The signs that Danny Popkin collects and uses to decorate his restored buildings are just as iconic as the buildings themselves — or maybe even more so. Many of them were made by George Zienowicz, right, whose hand-lettered signs point the way on some of the county’s most prominent businesses and institutions.
“We’re sign designers, fabricators, installers, and consultants,” Zienowicz says about the Trenton-based company he started from scratch that has left its mark on municipalities throughout the region. “I am going to be doing a big job for Arm & Hammer. And they asked for references, so I said here you go: D&R Greenway Land Trust, Hopewell Borough, Pennington Borough, City of Bordentown, Delaware River Basin Commission, City of Trenton, Trenton Downtown Association, College of New Jersey, the town of Princeton. These are the big jobs, but we still do the small ones: the mom and pop business, Brothers Pizza in Mercerville, and a lot of routine work like a business moving into a strip mall that needs an illuminated sign.”
The company is perhaps best known for its work on urethane simulated-wood panels, like Drumthwacket’s night blue sign created by carving letters with a V-like indentation into the surface and then painting them gold. “They’re three-dimensional signs; they’re not just painted surfaces. We’ve done entire towns in this style. It has this ‘Ye Old Town’ look.”
Zienowicz was born in Trenton in 1956 to two parents working in education: his father was a biology teacher at Pemberton High School and later a professor at the College of New Jersey. His mother worked in the college’s administration office.
After finishing high school and immediately starting a family, Zienowicz went right to work at the Trentonian newspaper as a copy boy, running ads around. “That’s what got me interested in the graphic arts, hanging around in the ad department, watching how an ad got approved before going into the paper. I worked there probably 10 years. Then I had a brief stint working as a carpenter, spent about five years as a cabinet maker, and that’s what led me into signs. When you have someone who is a graphic artist and a carpenter, you have a sign maker.”
After a brief stint in the housepainting business, he rented a large garage, and then from there in 1992, moved into the Scudder Foundry Building, where he stayed for almost 20 years.
Then in 2011 he moved down the road and paid $80,000 for the long-abandoned and fire-gutted workshop and office space at 202 Canal Street, once the home of Kirkham & Gutherie Printers. “I hope to live here happily ever after, if the developers don’t move in and kick me out,” Zienowicz says.
The move has proved to be positive for Zienowicz, who says that he weathered the recession and has modified his operations in order to be more effective. “(The business) used to be bigger. We were a four-man shop,” he says, adding that his volume was a million dollars. However, that amount was accompanied by rising business costs, including salaries, equipment, maintenance, and insurance. “In order to do it right and get the big contracts you have to have worker’s comp, contractor liability, vehicle insurance, and building insurance. And there was nothing left over. I would rather scale back and focus on the custom stuff and art-related sign projects.”
Today he employs one full-time person, sub contracts as needed, and takes advantage of technology. “The new machines have sped up fabrication. What would take a day years ago can be accomplished in an hour. I have always stayed on the edge of (technology). The computer helps you produce a sign and do a lot of wonderful things. But we see it as just a tool.”
And while Zienowicz uses welding and metal fabrication (mainly aluminum), one of his most important practices has been his willingness to try new things and maintain old approaches. That includes work in neon. “Early on I took an interest in neon tube bending. I bought some neon equipment and didn’t know what I was doing. Then I ran into this guy at the Rescue Mission. He was apparently a tube bender when it was trade, and he guided me in the right direction. Certain things are not taught, you need some direction. It’s kind of like playing a musical instrument: you can’t get out of a book or video how a molten glass will look in your hand. There’s nothing like doing it like hands-on. People say I have talent, but I don’t — I’m just stubborn. That’s my path.”
Zienowicz is a neon history enthusiast. “I love to look at that stuff. It’s got a short history. From the late 1930s to the 1950s everyone had a neon sign. But after that it went down because of the problems associated with it: it’s a hand-crafted product and could break. Then a cheaper way to make a sign was to make a box and put a plastic sheet and put fluorescent lights behind it.”
He has worked on a number of prominent neon signs in the area from Rossi’s Tavern to the Record Collector and Laurel Notch Motel in Bordentown, and he has the expertise to explain the distinction between real neon lights — ones that use rarefied neon gas — and others that only use the name. “When it’s a clear tube it glows they go by the name of a neon sign but they’re fluorescent — they’re filled with argon gas. It is the combination of the argon gas and fluorescent powder in the tubes that give the different colors. They’re no different than overhanging lights. The way they are fabricated is different.”
Noting that there are only a few people who handle neon, Zienowicz says that in addition to dealing with a fire that needs to be 800 degrees, neon is “time consuming and labor intensive. These are the reasons that you don’t see it any more. When you’re talking about how much light do you get for a dollar, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are so much more efficient.”
However, he says, “exposed neon has a look that can’t be reproduced. The LEDs don’t have that piercing power. Nothing compares to an exposed neon sign yet.” That is the feature that still brings in the occasional client, such as the Timeless Tat2 shop in Bordentown.
Zienowicz says that sign designs “went downhill from the 1960s. You look at stuff that was fabricated in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s; it looks like a piece of art, like someone put some thought into it. Things took a bad turn in the 1990s with the advent of the computer and anyone could produce some lettering.”
Zienowicz says another factor that affects his business is the inconsistency of municipal regulations and their potentially restrictive historical guidelines. “Signs are the language of commerce. Signs are the spokesperson — the spoke-things — for a businessman. You want diversity,” he says.
But what has remained the same is the need for design ideas, he says. “That’s something that computers can’t take away. You have to be a blend between an artist and businessman. Everything we do is art, but it’s routine.”