It seems entirely fitting that the Harry Potter sign that won the highly coveted Sign of the Year accolade at the recent British Sign Awards has already become something of an iconic London landmark.Val Hirst visits its creator, Newman Displays, todiscover where the magic happens.
London WCI isn’t necessarily the most obvious postcode to find a fully-fledged sign company, but for Newman Displays it’s the perfect location. First established 30 years ago,the company’s speciality is the manufacture and installation of highly imaginative signage for theatres and cinemas, such as its awe inspiring creation for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the hit play that is currently being performed before packed audiences at The Palace Theatre. In fact, the sign so perfectly symbolises the magic that surrounds J. K. Rowling’s eponymous boy wizard that since its installation earlier this year, it has become a bone fide tourist attraction in its own right.
However, it was a sign that so nearly didn’t happen. Mark Hollington, Operations Director of Newman Displays reveals that it was only after all parties had recognised the shortcomings of an altogether more pedestrian option that the decision was made to go for something far more ambitious. There followed an eight-week scramble, which included the super speedy application for, and granting of, planning permission, endless creative consultations and a turbo-charged production process, all of which culminated in the stunning sign that not only promotes the play, but also enhances the gothic architecture of the building, all but transforming it into a credible version of a wizards’ academy.
Unsurprisingly, the sign scooped both the Sign of the Year award,plus the award for Sign Construction at the recent British Sign Awards, but when I visited Newman Displays shortly after its double win,celebrations were the last thing on Mark Hollington’smind. Rather, he was already thoroughly immersed in the challenges posed by the company’s latest entertainment related project.
He explained that the flurry of activity that preceded the Harry Potter sign is by no means unique, saying: “Because a lot of the work we undertake requires something out of the ordinary, there are always creative, logistical and practical problems to be solved,” before adding that often, the time frame allowed for resolving these issues is perilously short.
Despite this, Newman Display’s clients, who include most of theatre land’s leading impresarios, need have no worries.To Mark and his team, it’s inconceivable that the company would ever fail to deliver everything required of it in time for an opening night.
Working with what he describes as, ‘the wonderful team at Sonia Friedman Productions, the production team for the show, and the fantastic Marketing Agency AKA”, and aided by a knowledgeable, dedicated and hardworking staff of 28, including an eight–strong in-house installation crew, Mark remains sanguine in the face of even the most exacting demands. Having originally trained as a graphic designer, before acquiring experience in account management, stock control and engineering roles, he has great empathy with the creative people he works with and an equal desire to ensure that their ideas are fully realised, while also ensuring that production, safety and budgetary constraints are fully satisfied too.
He observed: “We often find ourselves in the situation of having to fulfil the sometimes conflicting interests of several different parties and have learned over the years that it really pays to take a collaborative approach wherever possible, so that everyone feels involved.”
Mark continued: “Happily, since we have worked with some of our clients for such a long time, if we ever say that something simply can’t be done, they trust us come up with an effective, workable and cost effective alternative solution that will do justice to their product.”
This collaborative approach also applies to the company’s dealings with the local authorities responsible for issuing the planning permission for the deliberately provocative signage it produces. Mark remarked: “We’ve built up really good relationships with the various planning departments over the years and they know that we will always be respectful to the sensitivities of the architecture of the wonderful buildings we work on and the surrounding environment, which makes it easier when we need to push something through really quickly.”
Apart from its work for theatres – Newman Displays has supplied 19 of the last 20 signs that graced The Palace Theatre – the company also provides signage for all of the major London cinemas too, work that is no less demanding in terms of tight timescales and the ongoing maintenance required to ensure that the signage both inside and outside the venue remains in tip- top condition. Mark confirms that last minute phone calls from venue managers to replace a faulty light or repair accidental, or otherwise, breakages are cheerfully regarded as par for the course and a Newman Display’s team is immediately despatched to implement the necessary work.
With so much often riding on a project’s speedy turnaround, it’s just as well that the company is able to carry out practically all signmaking functions in house, equipped as it is with facilities for metal and plastic fabrication, vinyl decoration and digital printing and, unusually, even neon glass blowing too. When anything requires outsourcing, Mark turns to a tried and trusted group of equally committed craftspeople, such as Aiden Hynes Sculpture Studios, which was responsible for creating both the child and the willow nest, which is such an appealing facet of the Harry Potter Sign.
It also helps that many members of the Newman Displays’ workforce are longstanding employees who are helping to provide a continuum for the traditional signmaking skills that the company so cherishes and which Mark believes provide an excellent foundation for all signmakers, especially when visualising how the different elements of a sign can fit together. This isn’t to say though, that the company eschews modern technology. In addition to its a sizable vinyl shop it also uses HP Latex and Jetrix printers, the latter of which has so impressed Mark that he is already planning to supplement it with the purchase of a second, similar machine.
With all of these creative and practical facilities at its disposal Newman Displays is obviously qualified to serve clients other than those in its specialist areas and Mark related that currently, what he refers to as ‘other work’ forms around 20 percent of the company’s annual turnover. “Ideally, we’d like more clients from different areas,” he mused, adding that this would help the company to better navigate the peaks and troughs that come with its more artistic endeavours. “The summer is a traditionally quite a slow period in the Theatre and with our cinema work, all of the blockbuster films seem to come together, so we do sometimes have little lulls.”
To this end, Mark explains that every enquiry is treated with all due seriousness, and whilst some very small jobs are passed on to colleagues more ideally suited to their fulfilment, he is assiduous in following up every possibility. He said: “I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by the ultimate potential of a job that started out modestly but grew to be something quite fantastic and I’ve learned over the years never to make snap judgements!”
It’s clear though that Newman Display’s success hasn’t been achieved without a lot of hard work. Mark confided that the day before the Sign Awards presentation ceremony he and Phil Loveday visited a regionally located potential client to take a brief. He remembered: “We worked out an initial plan for what was needed, briefed a designer, and gathered together costings on the return journey, so that we could complete the quote on the train journey up to the Sign Awards luncheon in Nottingham the following day and then finesse it on the way back!”
Before I leave, I ask whether Mark has ever had a ridiculously difficult request. He has and he laughingly details it for my amusement. He adds though, that on the whole, Newman Displays really relishes being involved with even the seemingly impossible projects, asking: “Why wouldn’t we, when it enables us to work with great people on memorable projects?”
Why not indeed, when it results in this sort of magic!