National Graphics is seen in a new light Taking on neon: Luminite, a new translucent gel used in making signs, has sparked growth for an East Baltimore company, which sees it as an alternative to neon.

April 09, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

If any two things can be described as slices of Americana, one is neon lights and the other is Earl Seth's small sign and printing company in East Baltimore.

Buzzing, bending and blinking, neon signs conjure images of soda fountains and motel vacancies. Mr. Seth's shop, National Graphics, started as a one-man show in the 1940s postwar boom and once ballooned to 135 employees.

But competition leaves little room for nostalgia. So Mr. Seth, born in 1923, is taking on neon lights, another product of the 1920s. He is staking the growth of his company on a product that bills itself as a rival to neon -- a translucent gel known as Luminite.

Boosted by sales that have put National Graphics' Luminite signs in every Giant Food supermarket, Mr. Seth's company last year grossed more than $400,000 from signs made with Luminite, netting about $160,000. And the company is considering adding 25 people.

"We just got a call from Boardwalk fries," he said on a short ride between his office and the manufacturing plant. "Their words were that they want to do away with their neon."

Luminite, manufactured in Mississauga, Ontario, by Luminart Inc., is applied like a gel to a silk-screened panel. It hardens under ultraviolet light. Illuminated from the front or the back, Luminite signs are bright and clear. Its makers say it's brighter than neon.

For National Graphics, Luminite is the kind of investment the company needs to make in an era when anyone can sit down at a personal computer and make a sign, Mr. Seth said. With a computer-automated applicator, National Graphics can make up to four Luminite signs an hour -- a fraction of the time it would take to make an equal number of neon signs.

Pointing to one sign, Frank Scaduto, a graphic artist for the company, said, "There are a lot of tubes you'd have to bend to get that effect."

It's not that neon lighting, created by contact between gas and electrodes in glass tubes, is going away. Luminite signs require a lighted backdrop or foreground. Neon signs give the illusion of letters hanging in the air.

To Kevin Stotmeister, president of Federal Sign of Oceanside, Calif., a leading manufacturer of neon signs, Luminart is hardly foreboding. "I don't see it as particularly big," he said. "And I haven't seen it being touted as a replacement for neon."

While sign makers are always experimenting with new technologies, many architects favor neon for artistic reasons,

Mr. Stotmeister said. "Neon has an appeal that I don't see going away for a long, long time."

Still, neon has lost some of its appeal. "There are lots of municipalities nationwide that are trying to ban neon because they consider it to be garish," said Suzy Beamer, a spokeswoman for the National Electric Sign Association in Alexandria, Va.

Meanwhile, Marketplace, a marketing trade magazine, reported that a test by Wal-Mart concluded that Luminite signs can boost sales by more than 30 percent. National Graphics, the only manufacturer of Luminite signs between North Carolina and New Jersey, made more than 145 signs to advertise Giant's ice cream cakes.

"Today, with a tremendous number of signs in the stores, you have to come up with something different to capture someone's attention," said Barry Scher, a Giant spokesman. "And this does work."

For National Graphics, Luminite has spawned unexpected benefits. After buying the boxes that light the Luminite panels, National Graphics decided it would be cheaper to make them.

After the company's jobs dwindled over the last decade to about 70, the company added about six employees because of Luminite -- one to make the signs and five to make the light boxes. Now National Graphics is making the boxes for its own signs and selling the boxes as stand-alone products for other sign makers. Last week, the company exported 100 boxes to Russia.

National Graphics also is experimenting with light in ways that Mr. Seth never imagined. In the works: projects for Kodak and toy maker FAO Schwarz.

"We're getting into other businesses because of the Luminart," Mr. Seth said.

Robert M. Krohn, general manager of National Graphics' commercial lighting division, said the company may add about 25 people to run its Luminite-related businesses.

That may not seem like much, but in a city where manufacturing industry lost almost 2,400 jobs from 1992 to 1994, adding jobs is no mean feat.

Luminite and the boxes now constitute about one-tenth of the company's $5 million in annual sales.

Mr. Seth, who expects that fraction to double, said he can't remember all the promising developments that have come and gone over the last 47 years, but he does know one thing: "I never jumped on one that didn't take off."

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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