Unlike much of the elegant work their business produces, Baker the Sign Man is easy to miss. The business is situated in a Chinatown brick building on Race Street a couple blocks before all the restaurants and bars. The only thing that tends to catch the eye is a testament to their durability: Since 1870.
“It’s fascinating to people,” said Rob Barrish, co-owner of Baker the Sign Man.
Barrish and co-owner Nacine Supinsky have been making hand-crafted signs for about 20 years. But Baker the Sign Man goes back much further, its renown spreading not only around Philadelphia — Federal Donuts, Fork and countless other signs are their work — but globally, featured in movies like “Rocky” and “The Sixth Sense.”
The business started in 1870, making it one of the oldest companies operating in Philadelphia today (McGillin’s has been around since 1860; Bassetts, one of Baker’s clients, since 1861). Supinsky and Barrish don’t know the exact details but believe it started with a man named Baker. Baker then handed the company over to another Baker, who passed it on to his son-in-law.
Supinsky and Barrish are the fourth owners. They took over in the mid-’90s at a time when the Baker the Sign Man was struggling. To resuscitate the business, they reached out to architects and designers to make themselves better known. Opportunities to make signs for new restaurants and other businesses popped up, prominently for Georges Perrier, who was opening Brasserie Perrier.
“And he was spending a fortune,” Barrish recalled. “We found out who was the architect and who was doing the work, and we wrote them and said we’d really love to do the work.”
They got it. A few years later, Baker the Sign Man got what is maybe its most prominent sign in the city: Rouge. Rouge’s designer knew of Baker the Sign Man’s reputation and thought Barrish and Supinsky could come up with the right sign for Neil Stein’s Rittenhouse Square restaurant.
“It’s kind of a French bistro outdoor, high-profile power spot,” Supinsky said, “and we thought the sign needed to say everything.”
They used 23-karat gold for the hand-crafted lettering. For the black background, they used a technique known as smalting, taking a very fine glass material and actually throwing it onto the side so it sticks because of the force.
The process took weeks and lots of back-and-forth between Baker the Sign Man and people with Rouge. Other sign companies promise overnight work. Where Baker the Sign Man uses engraving, gold-leaf and hand-lettering, they use templates available online.
“We’ve been called a dinosaur,” Supinsky said, “and I’m proud of that.”
The late ’90s early 2000s were a boon time for Baker the Sign Man. The shop had a staff of 12, and it created all the signs seen in movies like “Fallen,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” and “12 Monkeys.”
Post-recession, the staff is down to three, just one other person besides Supinsky and Barrish. Though the elegant, hand-crafted signs are Baker’s specialty, they do plenty of routine work to pay the bills.
Barrish notes that Baker the Sign Man has survived two World Wars and the Depression, not to mention all the advancement in technology. He and Supinsky believe Baker the Sign Man has plenty of years left.
“Our reputation is you come here when you want something creative,” Supinsky said, “when you want something people will stop and look at.”
Here are few other well-known signs designed by Baker the Sign Man: