By LEON THOMPSON
WAITSFIELD — Ask Sparky Potter about his 45-year business philosophy, and he directs you to the “mission statement sign” that hangs in the lobby of his Waitsfield studio and shop.
“Designing is like dreaming,” the sign says. “When you are awake, designing is the most delightful thing that the human minds can do together. From the first spark of a concept to the evolution of something unique, the process is the reward. Enjoy.”
On Nov. 19, 2016, The Sparky Potter Design Group and Wood & Wood Sign Systems kicked off its 45th anniversary. Potter began the operation as a one-man, home-occupied business in the winter of 1971-1972. Since then, Wood & Wood has moved to “The Mad River Barn” at 98 Carroll Rd.
Wood & Wood is a nationally recognized design studio and custom sign manufacturing company with more than 50 national sign awards. Wood & Wood’s national client base includes: Vail Resorts, the 1980 Winter Olympics (in Lake Placid, New York), Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Bruegger’s Bagels, Busch Gardens and Universal Studios Theme Parks.
One strong example of Potter’s legacy is the exterior of the American Flatbread Burlington Hearth storefront, with a handcrafted wood- and copper-roofed canopy sign, wood blade sign and hand-carved front door.
More recently, Wood & Wood provided the main entrance sign for the Appalachian Gap Distillery in Middlebury. Distillery owner Lars Hubbard provided the concept design. Wood & Wood executed it.
“It was a pleasure working with Sparky and the rest of the Wood & Wood team,” Hubbard said. “We went through a number of design iterations, and they were responsive and keenly aware of both what I wanted and what was possible and sensible. Better yet, they stayed on top of the budget.”
The Wood & Wood website (www.woodandwoodsigns.com) features a photo gallery of Potter and his past work. In older photos, his hair is darker, but no matter when the photo was taken, he wears that recognizable grin.
Last December, Potter and his wife, Peggy, held a 45-year celebration for past and present employees. More than 80 people attended. Wood & Wood currently has 10 people on its staff.
“I’m pretty amazed by the quantity and diversity of the work we have done over the years,” Potter said earlier this week. “And there is a lot of pride that comes with looking back at our collective accomplishments with our clients and crew.”
Potter only goes by his real name, Richard, in legal documents. Call him Sparky; he won’t mind.
The Potters have three grown children: Charlotte, 35, an artist and designer in Norfolk, Virginia; Grace, 33, of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals fame; and Lee, 31, a client of Upper Valley Services in Moretown.
“Lee has epilepsy, which brought on developmental disabilities,” Potter said. “He is best known for his poetry, knowledge of music and Frisbee skills. He’s really good with a paintbrush, and also has an excellent design head.”
Potter’s relatives — on both sides of the family — “have good genes for art and music. We are very right-brained.”
Potter said he is proud of Peggy and his “kids.”
“I’m amazed that we have figured out ways to support and enlighten each other for all these years,” he said. “One way that we have balanced family and business is to make family trips to places that we can work and play together. We have also always made a point of keeping family events more important than work demands.”
Potter, 68, is originally from Wethersfield, Connecticut. His passion for craftsmanship started at an early age, as he stood beside his neighbor, an Italian stonemason, and learned masonry.
Potter also had a passion for skiing when he was young. After he graduated from St. Lawrence University in 1970 with a history degree, he moved to Waitsfield, to be near Sugarbush.
In his spare time during his senior year of college he taught himself wood-burning, and painted on scraps of wood — mostly imitations of album covers from the era.
Before Potter opened Wood & Wood, he ran a “hippie-ish” multimedia collective called Dream On Productions, which attempted outrageous feats; one of them was plastering a 4-acre American Flag across New York’s Verrazano Bridge for the 1976 Bicentennial.
Deep inside, Potter has always been a designer and artist first.
“I take my inspiration from everything I see and hear — art is everywhere, especially with Mother Nature,” he said. “When I’m at a loss, I just walk in the woods or in a garden and ideas come easily. In business, I’m inspired by our clients and their needs. Their ideas and design concepts are the jumping-off point for the creative results we come up with.”
When the Potters were raising their “shop rats” — Charlotte, Grace and Lee — they used Wood & Wood as a destination for local elementary school field trips. Today, Potter is a regular contributor to national trade publications and is collaborating on a book about Wood & Wood’s decades of artistic signs, custom millwork and artwork. Another of Potter’s signatures fills the book: humor.
When the 45th anniversary approached, the Potters knew they had only one option.
“I have always been the one trying to ignore the time thing — and just focusing on the tasks at hand with our cool crews to work with, but a couple of years ago I saw this milestone coming,” Potter said. “So Peg and I were kind of forced to talk about this pending reality — and she made it fun and rewarding by saying, ‘You know me — I love events, so let’s track down some Wood & Wood coworkers and celebrate.”
Potter does not intend to retire soon.
“As long as I enjoy coming to work, I will keep doing this,” he said. “But I would love to find someone a bit younger with a similar background and philosophy to run the business — so that we can have a lot more vacation time!”