The Lighting

Lawrin reflects on his career to glean lightsource solutions.
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Roughly five years ago, I decided to compile a list of all the restaurants and clubs for which ARTfx has fabricated signs. My company established a reputation for unique work over the last 25 years, and our illustrative fabrication style complements many entertainment and dining venues. I knew we’d handled many clubs and restaurants, but I wanted to quantify and track this work to update our general records and develop future, targeted-marketing campaigns.

Prior to 1992, our jobs were manually recorded. After having converted to new tracking systems, many handwritten job folders were tossed. Every time I remembered a club or restaurant project, I jotted it down. In addition, I pored through old photos and paper and computer project files. Despite losing dozens to the obscuring power of time, today’s quantifiable number stands at more than 360, and, fortunately, we’ve accumulated a portfolio of photos for more than half of them.

Most of these signs, whether for a corner pizza parlor or a large-scale development, contained some form of internal lighting; the remainder required external illumination. Because lighting presents a wide array of complexities and challenges, sign designers should possess the ability to handle any type of sign installation. If they only specify lit or nonlit signs, their capabilities are limited.

The Caesarean story

One sign I especially liked our creation for an Italian restaurant at the Mohegan Sun casino, Pompeii Caesar. It wasn't the most unusual piece of work at the casino, but it represented a tasteful culmination of the prevalent fabrication style. We achieved the sign’s copy by stencil-cutting the 0.125-in., aluminum face and pushing through ¾-in., clear acrylic copy laminated with blackened metal and backed with 3M™’s 70% diffuser vinyl. For a counterpoint, we backed a decorative squiggly line with Gerber Scientific Product’s translucent, royal-blue vinyl. Simple cool white fluorescent lamps illuminated the sign.

The push-through copy glowed nicely against the sign face which featured a classic, aged-rust finish. For the first 100 or so signs we fabricated that incorporated this look, we used expensive chemical treatments that would react to metalized paints in a catalyzing process that artificially accelerated steel oxidation. After instituting some value engineering, we saved thousands of dollars by duplicating the look with latex paint mixed with layers of acrylic polyurethane.

A Crown-ing achievement

People frequently ask me what’s been my favorite ARTfx-produced sign. That’s a tough question; more than 40,000 signs have left our shop, and I enjoy different ones for different reasons. But, I always remember one sign in particular. We designed and built it for one of my oldest and best friends, Bill Gorra, who owns Simoniz USA (formerly Syndet), the car-care goliath.

Thirty years ago, I designed a seemingly endless series of signs for car washes that featured Bill’s company’s products. They were kooky -- you may have seen them in your local car-wash line. They comprised illuminated boxes and cylinders festooned with bright translucent faces and flashing neon that carried such messages as, “Now receiving pressure polyglaze,” or “‘Now applying tire shine.” With this campaign, Bill brought a bit of entertainment to an otherwise mundane industry, and his company flourished.

During the ’80s, Bill successfully moonlighted as a restaurant and nightclub entrepreneur. As with his car-wash ventures, Bill vigorously embraced illuminated signs as a key presentation aspect. In 1989, he commissioned ARTfx to design a logo and construct a monstrous marquee sign for the Crown, a 15,000-sq.-ft., New Haven, CT-based nightclub that had been a landmark movie theatre. Its sign and three-sided readerboard, built circa 1955, needed major repairs.

The readerboard was relatively simple to recreate, but the Crown’s 15 x 11-ft., rounded-edge, trapezoidal, projecting sign presented challenges. New Haven’s zoning board had grandfathered this relic with a stipulation that its shape or size never change and that it never be moved offsite.

Claiming onsite work would be impossible due to the sign’s deteriorated condition, we successfully petitioned to move it to our shop. Although I’ve always considered myself an honest guy who runs an upstanding operation, we hauled the old sign directly to a scrap-metal yard and proceeded to build a sign of very similar size and proportion. (Hopefully, no former members of the New Haven zoning board will see this article.)

The sign’s text left considerable negative space. To fill this void, I designed an abstract series of cool-hued, repetitive, argon stripes for the top and bottom of the sign under the copy. We fabricated “The Crown” as open channel letters with magenta-neon outlines and lime-green diamonds in the vertical centers. A stainless-steel track ran around the copy’s perimeter, and we filled punched holes with backlit, white acrylic behind the face to provide the illusion of retro, incandescent chaser lights.

We had the sign unveiled the night of the club’s debut; its lighting elicited a chorus of “ooh”s from

the nearly 1,000 who’d gathered to watch the sign’s inaugural lighting. I thought of my days as an art-school painter, when I swore never to embrace commercialism. Yet, there I was, a sellout basking in the glory.

Something fishy

I observe general, overhead-lighting guidelines. If lightsources are too far from the sign, shadows disappear, and the lighting’s impact weakens. If illumination is too close or oblique, the shadows blur the form, and only the edges are illuminated. For instance, a spotlight within a shielded fixture 3 ft. from a wall will shed approximately 27 sq. ft. of light. If you move it one foot further back, the range becomes 64 sq. ft.

