Michael Cotton has always lived or worked in the Wembley area but his sign-writing business can see him travelling across the UK. Much of the work performed by Michael’s company, Eastcote Sign and Display, is readily visible at some of the UK’s leading sports stadiums, music venues and arenas.
Born in Kingsbury, north-west London, where he lived until 1955 when his family moved to nearby South Kenton, Michael enjoyed his time at Preston Park Primary School – “The best seven years of my childhood,” he says. Although he passed his 11-Plus and attended Preston Manor when it was still a Grammar School, Michael felt he was in the wrong place for 5 years; his artistic calling was at odds with the academic thrust of the school.
“I was always very good at art”
Despite attending evening classes to complete A-Level art and O-Level English at Harrow School of Art and Technology, (now Westminster University), Michael initially pursued a career as a car mechanic, a skill that as an enthusiastic Alfa Romeo racer he finds very useful. It was his love of cars and racing that introduced him to the sign-writing industry.
Having studied for 2 years at Paddington Technical College (now City of Westminster College) and gaining a City & Guilds qualification as a Motor
Technician (parts 1 and 2), in 1969 Michael started working for a rally driver called John Sprinzel. Sprinzel was famed for completing the London to Sydney Marathon in 1968 and Michael joined the team as a mechanic. It was during his time with Sprinzel that Michael caught the sign-writing bug.
“I was always very good at art,” says Michael. “When I was working at Sprinzel’s, one of his friends was a chap called Pete Lovely from the USA and he had a Formula 1 car he’d entered into a non-championship race. Sprinzel allowed him to store the car in the workshop for the month he was over. The mechanics were looking at some of the drawings of cars that I’d done of current racing cars and one of them was the Lotus F1 driven by Graham Hill, similar to the one that Lovely brought over for the race. The mechanics were impressed with the drawings and suggested that I do it for a living. About a week after they’d gone, at the top of Lancaster Mews where we worked, there was a sign-writer working on a pub-sign. I watched him for half an hour and decided `that was the thing for me’.
“They were looking for a tea boy”
“My mum and dad knew I wasn’t entirely happy at the garage and knew I wanted to do something in art. A friend of theirs was a rep for a paper company and he told my mum that there was a company in Wembley that did posters and signs and that they were looking for a tea boy.” The company was Phelps Publicity based at Wembley Triangle and they had been servicing all the signage at the Wembley Stadium complex since its opening in 1923.
Phelps Publicity introduced Michael not only to the sign-writing profession but also to his future wife, Lin, who started work with Phelps in 1973 as a receptionist and assistant. At the time, Phelps was a sizeable company with 36 members of staff. Michael became a co-owner of Phelps Publicity in 1985, just before the firm was contracted to produce banners for Live Aid.
“Live Aid was probably the most
exciting and prestigious job we’ve done”
Phelps created advertising banners for the Wembley Live Aid sponsors including Pepsi and Kodak (right) and British Airways as well as the canopy bearing sponsor TDK’s logo over the mixing tent in the middle of pitch.
“Everything for Live Aid was hand-painted and done at the last minute; we were given our brief on the Thursday, two days before the show and we were still working on the TDK tent until 2am on Saturday morning. Live Aid was probably the most exciting and prestigious job we’ve done because of the global interest and coverage,” says Michael.
Interestingly 20 years after Live Aid in 2005, Michael’s daughter, DJ and TV presenter Fearne Cotton, was one of the lead presenters of Live 8, which was held in London’s Hyde Park.
The assignments taken on by Phelps Publicity were always challenging. As well as producing all the Stadium signage, all posters and signs were hand-painted as digital equipment was still in its infancy. The team created billboards for big acts to be displayed outside Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena. The biggest billboard Michael can recall making was for Paul McCartney in 1991 on behalf of promoters Marshall Arts Ltd. The cost was £56,000 for a giant billboard with cut-outs and photos, measuring 130 feet wide by 30 feet high. The entire billboard was built and decorated on-site within 24 hours, with Michael having designed the structure and artwork in the office before construction on-site.
