The man perhaps most responsible for the ever-changing look of the city's streets is a former real estate salesman who hated going to work in a tie and jacket. So, Howard Furst tapped into the rich images flowing through his mind and converted his garage into an art studio of sorts, manufacturing flags promoting real estate developments.
That was 26 years ago. As once-barren developments blossomed with color, Furst's garage made way for a storefront, then grew into AAA Flag & Banner, which now employs 150 people.
In the process, Furst, 53, who now shows up at his Westside office in black leather sandals and a golden toe ring, has become the city's street banner mogul, says Jim Washington, division head for the Bureau of Street Services. Furst has competitors, such as Go Graphics and Foley Advertising, both in the Valley. But, says Washington, Furst's operation is the biggest.
And Furst is the originator of L.A.'s street colors. Starting with the '84 Olympics' blast of magenta, poppy yellow and "United Nations blue," utilizing the city's nearly quarter-million street poles, Furst has unleashed his vision on L.A.
The generally 3-by-8-foot banners have promoted Los Angeles as the city where the space shuttle was started. They promoted West Los Angeles College's Salsa Festival, the World Soccer Cup in Pasadena and the latest exhibit at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art. The image of a jubilant Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted on poles in the neighborhood of the Music Center during this year's Philharmonic season. In recent years, Furst's company has put up banners in New York's Lincoln Center and Times Square, in Atlanta to promote the '96 Olympics, in Miami Beach, at the Indianapolis 500 and even on Caribbean islands, perhaps making him the hemisphere's premier street banner manufacturer.
The popularity of the street banners continues to grow.
"There is a greater demand than ever. Now, every little group having any kind of event wants to put up a banner," says Washington. Banner permits are given for 30 days, and extensions may be requested, he says.
Waits for some poles can range up to a year, Washington says. The best-placed ones, such as those on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and Westwood, have been booked so far in advance as to be virtually unavailable.
Generally, banners may only promote temporary, community-related events; they may not contain racial, ethnic or other inflammatory messages; and they may not advertise a business, says Washington. (A business, however, may get its name mentioned as an event sponsor.)
Otherwise, within the limits of taste, just about anything goes, allowing the public to unleash the artist within before thousands of gridlocked motorists.
All this at a reasonable rate, considering the banners' visibility. The average banner costs $100, says Furst. The average order is 60 to 80 banners. There is a one-time processing fee of $46 for use of a city pole, regardless of how long the banner is up.
Although street banners were legalized in Los Angeles in 1942, says Washington, their popularity did not take off until the '84 Olympics. Demand rose in L.A., and after the ceremonies were televised internationally, Furst found his phone ringing with callers from around the world.
Most clients come in with artwork in hand. Still, Furst advises them on composition and process. Despite the advent of computer graphics, most banners are still made by a four-color silk-screen process, he says.
On weekends, Furst will often be out climbing 40-foot poles, installing the banners himself, making sure they're hanging just right.
The demand has become so great, says Washington, that some are suggesting that "dedicated poles" be allowed, their sole purpose to provide a place to hang banners.