Fiberoptic Lighting calls it quits after 27 years
Hyla Lipson's creations consist of light shining through a spinning color wheel and pulsing through hundreds, or thousands, of clear fibers to make a flickering candle, or Santa and reindeer on a downtown Christmas card.
Or just about any other piece of dazzling, blinking art.
Lipson and John Howard Jones, her life and business partner, parlayed those fiberoptic masterpieces into a worldwide business that flourished for more than two decades in Grants Pass.
After a 27-year-run, the lights are going out on Fiberoptic Lighting, which at its peak employed 45 people and manufactured more than 10,000 signs a year.
The business, already slowed by the onslaught of digital design and thinner displays beginning more than a decade ago, never recovered from the economic downturn that struck in 2008, Lipson said.
A liquidation auction is set for Saturday.
Fiberoptic's clients read like a list of celebrity and corporate who's who — singers Celine Dion and Tony Bennett, Macy's, Playboy, Discover Card, Nintendo, Nikon, Pepsi, Coke, Coors, Michelob, Molson.
"We made signs for almost every beer company in the world," Lipson said. "We had a display in every toy store in the country."
Oh, and Wrangler, Harley-Davidson, Iams, Fender, Texaco, and on and on and on, with numerous $250,000 jobs.
"We used to be the bar of excellence. If you had a Fiberoptic sign you had the best," said Lipson, sitting in her colorfully decorated office at company headquarters on Southeast M Street. "Maybe it will come back in 20 years, but it's gone."
Grants Pass will remember the business into the future, because of those Magical Musical Christmas Murals that have graced the downtown for several years during the holidays.
“The cool thing is, Grants Pass is going to save our legacy,” Lipson said. “Each Christmas I’ll be able to go back and say, ‘We did a really good job.’”
The scope of Fiberoptic shines far away from Grants Pass — the ceiling at the Meridian Hotel in Cairo has a Fiberoptic star display, Disney Paris has millenium displays by Fiberoptic on Main Street. Bell South was a big client during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Casinos around the world used them.
The largest Fiberoptic sign ever built was 40 feet by 20 feet, made up of numerous panels, and hung in the Queen Center Mall in New Jersey, Lipson said.
But the backbone was probably the small stuff, used to brighten up the fountain drinks in the back of the convenience store, or the food at the end of a supermarket aisle.
Jes Webb of Grants Pass bought one of Fiberoptic’s signs when he was starting Sights and Sounds Unlimited in 1991.
“My business consisted of a pickup truck, a small sound system, and a landline next to my waterbed,” Webb said. “The sign is one of three items that I still use after all these years. It has never failed or needed repair, and only had two bouts of minor maintenance. The signs were one part science and one part art, and mesmerizing in the least.
“It bums me out to see them close, but I’m hoping Hyla will still remain a regular force in our little community. She is one of the most creative business owners I’ve ever met in a market where it’s sometimes more about the numbers than it is about the end result.”
Lipson had never heard the word fiberoptic when she arrived in Oregon in 1982 but was experienced in all things marketing and media.
After working with Jones at another company, they moved to Grants Pass in 1987 and launched their business, originally called Fiber Light, but changed to Fiberoptic in 1990.
The fledgling company took off when video game giant Nintendo’s marketing director spotted the company’s work at a trade show in Chicago in 1987, Lipson said.
“Nintendo was just beginning. He was mesmerized. I got home and he called and said ‘I want a prototype, now.’ Then he said he wanted 500 signs. We’d never done more than 20.”
“When we first came out of the gate, people hadn’t seen anything like it,” Lipson added.
The largest order ever processed was 5,000 signs for R.J. Reynolds.
“The market was huge in those days,” Lipson said. “The bean counters hadn’t taken over yet and the mergers and acquisitions in the corporate world hadn’t happened yet.
“We sold around the world, but we brought the money to Grants Pass.”
Over the years Fiberoptic worked closely with local businesses Photo Den, Imprints, Western Signs and Logan Design.
Lipson said she should have shut down in 2008, but still had one big client, Town Pump, which runs casinos, convenience stores and RV parks in Montana.
But that dried up, and in 2010 the workforce was cut from 20 to six.
Nearing 70 years old, Lipson says she’s not sure what’s next. She’s been active in civic affairs, arts and other ventures for many years.
“I think I’m going to write a book about the stories behind these signs,” she said.
Reach Grants Pass Daily Courier reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.