- Dura Engraving Corporation – 1960 Advertising Literature
Dura Architectural Signage began business in 1955 as Dura Engraving Corp. specializing in mechanical engraving of dials, scales, panels and calipers for federal and commercial projects.
Jack Forst, a European immigrant, holocaust survivor and self taught mechanical engineer, along with his partner Milton Berger, owned the 20-employee company. By 1970 Jack had bought out his partner and became the sole proprietor.
Dura’s employees always joked that Jack’s machines “spoke” to him as he had the uncanny ability to diagnose problems merely by listening to and watching the machines operate. He could strip down any production machine to its bare components in a matter of minutes after which he’d sit down at the lathe or milling machine and manufacture the replacement parts himself until the rebuilt units were almost indistinguishable from the new ones. Even today, nearly 60 years later, Dura owns one of the original engraving machines. It is still in good running condition.
Jack was also that rare breed of employer who not only listened to his employees but often helped them out in their personal lives thru loans or gifts if they encountered financial or family difficulties. Most of his employees were immigrants as well hailing from Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Eastern Europe, Guiana, Puerto Rico and Mexico. The company functioned more as a family than a business and everyone worked together harmoniously for the betterment of all. As a child, Jack had endured numerous hardships and at the age of 13 he was forced to become the sole provider for his mother, younger brother and two sisters following the murder of his father. As a result Jack sympathized with those less fortunate than him and exuded unusual compassion, respect and understanding. Referred to lovingly as “The Rabbi”, he was never too busy to lend an ear or offer advice.
Jack Forst and Dura's 20th Street Shop
In those early years Dura operated out of a 6 story loft building on West 20th street in New York City, between 6th and 7th Avenues, surrounded by numerous other small and midsize manufacturers. Like most loft buildings at the time, the temperature was always too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter and the wood floors sloped downward 2 feet from one side of the loft to the other. But in spite of all that, the shop and offices were clean, airy, neat and orderly.
The main work-horse of the Dura’s manufacturing prowess was the large refrigerator size engraving machines used to etch and engrave the myriad products that Dura produced. These mechanically, hand operated Gorton 3U engravers utilized a mechanical offset arm to trace the inline and outline of blocks of letters or markings, called Copy Plates, which in turn transferred those movements to a rotating cutter that engraved the appropriate letters, digits and markings onto metal or plastic substrates.
Jobs were typically 6-12 unique units at a time at which point the setup was broken down and a new job was started. In addition to the engraving operators there were fillers, screeners, grinders, cutters, painters, quality inspectors and shippers.
In the office, two secretaries typed up all invoices by hand and in triplicate using inked carbon paper and then the invoices were hand stamped, hand addressed and mailed out to customers. Arriving mail was eagerly opened, inspected and sorted and a trip to Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust Company Bank to deposit payments from customers was always a momentous occasion. All this was pre computers and pre fax machines. Copiers would not come into vogue until 1959, telephones were rotary dial and the bookkeeping machine that tracked credits and debits was a mechanical hand operation as well. And though Dura thrived as a small manufacturer, during the next 20 years technology would turn the entire engraving field on its end and Dura would begin the gradual process of incorporating technology into its daily operations while diversifying into related areas.
Gorton 3U Pantograph Engraver
From 1971-1980 Dura continued to run its operations out of the NYC 20th Street loft building it leased space in. Though work came in steadily to Dura, NYC was in the midst of a period of huge economic stagnation and by 1975 the city was bankrupt. Mass transit fares would increase almost 400% between ‘71-‘90 and yet it wasn’t until the mid 70s that the Federal Minimum Wage crossed the $2/hour threshold. But in spite of that, NYC night life was alive and well as the masses flocked to Studio 54 and The Limelight to “Disco” into the wee hours of the morning.
By 1980 Dura realized that it could no longer remain at the mercy of landlords who increased rents by as much as 50% a year and finally, in 1984, Dura acquired a 20,000 sq. ft. building in an industrial area of LIC, NY just 5 subway stops east of Manhattan.
Coinciding with the move to LIC, Dura purchased an IBM System/36 manufacturing and administrative computer to generate invoices and automate bookkeeping, order entry, receivables, payables and payroll. A new catalog showcasing custom sign products was printed as were sundry pieces of advertising literature. On the manufacturing end Dura purchased computerized pantograph engravers that could now produce the work of 3 Gorton 3U operators and in a fraction of the time. The “old guard” of employees, many of whom Jack, Dura’s owner, had personally trained and who had diligently worked for him since the 1950s, were confronted with the daunting task of learning new technologies or facing an early retirement. Computers were viewed as both friend and foe, held equally in awe and fear by many of the “old-timers” but it was either adapt or be left behind in what would become a progressively automated work environment.
