Signs of the Times

Assorted signs outside the office at Signs & Decal Corporation in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

“Exit,” “Electrical Closet,” “All Tracks.” Who directs New Yorkers through type and light? From small and ubiquitous markers to massive bespoke steel numerals, the architectural signage of Signs & Decal Corporation has pointed the way through New York City since 1971. But the Khalfan family’s signage story stretches back further. Babu Khalfan got his start in the business hand-painting license plates in Tanzania, eventually producing traffic signage for the entire country. A move to New York following the end of colonial rule only briefly interrupted Khalfan’s sign-making endeavors, and in recent years his sons have taken over the booming business he built from scratch. Since setting up shop in Greenpoint 35 years ago, the company has cornered the market on wayfinding for major transit and infrastructure projects, as well as high-end private clients. Signs by S&D can be found everywhere from LaGuardia Airport and PS101 to Hudson Yards and the New York Public Library. As some of the last manufacturers in East Brooklyn, and even in an age of dematerialized information, these city makers keep New York on track with steel, vinyl, acrylic, and zinc.

Signs & Decal team members installing at sign at LaGuardia Airport. Image via Signs & Decal

The Company

Babu Khalfan (BK):

I had an artistic talent. If you bought a scooter or car, then you would come to me to paint the number on the license plate. There was an Italian company that would call me every time they sold a scooter. That was how I started, and little by little, I made a sign company, a really big business.

When I came here, it was new weather, new conditions, new people, new market, new everything. Dar es Salaam is a small town compared to New York City. I worked on signs with a guy in Forest Hills for a while, and I got a little bit of a hang of what is going on here in New York. I was a fast learner. And then I wanted to expand with him, but he didn’t want to expand, so I said, “OK, you stay where you are, I’ve gotta get out.”

I sent out letters: “If you need any signs, call me.” First, I got an order from a national cleaning contractor, a nice order of about 100 signs. “DANGER,” “PEOPLE WORKING ABOVE,” those kinds of signs. Then a law came in that said that every school bus should have a sign on the top that said “SCHOOL BUS” with flashing lights, which meant I suddenly got a big order of about 1,000 signs.

Papered on the wall, plans for a big Amtrak job.
Dan Levine (DL):

We’ve always been closer to building wayfinding systems and transit signage than we have been to retail signage. There is a need for durability and a need to meet building code requirements. Given the interface with the public, there are certain materials that we’re mandated to use — typically aluminum, stainless steel, brass.

There is the classic two-layer acrylic — red lettering with white in the background —standard in most buildings. You know the look I’m talking about. There is an industry where you can get those: fire extinguisher signs, “EXIT HERE,” “ROAD WORK,” “MERGE LANE,” and all that kind of stuff. You can pre-print those and get an order of magnitude. Our stuff is always built to spec.

Current jobs moving through stages of fabrication.
A big batch of custom zinc signs waits on the drying rack.
DL:

The process starts in the body shop, with the metal fabricators, the grinders and the welders and the choppers. Metal on its own is mill-finished and hideous. So that metal goes to metal finishing, for all the sanding and the buffing, maybe even filling up little cracks. Then comes the paint shop. As the process moves along, the raw material is adjusted to fit in the function of the space. Structure is created out of it, giving it the finishing touches so it actually feels like it belongs in the space. Then, by adding language, you’ve got the communication component that makes it a sign.

The bulk of our income comes from major general contractors, or GCs. Some of it’s public money, some of it’s private money, some of it’s public-private partnerships. Builders on the big jobs are good to work with because the drawings come in and they make sense and we just go to it. But there’s also walk-in business. People come in with drawings.

Our prices are going to be higher than, say, a smaller signage shop in Flushing. But our quality control is impeccable. If there’s the slightest chip, we scrap that sign. It’s like Gordon Ramsay in there, we don’t serve anything that’s subpar. Gisella, she’s got eyes like a hawk, she touches signs all day.

Gissella Palacios, responsible for quality control at Signs & Decal, inspects signs and checks order completion.
Abbas Khlafan (AK):

We tend to be very infrastructure-focused. When there’s airports, train stations, convention centers, we’re part of that team.

BK:

We did the World Trade Center. We are doing about four buildings and all the way underneath. That’s our biggest job. From 50 companies bidding on that job, they narrowed it down to twelve, then narrowed it down to three, then we got it.

Haas Khalfan (HK):

We got the contract for LaGuardia a couple years ago. We’ll probably be there for another ten years.

DL:

One of the things that makes Signs & Decal so very New York is the melting pot. This is an international workforce. We have people from Honduras, Guyana, Mexico, Ghana, India, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Romanian, the Punjab. We are a minority-owned shop with a diverse staff. If a general contractor has to fulfill the requirement to have diversity on the payroll, they can bring us in, and they get two for the price of one. They get diversity and signage.

Gurbachan S. Landay, one of the company’s most senior fabricators, works with a traditional router.
DL:

The first question I asked when I joined the company was, how can we be competitive manufacturers? Because we’re manufacturing in a city with some of most expensive overhead per square foot in the world. But from here we can mobilize and get onsite. We also manage installations. If there’s any problem, we can do a walk-through and find solutions.

Most of the clients that come to us want stuff made in America. Some of them have clauses in their contracts requiring things to be Made in New York, including raw material sourced from local areas.

Haas Khalfan (HK):

Even though it’s more expensive to do work in the city, that’s one of the reasons why a lot of our clients give us business, because they get to touch and feel and see how the product’s being made.

DL:

New Yorkers like to see New Yorkers building New York.

How It’s Made

DL:

Stainless steel is the go-to for transit work. It’s heavy, it’s extremely durable, it’s strong, but it has a certain amount of give. You can’t carve into it as much. It won’t be mutilated the way aluminum will. Aluminum’s a lot softer, while steel stands up to being cleaned quite a bit. Those properties make it the MTA’s material of choice.

Stainless steel signage, part of a transit job.
DL:

We have a Polish designer here and he’s repulsed by the degree to which the Americans use these heavy materials. He’s like, “Everything steel! Everything so heavy all the time!” But it’s the American way. The European way is lighter, brighter, and maybe not as permanent.

The water jet in action, cutting shapes out of a sheet of steel.
Gabe works the water jet via computer.
DL:

We can acid-etch stainless steel using a photo process. We’re one of the few acid-etch shops in the city. Or we can go right through it with the plasma or water jet. Somebody realized that if you could take sandpaper and shoot it like a beam at three times the speed of sound it would cut through anything. The water jet shoots the garnet through eight-inch steel to make a perfect cut, like a knife through butter.

Dan demonstrates the danger of “the Picker.”
DL:

One of the first things that Abbas told me when I started here is that people who build buildings are concerned with technical things, they’re concerned with wind factor, etcetera, but our greatest enemy to the sign is the Picker. The Picker will take apart an appliqué, a beautiful fine plastic letter cut on a laser machine, or our beautiful braille balls. For signs that are going to last forever — for the Dursts, the Brookfields, or for people using public money who want it to last a long time — we offer the premium stuff. This method’s called a reverse etch.

We’re also one of the only shops in New York that’s allowed to make zinc signs for the School Construction Authority. The school construction people know about the Picker situation. You’ve got to make wayfinding available to people with disabilities, including people with visual disabilities. One bored sign-picking kid later, and now the sign no longer means anything to somebody who’s visually disabled. But etching is more permanent, and zinc etches really well. The code is 1-32nd of an inch. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a very big issue in the signage world.

Zinc signage, with braille, destined for a public school.
Signs for PS 101 awaiting quality control and delivery.
DL:

Working with zinc is closely regulated, simply because etching in general is really tough. It means you’re throwing acid around Brooklyn. It takes serious amounts of acid to do a batch of zinc signs, and we have to use it to a certain extent to exhaust it. Then we’ve got to dispose of it, do all this paperwork and get it out of here, and there are only certain environments where its use is permissible. And you’ve got to get your zinc from certain approved vendors. The whole supply chain for which public money is allocated is very, very controlled.

Evolving Signage

DL:

So let’s talk about the basic signage shapes: You’ve got the cabinet, and you’ve got the pylon.

Steel channel letters screw into place with hidden fasteners.
Assorted signs.
DL:

For cabinets, you’ve got channel letters, which are basically cabinets formed in the shape of what we recognize as a Roman letter, and you’ve got light boxes.

