Everything old is new again and covered in porcelain enamel
by Jack Neely
In a warehouse in East Knox County are lots and lots of metal signs.
Propped sideways against the wall. There appear to be hundreds of them, each about five feet long, and you can read the ones on top: To Brooklyn & Manhattan. Exit 196 Street & Grand Concourse. Express to Coney Island. 96 Street & Rockaway Blvd.
They're in the distinctive white-on-navy-blue style and lettering of the New York subway system, recognizable even to people who've never glimpsed the Manhattan skyline, just because these signs are in the background of so many movies and TV shows. You know these places, and you even recognize the signs that announce them.
Frank Corum, the big guy in a UT Vols sweatshirt, is obviously proud of his collection of signs. If he had made a hobby of stealing subway signs from New York and stashing them in a warehouse in East Knoxville, he'd be worth a story just for that. But he doesn't steal them. He makes them. Corum's company, Cherokee Porcelain, manufactures most of these porcelain-coated steel signs that direct riders to their trains in the most famous subway in the world.
None of that's news. Cherokee Porcelain has been here in Knoxville for 53 years, and they've been making most of New York's subway signs for the last 15 years. Their original plant is the military-style building on Homberg Place with the double-barrel roof and the art-deco sign with a winged head. Ohioan Robert Reid founded Cherokee Porcelain in 1946, back when this was the west end of Old Kingston Pike and we didn't hide our factories in industrial parks. In the '40s, factories had to mix with society, and they had to look presentable enough to stand next to restaurants and residences.
Last week, that older factory was the busier of the two. Cherokee's Forks-of-the-River plant is quieter, brighter, cleaner, more modern, and Cherokee will probably move all its operations there someday. But not today. The Homberg plant looks more like a factory. Dark and gritty as a factory should be, its 25 workers move about, carrying steel pieces, operating machinery, without time to pay much attention to ignorant visitors. The doors of its 1,540-F furnace open occasionally and disgorge a red-hot platform with a heat-treated sign or other porcelain-on-metal product.
About half the factory's employees are Mexicans. José, whose name is spray-painted on the furnace door, speaks no English at all. He gestures a question to plant manager Nick Helms, who speaks no Spanish. The two have an understanding. Helms says Mexicans aren't as afraid of work as young Americans, and that no one knows the process better than José. They run the shop from six in the morning until nine at night.
They make all sorts of things here. In the cluttered front room, there's a large steel map of the Boston subway system. Tucked behind some furniture, you'd think it was an illegal souvenir. But they made hundreds of them right here.
Walk into the factory proper, and one of the first things you'll see is a pile of burial vaults. That sheen they have is porcelain, applied here. That's more or less an eternal market.
For years, Cherokee Porcelain did mostly local work, like the porcelain-enameled steel letters on the side of the Hyatt Regency. With the universal popularity of plastic in the '60s and '70s, demand for ornamental porcelain sagged. But thanks in large part to postmodernist architecture, which tolerates art-deco-style ornamentation, porcelain enamel is back.
Helms shows some steel molding for the enormous escalators in Washington's subway system; he picks up a colorful bit of fluting that's bound for a Sonic drive-in. Cherokee also makes molding for White Castle restaurants and signs for Cracker Barrel, which is converting its interstate signs to porcelain-on-steel. Disney World, which has recently dropped its original Tomorrowland modernism for a more retro futuristic lookcoated, of course, in porcelain enamelis another Cherokee client. Cherokee did Atlanta's more-'50s-than-the-'50s-ever-were Zesto Restaurant. Whether you attribute it to nostalgia or postmodern irony, there's no question there's a healthy national demand for shiny, colorful, sculpted steel.
Corum works in the 5-year-old plant at Forks-of-the-River, where his wife and two daughters assist as designers. Behind their computer-equipped offices, workers apply lettering to the glass-coated signs. A conveyor belt, moving almost too slowly to notice, takes the New York subway signs to the oven that bakes on their messages, permanently.
Corum says their process is ideal for subways. The lettering is actually fused into the glass covering; it doesn't scratch off. "The graffiti guys can paint them over," Corum says, almost fondly. "You can clean it every time." Most of their work comes when the subway system's 80 stations remodel or shift schedules, calling for new messages on the signs. Their subway work isn't limited to directional signs; Cherokee worked with well-known designer Milton Glaser to manufacture his striking metal sculpture at New York's Astor Place station.
New York doesn't just hand over big contracts to any old porcelain-enamel Joe. Cherokee's advantage was talent, luck, and what New Yorkers might call chutzpah. Frank Corum had worked with porcelain for 27 years in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., before he moved to Knoxville and bought Cherokee Porcelain in 1983. "I just hit the road, and the Lord took care of me," he says. He went to New York and dropped in at the Queens offices of Warshaw Brothers, the firm he'd heard was in charge of contracting out the subway signs for the transit authority.
"I walked in, and they gave me an audience," he says. "As it turned out, they needed us." The Pennsylvania-based company that had supplied the subway system with signage for years was going out of the sign business. Corum didn't expect to get this far on a blind visit, and the executives surprised Corum with a question he hadn't prepared an answer for: How much do you charge? "I shot from the hip," he recalls. He offered an estimate. "I found out later I was within pennies of what the Pennsylvania company had charged."
That was 15 years ago. Their current contract calls for 7,000 porcelain-enameled steel signs for the New York subway system. The steel's cut at the old plant on Homberg Place. The lettering goes on at the Forks-of-the-River plant. An inspector from New York's transit authority was down just this week to look over the next shipment of signs.
Cherokee Porcelain's reputation is such they don't need to advertise. Often they turn down jobs they don't care to bother with. Despite their new plant, they don't even try to be stylish. For the last 30 years or so, most industries have insisted on the plainest-possible logos: most look like capital letters trying to morph into a perfect square. They try to look stark and forbidding, and they succeed. Modern industrial executive design committees would surely turn up their corporate noses at the old-fashioned logo Cherokee still uses on their letterheads and on that sign on Homberg Place: the CP initials in a '40s varsity-jersey font, embellished with an art-deco silhouette of a winged head that might remind you of the long-abandoned Pontiac emblem. The wing-headed guy in profile looks stubborn, unstylish, and very successful.
Porcelain is a different sort of industry. If you haven't heard, unstylishness is back in style, and now it's coated in colorful, durable porcelain enamel.