Meissenburg Designs in Bigfork has evolved from a small husband-and-wife operation into a renowned sign-making business that pumps out 500-600 signs daily and employs more than 40 people
Story and photography by Kay Bjork
On the outside, Meissenburg Designs still looks a lot like it did when it was the site of Martin’s Peat, located southeast of Bigfork. Loyd and Laura Meissenburg acquired the property in 2013, with most of the changes occurring inside to accommodate their growing design and fabrication company. The magnificent Swan Mountains rise above the otherwise nondescript buildings, but a visitor quickly discovers that there’s more to the place than first meets the eye.
A two-story glass enclosure, adorned with a 1927 Model-T Ford, a tall “Plumbing” vintage neon sign and a variety of other colorful metal signs, sets the stage for a tour through whimsy and wonder: part Willy Wonka, where amazing treats are made, and part Oz, where a wizard helps dreams come true.
The greeting committee is often four-legged. Dogs are welcome here, as long as they are well-behaved and have their own beds, and on this day, Molly, one of two rescue English Shepherds adopted by the Meissenburgs, offers a visitor a gentle nuzzle that serves as a nod. Upstairs, a conference room is full of windows and sunlight, and a sign above the Meissenburgs’ office reads, “Nobody gets to see the wizard. Not nobody.” Loyd and Laura both emerge with high-wattage smiles.
To understand Meissenburg Designs, you have to know Loyd and Laura’s story, which began in 1977 when they met in a cartooning class. At the time, Loyd was doing a little cartooning and a lot of surfing (a two-time world body-surfing champion), and Laura worked in the garment industry. They were married just eight months later and became partners in a garment company, but Loyd grew disenchanted with pollution and a growing, less gentlemanly surf crowd, so he took a train trip in 1985 to visit his surfing buddy Jerry Johnson and wife Linda, who had relocated in Bigfork. Loyd fell in love with Flathead Lake and the Garden Bar (where he could sit at the bar with his dog) and made the decision to move here. Laura wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“He dragged me kicking and screaming,” she said.
Laura soon found her own project — ultimately the catalyst for Meissenburg Designs — when she joined Linda at Electric Avenue Gifts and eventually became sole proprietor. She asked Loyd to create a Big Mountain Ski Area souvenir sign for the gift store and to help her father Tom Taber fabricate a sign for his duck-decoy business. Using his wizardry as a self-described “chemistry kid,” along with earlier experience as a dental technician, Loyd came up with a way to cast a three-dimensional duck sign.
The projects led to Loyd setting up shop in a garage behind Kehoe’s Agate Shop and eventually to a gallery and workshop north of Bigfork. He ran the business by himself until a contract with Ducks Unlimited for thousands of cast ducks led to a business relationship with Big Sky Carvers in Bozeman. Meanwhile, Laura also fell in love with the area.
“Loyd has a love of mystery and discovery,” she said. “If I complained, he would say, ‘It’s an adventure!’ He would make me stop and look at a sunset, or lay in the driveway in the dark on the warm pavement to see a constellation. I fell in love with Montana first through his lens.”
In 1988, the casting portion of Meissenburg Designs was sold to Big Sky Carvers, which freed Loyd to pursue more ideas. He was intrigued with emerging digital printing technology, so he strapped a load of plywood to his station wagon and set off for Chicago, where he spent a day working on a $100,000 printer.
“I got a taste of how cool it could be,” he said.
Loyd ultimately purchased a vertical four-color printer, started printing ski, golf and fishing theme signs using his own formula for the inks and established a store on Highway 35. Laura presented the signs in her booth at an Atlanta show, and to their surprise, “vendors were fighting over the signs — it just exploded.” The business and product line continued to grow as their printing evolved.
Today, the Meissenburgs are on their fourth generation of printers using UV-cured inks, producing 500 to 600 signs daily, and they employ over 40 people.
All of which brings us back to the factory. Loyd’s penchant for collecting combined with Laura’s flair for decorating creates a charming sense of nostalgia throughout the facility, where hundreds of their signs adorn the walls. A library with towering shelves holds thousands of vintage catalogs and magazines that provide ideas and artwork for many of the signs. The design team members’ handpicked signs simulate windows over their desks and include a Ferndale backyard, a favorite island vacation spot and a scene from designer Natalia’s homeland in Argentina. A break room’s decor gives tribute to the 1950s, with shiny linoleum and chrome and more vintage signs. Even the expansive print shop looks more like a showroom than a factory, with immaculate workspaces accented by signs hanging like artwork in the brightly lit spaces.
Laura’s experience with retail proved invaluable for marketing. She attended markets and was inspired by their global reach.
“I was rubbing elbows with successful people and asked myself, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’” she said, adding: “A level of naïveté can be the mother of invention.”
Another breakthrough came in March 2016 when Meissenburg Designs launched online orders and a retail site at oldwoodsigns.com. Signs are also printed on galvanized steel and include fine-art prints from local artists such as Kalispell’s Shelle Lindholm and the Bitterroot Valley’s Karen Savory. Montana products are used and local talent is hired as often as possible for their “American-made” products.
Signs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including barrel-end décor, cut-ups, surfboards, outdoor pillows, framed art and personalized signs. A collaboration with Harley Davidson allows for manufacturing home decor for motorcycle enthusiasts, while a new division called Swing Shift Promotions uses company logos and artwork to create innovative signs and displays for clients, including breweries and wineries.
The Meissenburgs inspire and encourage creativity in their staff. Meetings include everyone: “Sometimes solutions come from the people doing it every day.” They believe in providing opportunities for local kids to return home to a great job and second careers for older workers not ready to retire.
Ricci Gertz always loved art but didn’t have high hopes of finding employment in her field after graduating with a degree in illustration from Minneapolis School of Art. She did some traveling, and when she returned, she was thrilled to take what she thought was a temporary job that included setting up the library and completing sales calls at the new Meissenburg Designs facility.
Today, Gertz makes signs using graphic art, topography and illustration.
“I love my job,” she said. “Every day, I feel like I hit refresh. And I can bring my dog!”
Zach Hardman, a 2000 Bigfork graduate, started working there in high school. He has seen the evolution firsthand and speaks like an old-timer, even though he is only 36. He is now the director of operations.
“I remember when it took an hour and a half to print one sign,” he said, “and now it only takes two minutes.”
James Tull, also a Bigfork grad, worked in the U.S. Coast Guard in exploratory gold drilling, construction and as a mechanic before joining the print shop in 2010.
“It’s like a big family here,” Tull said. “There’s not a better company in the valley.”
Other employees include Levi Felt, another Bigfork graduate, who returned home after studying engineering at the University of Michigan and works in sales while helping maintain computers and websites.
Jim Jackson is a former publisher and editor of the Lake Country Journal who published a story in 1992 called “A One of a Kind Store,” featuring the Meissenburgs’ early sign business. Jackson sold the publication in 2005 and embarked on a six-year sailing adventure with his wife Marlene. After returning to Bigfork, he went to work for Meissenburg Designs, where his son Devin is head of the art department — and his boss.
Devin took a tour of the factory in 2003, after which Loyd turned to him and said with a smile, “See you tomorrow.” He’s been working there ever since, inspired by the Meissenburgs’ endless creativity. He and the rest of the crew at Meissenburg Designs are propelled each day by an intriguing question: What will the wizard come up with next?