For a modern lightbox, you can take an aluminum or a stainless steel face, and push acrylic through so the metal is attached to a big sheet of acrylic. Then you blast that with an array of LEDs, so all the letters will be this beautiful crisp, nice, milky, perfect white that looks like angel writing on this very sturdy piece of metal. It’s graphically very pleasing. It’s probably the most premium non-digital sign you can have. That’s what is used on really high-end retail.

Leftovers from acrylic cut-outs.
Acrylic push-through lightboxes by Signs & Decal at Paulus Hook terminal in Jersey City. Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr
HK:

Before it was all neon and glass tubes, and a maintenance killer for the client. When you put neon up, it looks great, but if the wind blows the wrong way one day, it’ll burn out. Now the advancement of LEDs and new types of lighting has put neon into the Stone Age.

DL:

Then there’s formed plastic. Back in the day you could pick one of three typefaces and they came out of kits. It’s that old laundromat look.

Prior to systems being in place to manipulate steel, the go-to was enamel. Enamel signs are a classic signage system. The finish is gorgeous. But it’s expensive and somewhat limiting, and there’s only one or two places that do it now. The MTA still likes to use it for historical purposes. We can think back to the time before printing was common: If you think about street signs, a lot of them have a pressed feel. Almost like they’re done by the same shops that might have done license plates.

BK:

Computers changed the whole industry. We used to cut metal by blade, and now it’s water jet and laser.

Computer numeric control allows for unprecedented accuracy and intricacy from large cutting machines like this water jet.
DL:

These are robots, or computer-aided tools. It’s really the beating heart of this place. With computer numeric control (CNC), cutting machines have the ability to follow a digital file. The technology came into being through the auto industry in the ‘70s.

Before CNCs, there would be a person pushing a thing with two saws, and everything else would be sanders and grinders and grinders and sanders. The router is your original CNC device. The same CNC thinking can be used to control the water jet. These are all heavy machines which can produce a lot of force.

One of the other major changes that came about ten years ago is the large-format printer. Printing was limited to sheet size, and then one day, somebody came up with technology that allows you to print on rolled media. Before that, you were working with sheets, or tiling.

“The Arizona,” a large-format ink-jet printer.
DL:

This is the Arizona, the mother of all ink-jets. This is a half-million-dollar printer. Each bag of ink is around $600. The ink is UV-cured, which means it’s basically stable against water. You can put UV-cured inks on almost anything, but of course you couldn’t put a four by eight sheet of aluminum into a printer. But someone said, “Wait a minute, why does the printer have to be something on a roll? Why not just have a print head that can glide all around a table?” So we got one, and now we can print right onto the aluminum, no media in between. We can print on steel, we can print on glass.

Rolls of colored vinyl.
A large vinyl window sign being installed by Signs & Decal at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, in Manhattan. Image via Signs & Decal
DL:

Vinyl has become increasingly popular. One thing that changed was digitally routed vinyl, which we call the plotters, basically a smart machine that could do paths with a little X-acto cutting the vinyl. People started sticking those everywhere, instead of getting the guy with the paint.

Juan Peña (JP):

I just did the Louis Vuitton building on Fifth Avenue. It took three nights to install. It’s 140 feet up in the air — it’s gigantic. It was just me on the ladder finishing up on the last day.

That project is installed at night because they don’t close Fifth Avenue down during the day for installations. So it’s always working into the night, stopping at six in the morning.

Right now I’m installing vinyl at Neiman Marcus. Wind is our biggest enemy.

DL:

This is a sign with facial recognition built in. It’s plugged into a database that reads moods and recognizes emotions so they can spit out a request for targeted advertising.

This is nothing compared to what a basic computer can do. This at least doesn’t know your name. Your iPhone knows your name.

This is one of the first samples that we’ve got in. It’s part of a trend that we’re moving towards in the next few years.

We’re dealing with the architectural, so there is a sense of adding value to a space with valuable materials, adding value that you wouldn’t get if you just filled the place with a bunch of monitors. When you want to express a lot of information quickly to a lot of people, digital is the way to go. It has its place, but it doesn’t create a sense of place. It almost dematerializes, by pushing information where once was built environment.

All photographs by Amy Howden-Chapman unless otherwise noted.

Signs & Decal Corporation, founded in 1971, fabricates architectural signage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

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Citymakers

New Yorkers working outside the public eye to address the city’s daily needs and craft its future.