George Zienowicz in his Trenton shop.
George Zienowicz in his Trenton shop.

By Dan Aubrey

Signmaker, designer and artist George Zienowicz remembers lettering the sign at the State House.

“It must have been in the late 1980s or early ’90s. It was a gold leaf window job, hand-painted gold leaf. That was one of the first jobs in Trenton — a long time ago,” he says.

Those were the early days of his business — a business that has slowly become something of the signature of the region. Today, Zienowicz Signs is where individuals, government agencies, organizations, and businesses looking to make a name for themselves go. In the process, he has become the region’s one-man welcoming committee.

Remembering that early job for the state, Zienowicz says with his characteristic amused smile and eye twinkle that he doesn’t think it was a referral job because his company was so new then.

“It was probably a random call from the Yellow Pages,” he says. “It was fun, because the computer lettering was just coming out. But they wanted me to do it by hand, and I was eager to do that kind of work then.”

It’s late summer, and business is slow in his Canal Street workshop. Zienowicz, a wiry man with shaved head, goatee, and a taste for self-rolled cigarettes, has time to talk about his 20-plus-year-old company, which designs, fabricates and installs signs, as well as consults for a long list of customers.

“I am going to be doing a big job for Arm & Hammer. And they asked for references,” he says. “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 and needs an illuminated sign and needs it installed.”

Zienowicz feels that his business comes from advancing an approach and style.

“Each job is a stepping stone to out-do the previous one,” he says. “We keep improving. That’s what I love about this — it’s hard to go back 20 years and say that was ‘it.’”

“It” is mainly the company’s 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. We‘ve done entire blocks through word-of-mouth. We’re pretty well known for this. It has this ‘Ye Olde Town’ look,” he says.

While he did not create the style, he did personalize it. “In art and design, to see something genuinely new, you have to go to another planet. And like in music and art, it’s really just a rearrangement of parts that have been used before. Not physical parts: ideas. Everything is just a rearrangement of what’s already been invented.”

His company has provided signs with a similar “flavor” in Pennington and Bordentown. Zienowicz says that while “welcome to” has been his signature, he enjoys a unique challenge. One example is the Cadwalader Park Bridge Sign. Although that job — a replica of the famed Trenton Makes World Takes Bridge that ended up on the front page of the New York Times — was improperly commissioned by the administration of former Trenton mayor Tony Mack, the honest Zienowicz found satisfaction in the effort.

“It was 40 feet long, and we never really built a trellis before, never did anything like that,” he says. “It’s the only way can I push myself. I like to challenge myself and say, ‘Yeah, we can do it.’”

Zienowicz is able to offer some insight into his approach and business wisdom.

“If you’re doing everything that everyone who has a printer can do, you’re not going to survive. You’re doing something that people can’t get anywhere else. I enjoy the challenges. I’ve been at it for 25 years. When I look back, my whole career has been a challenge. It’s like a way of life. Every job is a challenge,” he says.

He 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.

He grew up in Hamilton, attending Hamilton West High School, where he preferred shop over academics.

“I grew up in a biology home, where there was a love of life and living things. Plants and animals were important. And the marsh was a playground for me as a kid,” he says. The marsh is the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh (now being renamed as the Abbott Marshlands by Mercer County), where Zienowicz has provided a variety of interpretative signage, including one rising from the Crosswicks Creek to guide kayak and canoe users.

After finishing high school and immediately starting a family, Zienowicz went right to work. He attended college part time, taking classes that included a basic drawing course, but it was at the Trentonian, where he worked as a copy boy, that he became interested in graphic arts. He worked there around 10 years before stints as a carpenter and cabinet maker.

“That’s what led me into signs. When you have someone who is a graphic artist and a carpenter, you have a sign maker,” he says.

Zienowicz says that he was impressed with sign painters and began hanging out at sign shops, working part time. It wasn’t long before he went out on his own with some lettering quills, some jigsaws, and some cans of paint. Some of the companies he worked for, including Future Signs, are still operating.

“We’re friends, and help each other out,” he says.

Of the early days, Zienowicz says, “I started in my house in Trenton. That didn’t last long. Waking up to the aroma of lead paint in the living room grew old very quick. From there, I rented a large garage, and then from there in 1992 I moved into Scudder Foundry Building.” That’s the Pearl and Canal streets building that he shared with artist and wood designer David Robinson and sculptor and foundry man M.C. Reiley. AbOminOg International Arts Collective is also housed there. “I stayed there until three years go — a little under 20 years.”

In 2011, he moved down the road and paid $80,000 for the work and office space at 202 Canal St., once the home of Kirkham & Gutherie Printers.

Zienowicz says, “I hope to live here happily ever after, if the developers don’t move in and kick me out.” That allusion is connected to both the interest of investors in the district — located near the Trenton train station — and recent pressure from a prominent developer.

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,” he says.

Today he employs one full-time person, subcontracts 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,” he says.

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 a 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,” he says.

Zienowicz’s reference to music is more than casual. He has been a lifelong musician, playing the highland bagpipes in marching bands for 30 years.

“My mother was Scottish. It’s in the family. My cousins and my daughter play the bagpipes. I also played the fiddle. I spent 15 years playing in a Celtic rock band. We had two award winning CDs. We did a couple of mini tours. We started playing in a garage and then playing in pubs and then playing in concerts and festivals we played some nice areas, Electric Factory and Sellersville Theater, opening up for big touring bands. The band was called Nabodach — that’s Gallic for ‘not old men,’” he says. “You can find videos on YouTube. I retired from that since the front man in the band got ill. I do an occasional job, an occasional solo performance. Maybe sit in at Dublin Square,” the Irish pub in Bordentown.

Another occasional artistic outlet is creating in neon. “You can draw in space in light. I do sculptures and wall sconces. Little light pieces, connected to a log. They’re free form and bent. We’ve also done things for other artists, like (sculptor) Christoph Spath, who was combining glass, stone, and neon-like light for a piece at Grounds For Sculpture.“

Zienowicz is a neon history enthusiast and happily talks about its use. “I love the 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 30-year period it went down because 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 says.

He has worked on an 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 the use rarefied neon gas — and others that 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. It’s a hand crafted light bulb that can break easy. When you’re talking about light — the cost of it and how much light do you get for a dollar, LEDs (light-emitting diode) are so much more efficient. If a channel letter – or a fabricated 3-D letter — is an unexposed illumination source, LED is, hands down, the best.”

Zienowicz says that sign designs “went downhill from the 1960s. You look at stuff that was fabricated in the 20s, 30s, 40s; it looks like a piece of art. It looks like someone put some thought into it. Then it didn’t go in that direction. Things really took a bad turn in the 1990s with the advent of the computer and anyone could produce some lettering.”

Zienowicz — who now lives in Springfield Township (outside Columbus) with his daughter and granddaughter and is in a serious relationship with artist Colleen Larkin-Ayers — 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.”

But Zienowicz’s routine is anything but routine, and he looks forward to upcoming projects that will provide a “Welcome to Princeton,” interpret preserved lands, and use light to greet people at Trinity Church in Trenton. He is also ready to provide work – often pro bono — for Artworks, S.A.G.E. (Stylez Advancing Graffiti’s Evolution), and “tiny groups of artists that are around here that don’t have the wherewithal and means.”

It is all a sign of being part of the community. “I’m just a home boy. I couldn’t think of moving. I have been here all my life. I have the kind of job that is connected to geography. It would take me 20 years to be George Zienowicz somewhere else.”

He should write that in gold lettering.