by Erin Grycel
photography by Michael P. Bailey
A gigantic, fabricated aluminum foot towers above the exterior entrance of the Nickelodeon headquarters in Burbank. In downtown Los Angeles, Arco Towers has more than 1,000 different room number, name piece and restroom signs. The upcoming aquarium in Long Beach consists of multiple evacuation maps mounted on the interior walls.
For personal necessity, direction or pleasure, each of these signs stand out to the public’s eye. The man behind the iron curtain is Kenneth Hiebsch, owner of Creative Metal Arts, who customizes architectural signs throughout the country.
“A lot of people will just look at the [sign] and never understand the work that has gone into it,” says Hiebsch. “For most people, it will just be a letter on the wall.”
Since September of 1988, Hiebsch has maintained a specialized type of business consisting of aluminum, brass and stainless steel signs, along with various other metal materials. “I am in the upper end of the industry,” says Hiebsch.
In contrast to “mom and pop stores,” his main accounts include office complexes, medical establishments and the television industry. Geriann Noriega, free lance artist subcontracted from Spectra Painting, says, “Ken has a higher caliber of skill than just a regular sign maker. He creates sculptures out of metal and plastic.”
Obtaining a four year apprenticeship at Cox Neon in Montebello and working for Ampersand, a sign making company in Pasadena, for 13 years, Hiebsch learned the “whole facet of the trade.”
“I worked with the metal and went to school two nights a week,” says Hiebsch. “I went to Pasadena City College, Garfield Adult School, welding school and various others,” he adds.
Instead of relying on store front advertising, Creative Metal Arts has flourished from “word of mouth.” “Once you know people, they keep coming back to you if you do good quality work,” says Hiebsch. “For instance, I have six designers who use me, which gives me an inside track into accounts.”
The man behind many of the accounts Creative Metal Arts obtains is general contractor Richard Rosenburg, who works closely with Hiebsch. “It is a good two-way street for us,” says Hiebsch, commenting on the job accounts that are exchanged through the two men. “He is the sales person, and I have gained a lot of work from him.”
One of the trademarks of the company is the “out of the ordinary signs” that are produced. “This sign company is different because it does odd stuff. It is completely different and challenging,” says Ken Hiebsch, Jr., computer operator and shop employee of Creative Metal Arts.
Currently on the Long Beach aquarium account, Hiebsch has been hired to make signs with three dimensional letters engraved in Plexiglas. “The edges are polished and it is highly technical,” he says. “We just made stainless steel name pieces with sheeting in the back for the president of Arco Towers. These things cannot be sold to everyone.”
The versatile accounts and plans from the designers can be challenging at times. “We are expanding, and we are making light fixtures for a company in Israel. This will be the first time that we have tried something like this,” Hiebsch Jr. says.
Although Hiebsch only has two employees in his shop, he says, “We fabricate quite a bit, but we buy a lot of the [materials] out.” He adds, “We have the etching done in Burbank, the printing and painting in Cerritos, and computer graphing in another place.”
Even though Hiebsch “keeps a low profile in La Verne,” he has made signs for the city of La Verne including Warehouse Pizza, Old Town Square and an optometry doctor. “Most of the time, people off the street will go somewhere else for a sign. I do not do enough work in La Verne for people to know about me.” However, Hiebsch states he would not want to have his shop in any other location than La Verne. “My suppliers know where I am, and I am content with my business in this city.”
Concentrating on short deadlines, the employees “have to be ready to work around the clock.” The six week deadline for the Nickelodeon account enabled the men to get to know each other’s work habits better. Noriega says, “It was a pleasure working with Ken because he is a perfectionist. Even though it became stressful at times, we had a good completed product.” From interior to exterior, Hiebsch took part in the renovation of a building in Burbank for Nickelodeon headquarters, a children’s television station.
“It was the best experience I have ever had doing sign work,” says Hiebsch. “The people were really young and energetic, and I was able to make some incredible signs.”
“Challenging and unusual” are the two words that Hiebsch Jr. uses to describes the signs. “Constructing the huge foot for Nickelodeon makes this business different. It was really big, artsy looking and not ordinary,” he adds.
With 12 to 16 feet lettering, various color schemes and lighting, Noriega says that the job was “unusual but a big success. With Ken, I knew I was working with the best, and only good could come out of it.”
One of the highlights of working in the sign industry “is meeting a lot of interesting people,” says Hiebsch. “I have met the vice president of MTV, the designers for the Olympic Games and the staff from Paramount Pictures.”
In the movie “The Crow,” Hiebsch was hired to duplicate an old sign in downtown L.A. “It was some really weird stuff that I had to make,” Hiebsch says.
Behind the scenes with various movie crews, Hiebsch has made valuable contacts with individuals. “I worked closely with Paramount Pictures on Beverly Hills Cop III.” The benefit of these contracts are “working with a lot of the same people over and over.” As a result of his various contacts, Hiebsch has numerous projects that are in progress during a certain time period. “We are working for a company in Pasadena, the Metrolink, the aquarium and MGM,” he says. “We take on accounts as they come.”
“[Sometimes] I feel like the craziest guy in the world,” he adds.
Although Hiebsch is modest about the success of his business, Noriega speaks frankly about the importance of Creative Metal Arts. “It is a very small shop but his reputation is huge,” she says. “People from around the world are finding out about him.”
Tucked away in his workshop, Hiebsch and his employees have endless projects. They work endless hours. In essence, they have transposed metal into masterpieces of art.