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Ion Art Crafts Iconic Texas Pole Sign (Or is It Art?) For Playboy

Hipster-friendly Marfa, TX hosts temporary cover subject



Our company has built a solid reputation around developing signage as functional art. If a sign is designed well enough, it fulfills its primary function of advertising a business, while being viewed as artistic by the public. To us, no project reaffirms this belief better than our most recent undertaking, a 40-ft.-tall, steel-and-neon Playboy Bunny sculpture that we installed just outside of Marfa, TX, near the Mexican border.

Playboy Enterprises’ Neville Wakefield, its creative director for special projects, approached us with a project. They wanted to re-energize their alignment with the art world, and connect with younger audiences. We welcomed the Marfa Playboy sign as an opportunity to design and fabricate a large-scale pylon that would also be regarded as a sculpture.

Typically, businesses buy signs out of necessity, and rationalize the costs as advertising. However, art is generally perceived as a non-essential that, at least on paper, does little to add to a business’ bottom line. Thus, most businesses are reluctant to make a large-scale investment in an artistic sculpture. We appreciate that Playboy agrees with our core belief that high-quality pieces may represent signage and art.

Design and permits
Accepting the project brought interesting challenges. The design itself created significant construction and engineering questions. Originally, the bunny head was going to be a 20-ft.-tall cabinet sign that sat atop a 20-ft. pole. Every signmaker knows that when you build a freestanding pole sign, the pole goes vertically through the entire sign cabinet. This helps give the sign the strength to withstand catastrophic wind loads.

However, after our designer, Ky Williams, had progressed through several design stages with Adobe® Illustrator®, his final creation simply comprised the bunny head as an outline. Building the sign as a outline greatly reduced the surface area, thus reducing the wind load. This enabled us to reduce both the pole’s diameter and the pier’s diameter and depth. The pole would’ve stopped at the sign’s base, which would rob the bunny head of its backbone. To avoid this, we built the outline as a double-walled I-beam, which gave the structure the support it would need.

Originally, we wanted to build the outline 3 in. thick and 12 in. deep, but, to approve the design, our engineer, Bill Balzen, asked that we make the structure 3 in. thick and 16 in. deep. This enabled us to reduce both the pole’s diameter, and the pier’s diameter and depth.


Our next hurdle? An installation permit. Playboy had leased private land on which to display the sign for one year, but that location abutted a public roadway. Apparently, the sign didn’t comply with the area’s square-footage requirements. And, even if it did, the approval process would require more time then we had; Playboy required the sign to be installed by a strict deadline – it would be photographed in time for a special-edition cover. They gave Ion Art less than a month to complete the project.

Lacking time for the standard permitting process, we decided to classify the project as an artistic sculpture rather than a sign. This allowed us to circumvent standard sign-permitting procedures, and get a dispensation directly from city officials to install the project. We adhered to specific brightness ordinances, but, otherwise, we were free to design and install the bunny’s head as we wished.

Building a better bunny
Moving to fabrication required several brainstorming and planning sessions. They primarily involved Greg Keshishian, Ion Art’s owner and lead fabricator, and Daniel Hornung, who created the job’s production files. The job’s size and design demanded fabrication by a strict process. For instance, prior to assembly and welding, we wired the sign through its conduit chases. Otherwise, it would have impossible to wire after the assembly was completed because the cabinet would’ve been welded shut and inaccessible.

To begin production, we created productions files with CorelDRAW®. Then we nested several layers of the head shape onto 10, 4 x 8-ft. sheets of 3/16-in.-thick, hot-rolled steel so the shape could be cut out on our MultiCam CNC plasma cutter twice. We used steel because aluminum thick enough to create this effect would’ve been much more expensive.

Then, we situated the first set of shapes on the floor and joined them together with a Miller Weld-
master Millermatic 212 MIG welder. Then, we laid the second set of shapes on top of the first set and welded them together. This assured the two sets were identical. Next, we blocked them in place; we situated the first set 3 in. from the floor, and blocked the second set 10 in. from the first. We locked both sets together with vertical, steel gussets.

For the return material, we specified 1/8-in.-thick, hot-rolled steel. We sheared 10-ft. x 16-in. strips using our CNC hydraulic shear. Then, we wrapped our steel returns around the shape with solid, .035-in. wire designed for mild steel, and welded them one return at a time. For the shielding gas, we used “Weld Mix 8” (argon and carbon dioxide).


Many radii were slight enough to bend by hand, but we maneuvered around tighter curves by rolling the return material through our plate roller. We heated the tight curves with a rosebud torch and bent them around pipe dies with varying diameters. This left us with a 3 x 3-in. return on both sides. The returns sheathed the neon, which created a crisp light outline. Van Calvert assisted Keshishian with the fabrication.

Problem solving
During construction, the bunny head’s structural integrity created doubts. The ears were large and heavy, and their weight bore down on the head. Although this probably wouldn’t cause a problem, we erred on the side of caution and increased the head’s strength below the ears with an additional layer of steel, which we embedded between the returns. This turned the head’s outline into a triple-wall I-beam.

We fabricated the third layer with ¼-in., hot-rolled steel. We also added two additional, steel layers to the head’s lowest horizontal section. Therefore, this portion, which bears the most weight, is reinforced with a quadruple-walled I-beam.

For another safety measure – not specified by the engineer – we installed gussets between the ears. Our efforts yielded an incredibly strong, rigid structure that would probably withstand windloads in excess of the 105-mph engineering requirements. We completed fabrication in 16 days, which wouldn’t have been possible without cooperation from the entire Ion Art team.

