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The Art of the Sign

An Indiana native came to New Jersey, started a one-man business, and now gets commissions from around the globe.

Posted December 12, 2011 by Suzanne Poor

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Matthew BeneduceMcGrath
Matthew BeneduceMcGrath at one of the large work benches that dominate his Verona sign-making shop.
Photo by Robert Gordon.

Matthew BeneduceMcGrath
With a steady hand, BeneduceMcGrath touches up a sign, above, for the Lester C. Noecker School in Roseland.
Photo by Robert Gordon.

Matthew BeneduceMcGrath
The tools of his trade.
Photo by Robert Gordon.

Matthew BeneduceMcGrath
The BeneduceMcGrath sign above the entrance to the headquarters of New Jersey Monthly in Morristown.
Photo by Robert Gordon.

It’s likely you’ve seen one of Matthew BeneduceMcGrath’s handcrafted signs. They welcome you to Montclair and his hometown of Verona. One of his signs stands at the entrance to Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. There are still more as you enter Ft. Lee, Union City, Roseland and other Jersey towns.
In his brightly lit basement shop in Verona, BeneduceMcGrath is keeping alive the art of sign making. The 55-year-old Indiana native came to New Jersey in 1982; he launched his one-man business, Benegrathic Sign Design, in 1985. Today, he gets commissions from near and far; current projects include a Sanskrit religious symbol for a client in New Delhi, India.

BeneduceMcGrath approaches each project as a work of art, but there are other considerations. “There is a psychology to sign building,” he says. “You only have seconds to capture the attention of a passerby, and so every sign has to stop the viewer, to answer the question immediately: ‘Here is what you are looking for.’ We call our signs, ‘three-second storytellers.’”

Each sign begins with a concept. Then BeneduceMcGrath makes a rough draft, followed by a scale drawing. Next, he draws a full-scale layout. Finally he crafts the actual sign using an array of tools, including hand chisels, mitre saws, gauges and antique knives—straight and curved. Occasionally, a power tool is required. The process, he says, “takes about two months, but some of the more intricate can require seven or eight.”

The base component of each sign is a high-density urethane foam—a recycled plastic that holds up to the elements. Mahogany and other woods are used for architectural details;  steel is incorporated when needed for support and design. The principal lettering is 23-karat gold leaf.

One of his most rewarding assignments was for Seton Hall Prep. That sign, says headmaster Monsignor Michael E. Kelly, “not only identifies our school but welcomes everyone first class.”

A sign, says BeneduceMcGrath, “is the voice of the building, the mission, the space.” The sign for Jack’s Café on Bloomfield Avenue in Verona is flamboyant, beckoning, exuberant. On the other hand, his sign in the North Caldwell municipal courtroom is dignified and stately, with a gold-leaf, hand-hammered clock face overlooking the bench. And the 1988 BeneduceMcGrath sign above the entrance to the offices of New Jersey Monthly in Morristown? Some might say it’s a classic.
 


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