Phelps Publicity was sold to James Howarth Ltd of Southate in 1997, at the time one of the country’s leading cardboard engineers and silk-screen printers. Sadly the firm later went into receivership.
Michael started to work for himself in the intervening period before starting Eastcote Sign and Display in 1999. Having worked at Phelps for a number of years he had an address book full of contacts but a restructuring and change of ownership at Wembley around the Millennium meant that many of these people had moved on to other companies.
“Starting up on my own was a bit daunting”
“Starting up on my own was a bit daunting at first,” says Michael. “Although I was working with my friend Paul and we had some contacts, there were only two of us but we still had work from music promoters doing billboards for Wembley and other venues.” Paul joined Phelps in 1979 as another tea-boy and has now been working with Michael for 30 years.
Michael says his lucky break came when a contact at one of his clients, Julie at the car dealership Milcars, went to work for the new owners of Wembley Stadium. Knowing Michael’s experience and previous work with Wembley, Julie called Michael and engaged the services of his fledgling enterprise.
Other contracts were a welcome boost for the new company. Eastcote Sign and Display was contracted by Visual Merchandising to provide outdoor media for branches of Texas Homecare that were being converted to the Homebase brand. Eastcote Sign and Display produced banners and billboards for every Texas – Homebase conversion.
As the new Wembley down-sized in 2006 and former staff joined other organisations, Michael’s contacts in other venues grew.
Today his client list includes many other well known names including Trent FM Arena, Bellway Homes Plc, the O2 Arena and Compass, for whom they decorate all the retail units such as catering stands operating at stadiums and outdoor events.
Hoardings provide a great opportunity
Michael says that hoardings started to become popular around 2006 as a form of advertising for housing developers because of a lack of green space. The companies have development rights up to the grass verge and hoardings provide a great opportunity to promote the availability of new property and show off an artist’s impression of the completed development. Bellway Homes Plc is Eastcote Sign’s most regular customer for construction hoardings and they have also been supplied to several housing associations. The latest construction hoardings which Michael and the team have just completed are for Bellway’s new developments – at Broughton MK in Milton Keynes and Chrysalis Park in Stevenage on the site of the old Dixons warehouse.
ESD also supply advertising hoardings to a number of clients including Car Giant in west London.
The firm has continued to grow. Chris was a school-friend of Michael’s son James and joined the company in 2001. Chris started work performing general duties and was initially interested in the fitting side but has developed his skills in sign-making.
Lee joined Eastcote Sign and Display in 2006 from college having completed a course in graphics. Lee has quickly picked up the moderns skills required in the industry, including use of key software packages like Versa Works and SignLabs as well as the complexities of running a Roland digital printer.
Regular demand for vehicle graphics keeps the team and the Roland digital equipment busy. In addition to the many tradesmen and small business wanting their vans liveried, Eastcote Sign and Display has an ongoing relationship with both Renault Trucks in London and Dagenham Motors to brand demonstrator and delivery vehicles.
“It’s not the same as using a paint-brush”
One new service that is seeing a growing demand is that of printing enlarged photos onto stretched framed canvas. Canvases are being used not only in business, for example in retail display but also for celebrations like engagements, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. “Enlarging a photo onto canvas is a great way of personalising a celebration,” says Michael. ”We did some of these for a Bar-Mitzvah recently where they had several canvases showing family photos through the years. It looked very impressive.”
There isn’t much that Eastcote Sign and Display can’t provide in the way of signage, thanks to all the modern technology but Michael still misses the old-school techniques. “It’s not the same as using a paint-brush,” he laments, “but now that we can turn around a job so much faster and easier, it has made sign-writing a service affordable to small business.”
Eastcote Sign & Display
17 Lumen Road
East Lane Business Park
Tel: 020 8385 0505