Detroit's recovery from its humiliating low point, the record-setting municipal bankruptcy filed in July 2013, has captured widespread attention—it's hard to turn away when in between news of mass foreclosures there are also spectacular examples of burgeoning creativity (bank-turned-amazing home, blight relieved by flowers, a new gallery by developer Gary Wasserman, to name a few.)
It's in this bustling scene that two Detroit-area natives, Jordan Zielke and Kelly Golden, both 28, have staked out an unique, exciting position to witness and contribute to a rebuilding city. After all, Zielke and Golden's traditional (meaning everything by hand) sign painting venture, Golden Sign Co., is quite literally giving local businesses brand new looks and starts.
The pair has completed, it seems, more projects than the they can keep track of—in Zielke's words, "enough for us both to be working full time for the last two years." These projects, ranging from window lettering and gold leaf signs to murals and truck lettering, are half original design, half reproductions of others' artwork, and can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several weeks.
Zielke and Golden, partners in business and in life, met while attending University of Michigan in the mid-2000s, during which both decided to pursue traditional sign painting. After graduating in 2009, they journeyed out west to study at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, under sign painting master Doc Guthrie, whom they first came across in the 2012 book turned documentary film "Sign Painters."
The two-year program, which Zielke calls "by far the best education [he's] gotten in anything," tackled everything from lettering fundamentals and layout design to pricing and book-keeping, and fully prepared the couple for making a living out of their craft. In 2014, with their toolboxes full, Zielke and Golden trekked back to Detroit—where, conveniently, new businesses were popping up all the time—and hit the ground running.
This two-person team, responsible for all the quoting, designing, painting, and then some, has built a portfolio that has come to touch countless corners of Detroit. The largest project to date, a recent work that puts Golden Sign Co. on the map in more ways than one, is "Born in Detroit," a vibrant mural for the new retail flagship of Carhartt, the workwear brand founded in the Motor City in 1889.
Measuring 200 feet long and three stories tall, the project took 342 hours over 18 days and depicts artwork by local creative outfit Eugene Carland. It also rises right on the side of the area's I-94 highway.
"The amount of eyeballs on that in a single day is just crazy," says Zielke. "I can't think of a more visible sign in the city." More recently, two of the scenes from the Carhartt mural were also reproduced inside the Joe Louis Arena, home to the NHL team Detroit Red Wings.
Golden adds that the work they did for local bike shop Detroit Bikes was also significant, primarily because they were given the "keys to go crazy and pull out all the tricks." The outcome? A large gold leaf window sign incorporating "all sorts of fancy techniques," including using a combination of 23-karat and 18-karat matte gold leaf to create a "3D convex effect" on the bottom halves of the letters and using a 23-karat water gild to create a mirror finish on the top half of the letters.
And then there is Fowling Warehouse, a new local business dedicated to Fowling, a game combining football, bowling, and horseshoes. The owner accidentally invented the game with his friends over 10 years ago and has since then put everything else aside to make his dream, a Fowling venue and sports bar, come true.
For Zielke and Golden, being able to step in and paint signs for this new business, is extremely fulfilling. "A lot of dream clients are people like mom-and-pop businesses where you really can feel like you're helping them out," says Golden. "It's just rewarding to work for somebody that really needs it."
That said, Golden Sign has managed to reel in the big names, too. After Carhartt, a major project at the moment is for the new Detroit branch of Third Man Records, the Nashville record store started by The White Stripes frontman Jack White.
"I remember reading about [the new Third Man Records store] on the Curbed Detroit website actually and going, 'man I'd love to do their signs,' and here we are this week, doing some signs for them," Zielke says. "It's kind of crazy that anybody we wanted to work with, we somehow got in touch with them."
Photo by Michelle Gerard.
Next up, after completing a logo mural for Third Man Records, the couple will also paint a giant 20 by 30 feet world map for the store. They'll also be painting some signs for a new boutique hotel opening up in Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood. And nearby in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood, a just-opened leather goods store commissioned them to handle all of the signage, including a 13-foot-tall coffee sign with a hand-drawn pattern. For Golden Sign, the immediate future is all about keeping the momentum going—"a job this week, a job next week."
Photo by Michelle Gerard.