Let there be neon
After we finished the framework, we progressed to neon and wiring. Mark Westphal bent more than 250 linear ft. of 15mm Voltarc 6500K snow-white neon — purchased from N. Glantz – that span the 32 individual pieces that form the bunny outline. He said the bending, although done in a tight timeframe, was straightforward.

On the other hand, engineering the enclosed wiring runs provided a challenge! We installed one Tech 22 8,000V/30mA electronic transformer that illuminated the bunny’s eyes; for the remainder, we installed five France magnetic, self-adjusting, 9,000V or 15,000V transformers.


We calculated all transformer loads such that the secondary wiring was at the bottom of the sign can. There wasn’t room to house the neon transformers within the head, so we ran non-metallic conduit internally around the perimeter and down the pole. The conduits exit the pole just above the ground, and enter a custom-made aluminum electrical enclosure we built and bolted to a concrete slab at the pole’s base.

We can get it up
One the wiring was complete, the sign was ready to travel to Marfa. We expected the installation to be relatively straightforward, but loading the head on a trailer, and securing it for a 500-mile drive (500 miles within the same state – only in Texas), presented a unique obstacle. Setting the 13-ft.-wide bunny on its edge on top of 2-ft.-tall trailer would create a 15-ft.-tall load – a foot higher than the Texas legal limit.
We decided to position the bunny far enough back on the trailer that one of the ears would rest below the trailer bed’s grade. This brought our load below 14 ft., but only six nerve-wracking inches above the pavement!

We cantilevered the large set of ears off the back of the trailer, which was acceptable once flagged with a DOT marker as a wide load. However, the trailer was now poorly balanced because we had too much weight behind the double axle. We overcame this problem by setting 500 lbs. of concrete and 700 lbs. of tools in the void space towards the front, which restored balance. As you can imagine, a giant Play-
boy Bunny head being hauled on a trailer got many looks and stares!

Upon arriving in Marfa, our installers, Garrett Millsap and Van Calvert, met up with Ryan Kinkade from K2 Contractors, a local company we hired to provide crane support. The previous week, they had installed the 20-ft.-tall, 10-in.-diameter, Schedule 40 (Schedule 40 refers to pipe-wall thickness; Schedule 40 is stouter than Schedule 80 or Schedule 120) pole we purchased from the Pipe Ranch in Georgetown, TX. As the pipe was set and ready to go, the sign, strapped with guidelines, was simply lifted off the trailer, by a custom-made suspension structure with two lifting eyes and a spreader bar, onto the pole.

Garrett went up in a bucket lift and MIG-welded the bunny head onto the pole. It took less than two hours to secure the sign. It took about another two hours to pull the conduit through the pole and connect the wiring to the transformer box. After a little touch-up paint, our work of art was complete!

The bunny head has generated mixed press in this quiet, artistic community. Some see it as the icon of an offensive industry, but others see it as a work of art that embodies the freedom of expression Playboy has always embraced. To the artists and craftsmen at Ion Art, it’s special because of its grandeur –the scale, the engineering, the materials and the skill it took to quickly bring the project to life. It represents more than just a sign: it’s strength and beauty, steel and glass. This combination exemplifies the projects that excite us, and we hope it encourages others to view their own signage as more than advertising – it’s art!

Equipment and Materials
Crane: Bucket lift and crane, arranged through K2 Contractors (Alpine, TX), (432) 837-0993 or  
Metal: Hot-rolled, 3/16- and ¼-in., hot-rolled steel, available from such suppliers as The Metal Store (Maple Heights, OH), (800) 801-8815 or  
Neon: Snow-white, 6500K, 15mm neon tubing, from Voltarc (Orange, CT), (203) 795-1520 or; electronic, 8,000V/30mA transformer, from Tech 22 (Vista, CA), (800) 748-6633 or; magnetic, 9,000V and 15,000V transformers, from France (Fairview, TN), (800) 753-2753 or  
Pole: Schedule 40, 20-ft.-tall pole, from The Pipe Ranch (Georgetown, TX), (512) 863-6107 or  
Router: MultiCam 3000 CNC router, from MultiCam Inc. (DFW Airport, TX), (972) 929-4070 or  
Shear: Hydraulic sheetmetal shear, from such suppliers as Sterling Machinery (South El Monte, CA), (626) 444-0311 or  
Software: Illustrator®, from Adobe® (San Jose, CA),; CorelDRAW®, from Corel Corp. (Ottawa, ON, Canada),  
Welder: MillerMatic 212 MIG-welding equipment, from Miller Weldmaster Corp. (Navarre, OH), (330) 830-4561 or

More About Ion Art
Ion Art was founded in 1986 by husband and wife Greg and Sharon Keshishian. Combining their expertise in glass and metalwork, along with the talents of their team, has enabled Ion Art to produce unique neon and metal signs, architectural lighting and innovative environmental solutions. The company has grown into an Austin icon, and expanded into the design and custom fabrication of sculptures, water features and architectural décor.

Leveraging more than 25 years of experience and a growing list of high-profile clients, the Keshishians are confident in Ion Art’s ability to tackle every aspect of any project. Ion Art is currently certified as a Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) by the Texas Building and Procurement Commission (qualified businesses must be minority- or woman-owned by a Texas resident, and receive priority for contracts on state-funded projects). Ion Art is a certified Austin Green Choice Partner, as well as a member of the Intl. Sign Assn. and the Texas Sign Assn.



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