Two new family members also joined the business in the early 1980s; Chris Patterson who took over responsibility as Production Manager and Art Forst who became the Sales Manager. Slowly, under their leadership, with the aid of the new technologies being implemented and the acquisition of larger corporate accounts, Dura began to grow. Precision mechanical engraving jobs were now being replaced by signage manufacturing and by 1990 Dura had been transformed into a full service architectural sign company. The Gorton 3U pantographs were gone, replaced by CAD/CAM and computerized equipment that could be found in almost every department in the company.
Heading into the ‘90s, and with the capability in place of manufacturing thousands of unique nameplates a week, Dura would face ever increasing competition. Dura’s mandate, to survive and prosper over the next 20 years, would hinge on its ability to distinguish itself from other competitors through excellence in service, innovation, product delivery and price competitiveness.
1990 Installers Advertising Poster
Signage installation is a complicated process. First off, it requires installers that are patient, personable, customer and service oriented, knowledgeable in codes, specifications and the intricacies of the installation itself and who can improvise in the field without compromising the integrity of the sign. All the same, it isn’t hard to find a signage agency that boasts a next day shipping. Next there are the tools and machinery required, the transportation of signs to the site, solvents, rags and paints for touch-ups and repairs, mounting templates for correct positioning, and adhesives and hardware for affixing the sign to the substrate. All these are laid out in near proximity to where the sign will be installed. Then once the sign has been hung and the protective coverings removed, the sign is cleaned and touched-up to remove fingerprints, scratches and abrasions and the tools and supplies brought to the site are gathered up and removed, remember to use a professional from the removal companies we recommend you.
We don’t consider an architectural sign installation successfully completed until all our work areas are free and clear of debris and the site is left in the same pristine condition as when we arrived. Other than an attractive sign, where none existed before, there is no evidence of our having been on site at all. And this holds true whether we install one large exterior sign or hundreds of smaller interior ones.
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The best architectural sign manufacturers combine equal parts art and science to create a superb product. The science comes from good production practices, tight engineering specs, attention to detail, knowledge of codes and specifications, innovation and the use of the right tool at the right time. The “art” is less well defined relying more on intuition, experience and finesse.
After twenty years of working in an architectural sign company craftspeople will tell you that it’s almost as if the wood, metal and plastic materials they work with on a daily basis speak to them. These artisans understand the intricacies of fine hand sanding or the application of a smooth lacquer finish. They know how to paint the edges of an intricate logo with a thin brush or apply just the right amount of torque to tighten a lag bolt securely. When they run their hands over a product they sense rough edges, seamless joints and smooth coats of paint and know immediately if the product is well made. In their mind’s eye they can envision the jig-saw puzzle assembly of all the disparate pieces and know empirically what the final product will look like. Their sense of smell helps them diagnose problems with paints, finishes and stains, often before the first coat has even dried. And by listening to the subtle creaks, groans and bends of the materials, craftspeople know how to tweak the product to make it beautiful and long lasting.
Art and science are the yin and yang of production. In the right hands this powerful combination of forces can be harnessed to create outstanding signage products.
A great architectural sign is like a great pair of shoes; it wears well and if cared for properly can last 20 years or longer. After a while, you’ll have even forgotten that its there though others, when they see it, will comment on how classy, stylish and attractive it is. It’ll compliment its surroundings without being ostentatious, faddish or dated. It’ll never detract from, but always enhance the environment around it. And a great architectural sign is hand finished by craftspeople that care about quality.
The most important sign we manufacture for our customers is the one that defines their individual or corporate identity. In its simplest form, that sign is a nameplate and by extension, on a corporate level, it’s the company logo. Why are those signs more important then other types of signage? There are no codes that require every employee be given a nameplate; a nameplate will not help you to locate an evacuation route out of a building in case of a fire emergency nor does it denote important areas like electrical closets, restrooms or areas of refuge. Yet, a simple spelling mistake or a failure to meet the promised delivery of a company logo provokes the ire of the customer.
We were contracted by one of our larger customers to relocate a few dozen employee nameplates from one location to another as part of a corporate re-stacking. Within a few minutes of beginning the removal process we were surrounded by employees and managers all observing us and murmuring amongst themselves whether removal of their names meant they would no longer have a job. They were uneasy and concerned; their tension was almost palpable. The presence of a nameplate was construed as tangible evidence that the corporation felt they were important, that their job was secure, that the office or cubicle which they had marked and personalized as their territory still belonged to them. Conversely nameplate removal signified banishment from the corporation, reassignment or uprooting of the employee from his or her space. Similarly a company logo defines a territory, a presence, a floor, area, building, vehicle, property or establishment that proclaims corporate ownership and defines brand identity. “This is my company” and “this is my office” — nothing holds greater importance for employees and management.