Nina Burras’ workshop is a treasure trove of fantastical, luminous signs. Fittingly quirky, it is above a donkey stable on Hayling Island.
There are enormous pink unicorns with glowing red manes, and beautiful bright flamingos and butterflies ready to adorn the walls of a trendy bar or lounge.
Nina, the founder of Missing Chopper signmakers, doesn’t do boring – there are no plain old ‘Exit’ or ‘Open’ signs.
The 33-year-old has taken signmaking into the 21st century and beyond, but always with a backward glance to retro looks.
Amazingly, this was a business that Nina simply fell into and it all began with a missing bike on the White Isle, as Nina explains.
‘I love having adventures’, she says, ‘I think it’s in my blood because my parents spent a lot of time travelling and they would tell me, my sister and brothers stories of their time in America and travelling around Europe.
‘After finishing college, I decided to work a summer season in Ibiza and sold sunset boat trips. I rented the spare room from my boss, a kiwi called Dave, and I was loving life.
‘Under a pile of baskets and fold away chairs on the balcony I found the frame of an original 1970s Chopper bike with a grab rail and three gears and the gear stick in the centre of the frame. I spent all the money I had fixing it up.’
She was an instantly recognisable figure cycling around the island on her cool bike but when Nina returned the following year it was nowhere to be found.
Devastated, she trawled Ibiza trying to find it and put up handmade posters.
And this is where serendipity steps in. ‘A few weeks went by with nothing, until one day I got a call from Nando’s.
‘They didn’t have my bike but asked if I was a professional sign painter because they loved the poster.
‘I went on to paint Nando’s restaurant in San Antonio, and by word of mouth, I was commissioned to paint dozens of boards and signs for bars and restaurants around the island.
‘I ended up working as a scenic painter for Manumission – a theatrical club night held in the biggest super club in the world – Privilege.
‘Working as a sign painter never felt like work to me.
‘I would often work through lunch, and work 14 hours shifts without realising.’
Although Nina never found her bike, the idea for Missing Chopper – and the name – was born.
Her wanderlust took her all over south east Asia and she spent four years in Australia where she achieved a diploma in fashion before heading home.
‘I grew up on Hayling and I love living here but at that time in my life it felt too small’, says Nina.
‘I moved to London but I found the fashion industry very cliquey so instead I took a job as a signwriter.’After two years at the firm she moved back to the seaside and set up her own business, which has flourished – even in lockdown.
Nina says: ‘People have had a lot of time at home and devoted it to DIY so I’ve had a lot of orders for one-off pieces. That is fantastic for me because I don’t do boring.
‘When you work for yourself you can be really creative. I do everything from start to finish – and I’ve found that my dress-making skills are transferable. ‘I’m never without my dressmaker measuring tape.’
After a difficult 2019, in which Nina’s wedding was cancelled, she decided to take January and February off and go travelling again.
‘I went to Thailand and India, and my plans changed a bit because of coronavirus so I ended up at an ashram in Kerala.
‘Every day I was up at 5.30am for three hours of yoga, then worked at the ashram, and then a further two hours of yoga. There came a point where I had to decide whether to lockdown there or fly home, and I decided to jump on the plane.’
Living such a spartan existence made Nina even more grateful for what she has and she is approaching her business with renewed vigour.
She says: ‘I never did find my bike, but every cloud has its silver lining.
‘Missing Chopper was mine.’
Find Nina’s work at South Coast Emporium, in Southsea, Love Southsea Markets, missingchopper.com and Instagram.