20 June 2023

Leading light's legacy: The rise of Adam Signs from Goulburn across Australia

| John Thistleton
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apartments sign

The original Sunrise Motel sign included the words: ”colour tv, air conditioned, electric blankets” and did not have the words ”17 Uriarra Road” or ”apartments”. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

In the 1960s, Hungarian immigrant Alex Kiss and his colleagues at Adam Signs in Goulburn created signs that are valued as classics today.

These include the Sunrise Motel sign, which he designed. It still stands in Uriarra Road at Queanbeyan, long after the motel was demolished.

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Alex has kept the Queanbeyan Age advertisement from September 1969, from Adam Lighting and Electric Signs thanking the motel’s owner, Mr Mesaros, for contracting them to make the sign.

“Most sign companies make square boxes. We went out of the box and made anything, it didn’t matter what shape,” Alex said, recounting the exhilarating early days of the Goulburn company.

“We ended up making a lot of rather interesting and unusual signs, which makes it much more difficult.

It’s easy to draw that Sunrise Motel sign, but you have to have a steel frame inside strong enough to stand up, sheet it, paint it, make the sunglasses. At night those sunglasses lit up because there is neon behind them.”

Qantas sign

The Qantas sign in Sydney featured three-metre-high letters and was eight metres wide. Photo: Alex Kiss collection.

Now living in Queensland, Alex said people didn’t realise how complicated signs are to make. “Prominent signs on top of buildings must withstand tonnes of wind pressure,” he said.

”The structural design is critical, it needs council approval and then you can start building it.”

From its factory in Mary Street, Goulburn, Adam Signs made signs for Goulburn’s Paragon Cafe, Sidwell’s, and in Sydney for American Express, Qantas, and Westfield shopping centres at Figtree, Burwood, Hurstville, Parramatta and many others around Australia.

Alex worked for the company’s owner, Russell Adam, three times: in Goulburn, then in Sydney after he and his wife had left Goulburn, and after he had moved to Queensland, when Adam Signs won its biggest project, for World Expo ’88 in Brisbane. He was contracted as a designer and project manager.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime job,” he said. “It was the largest neon installation in Australia, I think.”

MAN building sign

At one stage, most major signs on Sydney highrise towers were Adam Signs creations, including the MAN in the foreground and (top right) the red Qantas sign. Photo: Alex Kiss collection.

Australian designer Ken Cato designed the abstract presentation of the four seasons in a neon ceiling that used 8600 pieces of neon. Alex designed the circuitry over an enormous area of about one acre (4000 sqm). Expo ’88 attracted 18 million people from all over the world and marked one of the pinnacles in Alex’s extraordinary life.

Aged only 19, he fought in the Hungarian uprising against communism, which later forced him to flee Europe and come to Australia with only the clothes he was wearing, a small suitcase and a shaving kit, and work his way to Goulburn.

His mechanical engineering qualifications were of no benefit because he couldn’t speak English. Becoming a fettler on the railway at Tarago, he met Margaret Brown at a dance in Windellama and following their marriage, moved to Goulburn.

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Russell Adam hired Alex around 1963 (he was his second choice on account of his poor English). They remain best friends today, Alex aged 86 and Russell 82.

“I was designing the signs, it was only a small company then: Russell, another salesman, a girl in the office and me,” Alex said. “It was a close-knit team working on the design and in those days there were no computers. Every artwork had to be done by hand.”

Claude Neon dominated their industry.

“Neon was always a big interest for us, we bought neon from Claude Neon,” Alex said.

”When Adam Signs started to grow, we were spreading and going down to Wollongong and we started to get under the skin of Claude Neon and they cut off our neon supplies.”

man wearing sunglasses

Alex Kiss was better known as Sandy in Goulburn, after the Hungarian name for Alex, ”Sandor”, became Sandy. Now in Queensland, he has reverted to Alex. Photo: Janelle Boyd.

So Adam Signs imported manufacturing plant from overseas and made its own neon.

“It was very exciting, we always had that underdog symptom and it made us try harder, work harder and the company was growing,” Alex said.

He studied technical drawing and learned on the job, poring over foreign industry magazines and design competition winners.

He eventually started his own sign company in Queensland and now lives in Tweed Heads and loves reflecting on the 1960s and ’70s.

“We were lucky to live and work in that time,” he said. ”There was plenty of work, the country was full of optimism and excitement driven by youthful exuberance.”

Original Article published by John Thistleton on About Regional.

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A great story to read – thanks, John. I recall the old motel at the top of QBN well, and I was always impressed that the connection was maintained when the apartments were built.

I was instantly reminded of the neon sign for the old Starlight Drive-in in Watson, but couldn’t find it on Streetview. Is it still there – anyone?

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