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Designing around Recycled Advertising Signs

Posted by Woodward Throwbacks on

Working with salvaged and reclaimed materials, we're constantly on the hunt for new creative challenges. Our latest inspiration-turned-pretty-major-obsession has been found in large retro advertising signs.

The materials span wood, metal, and acrylic –- anything with a solid enough shape we can manipulate and interesting texture and graphics. The graphics on each sign also vary -- some hand-painted, others screen printed or vinyl applications. We work carefully to maintain their unique character throughout the design and finishing process, and it also brings us so much artistic satisfaction!

Over the next few months, we'll be releasing collections in themed batches. The first to be released will represent a community staple: The Local Hardware Store. A collection to follow will include a really fun one we think all Michiganders will appreciate we're calling "The Party Store." Another destined to be a Detroit fan-favorite is "The Motor City" collection, which will be released in early spring. We'll also have a running "Assorted" Collection that celebrates the sign outcasts - the ones that didn't fit neatly into a theme. We can promise you it doesn't mean a thing for their rad-o-meter ratings. 

Woodward Throwbacks co-founders, Kyle and Bo, share more about what to expect for the collections: 

Where did the idea to work with signs as a material come from? 

Kyle: We've gotten signs that were only partially there in the past. Like half of a sign, but it still looks really cool, so we thought, what can we do with this? And we just started experimenting with it as a material.

Bo: The idea to work with signs came from our love of old advertisement signs that were once prevalent around the city of Detroit. The first large sign we ever salvaged we found in a dumpster. To this day, that sign has a permanent spot in our home as wall art. So I guess you can say designing signs into functional furniture was a natural next step for us.

What do you look for when you come across retired promotional signs? 

Kyle: Subject matter is important. Obviously, if it's related to Detroit, that's a bonus. But mostly, we are looking for colors that captivate us and good textures. 

Bo: Texture. I've always been a huge fan of anything with texture. It doesn't matter to me if the sign has fire damage, is distressed from being out in the exposed elements, or tagged with graffiti. It's about accepting where and what those signs have been through and ultimately sharing its story. 

How do you decide what furniture piece to make out of a sign? 

Kyle: The first piece we made was a dresser designed around an old Vernors sign. The sign was in terrible condition. It was initially a part of a larger sign, but we loved the colors, and one section was a perfect dresser-shaped match! It sold immediately to one of our design clients. Next, we tested our vision using a Coca-Cola sign for a dresser prototype. We were stoked when it caught the eye of one of our favorite Design groups, Mebl. Their founder purchased the dresser for his personal collection, and we even got to chat about it over a zoom a few weeks later! (Cheers, Michael!)  

Bo: When we aren't creating collections with set dimensions, we let the sign size and graphics dictate what it becomes. Starting with loose sketches, I then decide what base material will work best and how many doors or drawers it needs to make the facade look its best. 

Do you ever get nervous making cuts? 

Kyle: Yes! It can be super nerve-racking cutting these up. You definitely have a moment of "I-could-ruin-it" level panic! And sometimes, it's hard to picture what it might look like when finished. So you aren't sure if you are using the best bit of the sign. The more we make them, the less nerve-racking it has become.

Bo: I don't get nervous because I haven't cut one yet, haha, and I don't plan to because I have Kyle and our awesome shop team to do that! BUT I am usually close by to film the process!

Where do you find the best signs?

Kyle: I used to just find them thrown out around the city. Now, it's gotten a little trickier, but we often spot them while out picking for other antiques and furniture. We usually gravitate towards the ones that are the most distressed. Generally, the ones in the worst shape are the ones we want! If you've got any in an old barn, basement, or garage, give us a shout! 

Bo: Sorry, I won't kiss and tell. Let's say you sometimes have to work for it. 

What's one of your favorite sign discovery stories? 

Kyle: One of my favorite sign salvage stories is a sign that says Oils/Herbs/Candles/Incense. It will be part of "The Party Store" Collection. It came from an old discount candles shop on Gratiot in Eastern Market. When their space was being renovated, we happened to drive by and see the signs being removed. The signs were huge and part of a rather distinct facade. The demo crew removed the first one and damaged it pretty badly. We drove back to our shop, got our ladders to remove the other one, and have been hanging on to it for a few years, waiting for the right project! Glad to see it come together.

Bo: Actually, the one I mentioned earlier in this convo. The sign Kyle and I dumpster-dived for that has a permanent home above our bar in our Corktown house. After a few years of owning it, I posted a photo of it on IG, and one of our followers sent us a private message stating that the bar advertised on the sign was once owned by her family. It's incredible to witness people's nostalgia for old signs and the brands or businesses they represent. And to be able to make furniture out of those signs that can live in their space and be functional at the same time is awesome. 

Another one we both love with a similar nostalgia story was a Poletown attic find. We shared more about that discovery, what it represented for the demolished community, and its transformation into a credenza on our blog. We did not yet get a chance to share that the granddaughter of the original sign owner actually saw our blog and purchased the credenza — it was such a special full-circle moment! So many good feels on that one, from finding it covered in dust in a dark attic corner to sending it home with the storybook-perfection of a new owner.



A tribute to the community hardware store -- where you can find not only tools, nuts, bolts, and paint; but also pick up some extra paper towels, a seasonal wreath, and a new hat.




Michigander for a one-stop-shop for pop, snacks, adult beverages, lottery tickets, groceries, household items, and more. COMING SOON.


All things transportation: parking, no parking, traffic, automotive giants, gear heads, cargo, and beyond. COMING SOON.


Other cool signs we've discovered, but they did not fit neatly into a larger collection. The elite outsiders or rebellious misfits, you might say. COMING SOON.

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