.
WY: Or anything you’re especially excited about?
Simon: Mardi Gras. I do the masks for the people marching, and then on Mardi Gras Day, I go down to the parades. After that, I do signs and masks for St. Patrick’s Day. After this is Easter. I do a Jesus Christ on the cross. And signs for French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest… boom, boom, boom. Graduation for Tulane. For graduation, it’s “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”
WY: I’m sure you sell out of that one. What inspires you?
Simon: New Orleans.
WY: Like the music?
Simon: After 20 years, I just stopped listening to music.
WY: It’s just the city, then.
Simon: Just the city. The people of New Orleans. They are great. Now I have three generations almost of people who come. They come back to tell me where their painting is. Most of my things go in the kitchen of people where it’s a good piece of conversation. In beginning, I took all the photos of people who buy something, and they were coming back with their family to show where they had the painting. I have all the photos since 1994. I have collection of 20 books of photos from all of the people.
Simon’s sign store is located next to Antique’s on Jackson at 1028 Jackson Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130. You can call him at (504) 524-8201. He also has a Facebook page, managed by his friend, where you can look at some of his artwork.