When you imagine classic New York City (like, for example, the booze-fueled tuxedoed roaring 20’s), neon illuminates it. Delis, movie theaters, diners, performance halls, liquor stores—the social hubs that lined Manhattan were gilded with electrified tubes of rarefied gases, and gave the impression that this was a city of play and prosperity. Unfortunately, neon is finicky; and one by one the lighted show stoppers fell into disrepair, only to be replaced by cheaper fluorescents and, eventually, LEDs.
But now, in Brooklyn, just as many handicrafts have re-emerged in the era of Everything Is Digitized, so, too, have neon and hand-lettered signs. And here, their re-birth is due in no small part to David Barnett and Mac Pohanka, the multi-talented design and fabrication team behind Noble Signs. At places like Bushwick’s King Noodle, Crown Heights’s Super Power, Greenpoint’s No. 7, and dozens more (they’re responsible for more than 100 signs throughout the city, around 30 of which are neon), these longtime best friends, artists, and builders are doing their part to make New York City glow again.
“We’re doing the new Golden Girls spot in Manhattan,” Barnett tells me right away, with an excited smile, when he and Pohanka sat down at Walter’s, a café in Bushwick. Yes, “Golden Girls café” is what it sounds like: a restaurant in Washington Heights based on the 80’s TV show about four retired Floridian women. And for that, Barnett and Pohanka are a good fit; they specialize in materializing a very specific nostalgia.
“Everything we do, we do because we miss it,” says Barnett, who grew up in New Jersey, but would get doses of extant classic neon when he made trips to Manhattan. “Growing up, and seeing how beautiful the city used to be, and how beautiful it could become”—he says, is what drives them.
Barnett and Pohanka met their freshman year at Grinnell College in Iowa, and bonded over comic books. “That’s when we started figuring out we wanted to work on stuff together, and design,” said Barnett. The college had an unusually large endowment (the fourth largest in the country behind Harvard, Princeton, and Yale), so it was actually easy to start their own book publishing venture.
“We fill a very interesting gap which makes our signs both interesting and affordable.”
“The first was a short story, the second a cook book, then a comic travel journal, a novella, and a coloring book,” said Pohanka, naming off their creations. “We thought we were going to go into publishing. It melded a lot of the things were were interested in.” But it also taught them, at an early stage in their friendship, how to be business partners. “Some people say you shouldn’t start a business with your best friend, but because our business was always based on being friends, if we have a problem with how to get something done, we can just openly and easily discuss it,” Pohanka says, matter-of-factly.
Post-college, they moved to New York. Barnett had stints designing book covers and posters, and Pohanka worked in the service industry a few nights a week; creatively he built sets and props for film. Then, through a friend at Fourth Avenue Pub in Gowanus, Pohanka was asked to make a hand-lettered sign for the owners’s new Clinton Hill project, The Fulton Grand. “You’re handy, can you convert this logo based on Kentucky Gentleman whiskey?” Pohanka was asked. It would become the first beta-version Noble Sign.
The Fulton Grand turned into more work for Pohanka in Manhattan, first at Amsterdam Ale House on the Upper West Side; in another gig, he moved into full business branding. The growing roster of services made Pohanka think a legitimate business with Barnett would be possible. At that time, Barnett had a full-time job designing with Damon Dash. His art space called Poppington would lead to their first neon project: a 12-foot-long gallery sign that read P-O-P-P-I-N-G-T-O-N and glowed red and blue.
Once it was finished the fabricators said, “Ok, come get it,” Barnett recalled. “And we were like, ‘How do we install it? and they were like: I don’t know.” It was such a dead craft that not even neon fabricators could wire and install their creations, nor knew anybody else who could. Barnett called Pohanka. He came over and, after breaking a few tubes, he figured it out.
In 2013, the friends incorporated their business. Other neon fabricators like Precision, Let There Be Neon! and Lite Brite says Pohanka, do incredible work, but it’s very high end, and they most often work with artists. “We fill a very interesting gap which makes our signs both interesting and affordable,” he says.
And, while there are a lot of design studios—which they also are—there are very few full service sign companies. They not only design, fabricate, and install all of their hand-lettered and neon signs, they also do branding, things like menus and coasters, whole business build outs, design and business consulting, and maintain all of their signs, for the long haul. “We pride ourselves on doing things others won’t,” says Pohanka.
“We’re trying to fill a void in some sense,” says Barnett. “Being a sign company is a really great way to do it,”—first, because neon is beautiful, and so they want to bring more and more back to the city; but also because, in doing so, they get to work with local entrepreneurs. In their opinion, they’re the ones who really make New York what it is. “We get to work with small businesses, which is the greatest thing,” says Barnett. “It’s just constantly rewarding.”
Images by Dana DeCoursey