sign language: how bold design bolsters neighborhoods

Bruce Farkas is wearing a big smile. The owner of Signature Sign just mounted a giant grilled cheese sandwich -- complete with gooey cheese, massive slabs of bread, and cartoon-like crossbones -- above the new Melt Bar & Grilled restaurant in Cleveland Heights.

"This was a fun one to make," Farkas admits. "It has a big impact from the street."

The brash new sign does more than make a person crave a grilled cheese sandwich; it boldly conveys Melt's distinctive brand while announcing that something big is happening inside.

"We wanted our sign to breathe new life into that corner -- to establish it as an up-and-coming district," says Melt owner Matt Fish. "The location was a gamble. The building had been run-down and empty for years. We wanted to get noticed."

As long as there have been peddlers there have been commercial signs. Ancient Egyptians used signs and symbols to advertise wares that couldn't be seen from the street. British shopkeepers marketed their goods to the illiterate masses using hand-painted pictures.

In the early 20th century, as the U.S. entered the era of mass marketing, sign makers began to design more artistic creations. As residents relocated to the suburbs, the sign makers followed, increasingly focusing their attentions on shopping malls. These days, however, as current trends shift back downtown, a new era of creative sign making is adding visual appeal to the urban landscape.

"Today's business owners are more interested in pushing the envelope than they were 10 years ago, especially in cities," says Farkas, who began his career as a sign painter. His company, Signature Sign, is one of five companies in the Cleveland area that fabricates large-scale signs. Farkas launched his business almost 25 years ago and today employs 15 people.

Dramatic signage not only perks up a neighborhood visually, it makes cities more competitive by helping independent retailers stand out against national chains.

Tom Starinsky, Associate Director of the Historic Gateway and Warehouse District development corps, says that downtown businesses such as Phoenix Coffee, Lola Bistro and Brasa Grill are making a big splash with creative signage. "Design is a very important element of a healthy, revitalized commercial district," he says. The Nauti Mermaid, a casual seafood restaurant, cited a 20-percent uptick in sales during the year following the installation of their sign, he offers as proof.

"Signs not only tell people where a business is located, they create a sense of identity," explains Frank Piccirillo, a design specialist with the City of Cleveland's Storefront Renovation Program. "I tell my clients, if your budget allows for it, we need to look at the sign as art."

Citing East Fourth Street as an example, Piccirillo notes that creative signs often work best "in concert" with other similar businesses. "Part of that [neighborhood's] energy is created by signage."

A bold sign can also help stand-alone businesses become destinations. Piccirillo uses the Beachland Ballroom in North Collinwood as an example. A pioneer in 2000 when it opened, the music venue's retro sign is both a nod to the past and a piece of neon street art. Today, it serves as a beacon for indie rockers while attracting other indie businesses to the street.

Of course, not every operator desires -- or can afford -- a splashy new sign. "More than half the time, the best designs are left on the drawing table," laments Farkas. Melt's new sign, for example, cost about $16,000.

Fortunately for cash-strapped entrepreneurs, help is available. Cleveland's Storefront Renovation Program can provide both design help and financial assistance by way of a 40-percent rebate. Cuyahoga County has a similar program.

Not all signs need to be expensive budget-busters to make a splash. Piccirillo cites the Vine and Bean Café on Larchmere as an example of impactful signage on a shoestring budget. The modest sign may lack the firepower of a neon objet d'art, but it still attracts attention thanks to its unusual colors and distinctive graphics.

To understand the forebears of today's creative signs, Piccirillo says you have to go back to the electric signs of the 30's and 40's: "The heyday of sign making." The rise of the suburban strip mall during the 60's and 70's changed everything, shifting attention and efforts from downtown to the 'burbs. In the 80's and '90s, U.S. downtowns began making a steady comeback, catalyzing redevelopment projects such as East Fourth Street.

"Places like East Fourth Street are like authentic versions of the kind of community that's created by a mall," says Piccirillo. "To create that, you have to have great signs."

Warehouse District's Tom Starinsky agrees. He sees creative signage as an essential tool that helps independent businesses compete. Most chains wouldn't dream of letting their franchisees open until the signage is up. Why should independents behave any different?

"Businesses underestimate the power of signage," he says.

Given Cleveland's present challenges, creative signage is crucial for the city's rejuvenation, he insists. "Cities like New York have a density that we don't, so many businesses there only have window signage, or none at all. In Cleveland, we need creative signs -- they're helping us to create a sense of place."

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Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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