However, this guideline doesn’t apply when the lightsource is moved excessively far away, because the light diminishes and becomes too diffused to measure. Conversely, if it’s too close, excessive reflection negates the lighting’s effectiveness. Wattage, shutter size, illumination type and the substrate’s reflectivity also pose factors to consider.

For external lighting, we’ve found lighting offers optimal effects between 2 and 4 ft. from an object. For a sign that spans 24 sq. ft., we typically place two spotlights 3 ft. from the sign and 3 ft. from each other, which offers 27 sq. ft. of illumination. For this sign, we aimed them inward, but crossed the beams. This ensured uniform lighting, moderate shadow and optimal light diffusion.

Another of my favorite ARTfx restaurant signs entailed a 4 x 6-ft. chunk of solid mahogany that we painstakingly carved, sculpted and blasted in the mid-’80s for the Noisy Oyster, a seafood eatery in downtown Hartford, CT. Its external lighting required significant planning. Interpreted from a submitted logo, its heavily detailed forms needed careful accentuation for the right balance of highlight and shadow.

For this particular sign, which sat in the restaurant lobby, illumination was successfully accomplished with two very simple, traditional, inset, ceiling-scoop lights. Wattage must be toyed with in every circumstance; we used 100W, incandescent bulbs for this sign.

Unfortunately, the Noisy Oyster received a death-knell review from a local critic soon after opening. The owners hurriedly changed names and immediately called us for a new sign. Of course, they needed something cheap; so, in lieu of payment, I asked for the original sign back. It was worth more to me than a few thousand dollars.

In retrospect, I’m glad I got it back, because the sign, now my most precious knickknack, still hangs on my office wall as a dramatic reminder of the skill required to handcraft signage during the pre-computer era.

No more Flushing

In 2004, one of our salesmen stopped by Chengdu, a well respected, upscale Chinese restaurant in West Hartford, CT. The owners were moving and needed a new sign. Generally, we charge for design services and make formal presentations to our clients, but this particular salesman, who wisely left the sign business, slipped a design request through the back door. When the art department sought input, he instructed them to put together a quick computer sketch for channel letters because he told them the customer wanted simple signage.

The salesman got a signed contract by explaining to the restaurant owners that the layout was just a suggestive concept and that the real sign would be something very attractive. By the time I was aware of the job, it was too late. I stumbled upon a set of channel letters in our shop that read, “Chengdu.” They comprised a hokey, overused script with red faces, white sides and brass trimcap.

I began to have a meltdown. When I confronted the salesman, he said, "Listen, the lady in charge over there was a real pain in the neck. I didn't want to get you involved. Believe me, this is the look she wanted." I replied that it was our duty to educate the public and differentiate good design from bad. He notified me the restaurant was opening in a couple of days, and the owner and her son were momentarily stopping by to review their sign, but he couldn’t meet them. He’d concocted an impromptu meeting so I could defend the mess he made.

I invited the clients into my office to get acquainted before taking them into the shop. In heavily accented English, the woman thanked me for my time. She said, "He told us we can have a very different style sign. We like modern. We like different. We don't want [an] old-style Chinese restaurant sign like something from Flushing, NY." At least I wasn't surprised in the shop when the woman launched into a tirade: "This sign is not what we want! I told him! Modern, not old! Modern! This looks like something from Flushing!"

After much discussion in the shop, we opted to salvage the sign. First, we sprayed the trim and black to kill the brass. For a spontaneous look, we routed and hand-hammered a jagged, aluminum-plate outline to fit over the trim cap. For further effect, we rolled 0.042-in. aluminum into a pair of humongous chopsticks we painted to resemble wood.

For effect, we added four erratic, clear-glass squiggles that we pumped with argon. We use clear glass pumped with argon because the gas often separates and spirals through the inside of the tube, which creates animation. Here, we replicated steam. The woman returned to review the reworking and was thoroughly pleased.

An expressive hush

We also handled a large expansion at the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, NY. This project yielded many great signs, but a simple sign for Hush, a nightclub, won first place in the illuminated wall sign category of the 2006 SOT Electric Sign Competition. The Hush sign was comprised of fabricated halo letters finished in a copper patina. The faces were stencil cut and featured pushed through ½-in., acrylic insets.

We backlit it with 8300K, 12mm argon that contains an opaque-black center. Earlier, I mentioned that capitalizing on a sign’s light within a sign to produce multiple effects. In this case, the contrast of the halo and stencil lighting was a winning formula. Since the Seneca Niagara project, we’ve manufactured numerous signs for restaurants and nightclubs, and the list of exotic and eccentric creations continually grows.

I enjoyed sharing the details of some internally illuminated and externally illuminated ARTfx signs with you. I hope these projects illustrate the importance of sign lighting. Each project is unique, and all forms of lighting must be considered. Restaurant and nightclubs rely heavily on the illumination of their signs because much of their clientele arrives after dark. I often say that light is the fourth dimension of the sign business; without it, the other dimensions don’t exist.