Name a neon sign in Ann Arbor, and chances are that Mark Chalou's fingerprints are on it.
by Patrick Dunn
From the February, 2015 issue
The Detroit-raised artist has spent more than thirty years living and making signs in the Ann Arbor area. His handiwork includes the red Zingerman's logo on the roof of the Roadhouse, Aventura's blocky TAPAS sign, and the brand-new yet vintage-looking sign at Fleetwood Diner.
Although signs have fascinated him from childhood, Chalou first became involved in the business when he met Detroit neon artist Charlie Campanelli in the early 1970s. The two bonded over a shared fascination with the gas-filled glass tubes, and Chalou went to work as a salesman for Campanelli--whom he recalls as "quite the artistic kind of character"--while learning some of the tricks of his trade.
In the mid-1970s, Chalou pitched an idea for a new "Open" sign to Domino's Pizza, incorporating the company's branding by placing a domino logo inside the letter "O." Chalou was elated when Domino's ordered 100 signs, but his excitement was dampened slightly when a major tweak to the design came down from the top of the company. "Evidently Tom Monaghan didn't like the domino inside the 'O'," he says. "But I ended up selling them about 1,500 signs over a five-year period."
Chalou's business took off from there, and his signs have since proliferated around southeast Michigan--and, thanks to franchise clients like Domino's, around the globe. He and his graphic designer, Frederick Culpepper, produce thirty to fifty sign designs per year, in addition to window graphics, light boxes, posters, and other decor elements. The signs are fabricated at a workshop in Wixom. Around Ann Arbor you'll see his work at Mani, Fraser's Pub, Sparrow Market, and the new Sweetwaters on Liberty St.; he's also restored older eye-catchers at the Blue Nile and Colonial Lanes.
As LEDs replaced gas-filled tubes in illuminated signs, he changed the original name of his business--"Mr. Neon"--to Chalou Design. While he embraces the new LED-focused world and the possibilities it presents, the signs of decades past remain a major influence on his work. He pores through books
of old signage for inspiration, and he drew elements of Aventura's sign from a '40s-era hotel sign--though what look like old-fashioned incandescent marquee bulbs are actually low-energy LEDs.
He also maintains a collection of over 100 different colors of neon tubes, some of them rare. The Fleetwood sign includes a canary yellow that, he says, "no one else has, to my knowledge, in the Midwest." Depending on the size and material, a new sign typically costs $7,500 to $15,000.
He speaks highly of the handful of "iconic" old signs left in Ann Arbor, including Colonial Lanes, Ann Arbor Muffler, and the Ann Arbor Bus Depot, and the "creative, artistic guys" who made them. "It seems like they were competing to come up with something very, very unique, something different," he says. "It just fascinates me."
Chalou ranks Zingerman's Roadhouse, Aventura, and the Fleetwood Diner signs as his favorites. "They all have this arrow concept in them," he says. "I didn't realize it until I was three-quarters of the way through the Fleetwood sign."
[Originally published in February, 2015.]
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