VIDEO: Subway Stop in the Navy Yard

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 January 18, 2011, 12:00 PM

A Subway Stop in the Navy Yard



Dozens of sturdy aluminum signs line the walls of Trevor MacDermid’s studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Each sign bears bold Helvetica lettering, prominently identifying New York City subway stations and the trains that pass through them.

Early in 2010, Mr. MacDermid started Underground Signs — a one-man business that replicates New York City subway signs and sells them as objects of art. Out of the 70 businesses licensed to sell products with MTA designs, Underground Signs is the only one allowed to sell full-scale signs.

When he first began selling the signs, the MTA quickly caught on, and objected to, Mr. MacDermid’s activity. In a letter, the agency warned him that his work violated their copyright. Only an MTA license would allow him to continue replicating signs legally, they said, and he quickly applied for one.

“The MTA has the right to do that,” Mr. MacDermid said. “It’s a brand standard.”

Now fully licensed, Mr. MacDermid said he currently makes up to 30 signs every week, which earns him roughly $5,000 in revenue. Last month, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority granted Mr. MacDermid the rights to replicate Boston subway signs. Mr. MacDermid said he expects great things to come from the expansion of his line.

“It’s an exciting step,” Mr. MacDermid said. “Not only does it add to the growth of my business, but it offers great new variety and a great new scope.”

Not bad for a man who just last year, in the midst of the recession, teetered on the edge of unemployment as a freelance Web designer.

“My phone stopped ringing,” he said.

Mr. MacDermid found a way to use those Web development skills to start something new for himself.

After a trial design, to determine whether he could make a realistic looking subway sign replica, Mr. MacDermid set up a Web site capable of processing credit card purchases. To test the online billing system, he made fictional charges with customer names that he created. Very soon after, he received his first order from an actual person.

“There was disbelief at first, and then pleasure,” Mr. MacDermid said. “Suddenly, the business became real.”

Mr. MacDermid’s signs vary from 12 inches to eight feet in length. Prices start at $99 and increase with size and the addition of subway-line colors.

He buys his supplies from a nearby metal shop. After the pre-cut and sized metal arrives in his studio, Mr. MacDermid applies a layer of lacquer to protect the surface. He completes the process from his laptop, where he shapes text with design software. A blade tool attached to his laptop cuts out each individual letter and number, which he sticks onto each sign with an adhesive spray.

Mr. MacDermid stays busy with the hands-on work of preparing customer orders, which mostly come from around the tristate area. Roughly half of his orders receive customized tweaks, such as the substitution of a first name in place of a street name, but the rest of the orders are direct replicas. 

The most popular seller is his 161 Street – Yankee Stadium sign.

The final product looks sharp and convincing. Demetra Zouzoulas, a recent customer of Mr. MacDermid’s, said that the authenticity of her sign was the best part of her purchase. After seeing Underground Signs advertised on a home design Web site, Ms. Zouzoulas ordered a “Bryant Park B, D, F, 7″ sign for her home in Ottawa, Canada to remind her of her favorite New York attraction.

“It’s something to represent what I love about my travels,” she said. “It brings me back to the city.”