Manny, Moe and Jack, Pep Boys sign from Southern California. Image courtesy Museum of Neon Art.
The process is simple science; the ultimate effect is magical.
In the hands of craftsmen, neon can be formed into classic signs that lure customers like beacons in the night. In the hands of artists, tubing filled with neon and other gases becomes a glowing medium of expression for contemporary creativity.
Whether the goal is art or advertising, neon bending requires an understanding of science and technique from the outset. The best way to understand the procedure is to talk with someone who works with the gas-filled glass. David Hutson runs Neon Time in St. Charles, Mo., where he makes new signs to order and restores classic works in need of repair.
Hutson told Style Century Magazine, “As a teenager, I started collecting old signs that were coming off of buildings, as a generation of companies from the 1930s to 1950s went out of business. And I realized I wouldn’t be able to do much with my collection, unless I possessed the glass skills myself – it would be prohibitive to pay for the restoration. I did begin as a collector, but after school, I would hang out with glassworkers from that era who were about to retire. I really admired their craftsmanship and that hooked me on working with glass. So in college I took glass blowing. Not many people today have the patience to do it.”
Having gained the necessary skills, Hutson moved on from working on his own signs to taking on outside jobs: “I’m just so busy. We make neon signs for businesses, and we’re involved in a couple of restorations. We just completed the restoration of an old sign for a donut shop – it has animated blinking donuts that descend the length of the sign. It’s on Route 66 where it passes through St. Louis, and it was done in conjunction with a grant from the National Park Service.” Neon Time will work on several more restoration projects of this type in 2009.
The neon bender says he takes pride in the results. “It’s exciting to be doing this – the big-box stores and name-brand corporations are taking over America, so Mom and Pop can’t always afford to restore their old sign. With a neon sign, you get a lot of longevity for your dollar. They’re really not that expensive. To me, signs used to be part of the architecture, included in the planning at the beginning. Now a lot of businesses only last five years and the sign seems to come last. You see a lot of ads for budget signs.”
“The technique of neon has not changed in over 100 years,” said Hutson. “There are minor improvements in equipment, but the basic process is exactly the same. There is no innovation to be made because it’s all done by hand. It’s really a handcraft, it’s time consuming – that’s where the cost comes in.”
As far as the science is concerned, he said, “Inert gases when ionized all produce a different color. Neon in a clear tube gives off a reddish-orange glow when ionized. With the red-orange neon, you can use a tube that is coated with phosphorescent powder to produce orange and pink, but that’s the gamut for neon. We also use argon gas with a little bead of mercury we introduce into the tube. When that mercury is vaporized with electricity in an argon tube, it burns a soft blue in a clear tube. From there, the phosphorescent coating produces other colors in an argon mercury tube, such as white, blue, purple.”
Neon signs first appeared in France around 1910 with credit for their development going to Georges Claude and his company Claude Neon. In the 1920s, the firm sold the idea of neon advertising to a Packard auto dealership in Los Angeles, where the popularity of big bright signs quickly caught on. As Hutson indicated above, neon and argon were the most commonly used of the noble gases for commercial projects. Krypton, xenon and helium are also occasionally employed by artists.
In California, glass artist David Svenson also was inspired by the classic highway signs he saw as a young man. “I was always intrigued by the lights around me when I was growing up close to Route 66,” he recalled. “In college, I took glass blowing so I had a little of that experience. But I finally connected with a father and son who did wholesale neon. I worked with them for about three years. Many of the tube benders at this time were my dad’s age, they came out of World War II.”
Svenson continued, “I’m a neon artist and a glass artist. The glass pieces I make are processed with the gas – they’re sculptures that light up basically. I’m sculpting with hollow tubes. I do a lot of glowing lizard forms, reptiles and amphibians – the animals that are indigenous around me because I live in the high desert mountains. I’ve followed my own path, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with the modern art movement – or any movement. It’s my path and I love it.”
The artist’s works have been exhibited at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles.
Certain artists and sculptors have incorporated neon and other types of lighting into major artworks. Some of the best known have produced significant light compositions that have entered important museum collections and realize substantial prices in contemporary art auctions. Multifaceted artist Bruce Nauman (born 1961) has been honored with exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London. His neon sculptures include Human/Need/Desire (1983) and Double Poke in the Eye II (1985), one of his works at Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art, which represents the artist in New York.
Dan Flavin (1933-1996) was a substantially self-taught artist, interested in working with industrial materials, who began exploring the possibilities of fluorescent lighting in the early 1960s. His installation at Richmond Hall in Houston was the final commission of French-American art collector Dominque de Menil and one of the minimalist sculptor’s last works. In May 2008, two limited edition fluorescent compostions by Flavin brought $445,000 and $1,553,000 at a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction in New York.
For designer Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics in Austin, Texas, making neon signs has proved an enjoyable way to make a living. Like anyone interested in neon, he had to learn the trade: “I apprenticed at a neon shop for three years and learned how to build signs. But now I’m more of a designer. I design the pieces, paint them and weather them. My dad, Richard Sanders, actually does the metalwork for me now, and I have someone else who bends the neon.”
“I have a wide-ranging customer base. Urban lofts have a lot of my pieces. Dynamic architecture requires dynamic art. These pieces I’ve created are considered pop art. I have people who collect my work and put it next to great paintings.”
From the time of its invention, neon advertising has been associated with automobile products, and the Austin artist has established a strong market for his work among classic car buffs. He previously took his “Speed Shop” sign and other work to the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California.
“I don’t work on the computer – I design them by sketching the signs. That’s the human element, they’re not perfect,” said Sanders. “These signs really affect people in a positive way. I’m drawn like a moth to great neon signs, whether I create them or I see a great old one that’s still working. There are survivors from the ’50s that are still going strong.”
In an unusual twist, Sanders has produced custom orders for street scenes in Hollywood films, including signs designed to reflect styles from the past. His website, www.roadhouserelics.com, has a list of the movies and more information about his work.
MUSEUM OF NEON ART GLOWS
The Museum of Neon Art shares neon’s split personality, looking back to classic signage of the past and forward to artworks of the 21st century. The mission statement in the institution’s own words: “MONA offers an energizing, colorful and engaging experience through changing exhibits of neon art, glass and kinetic works and a premier collection of historic neon signs.”
One of the most interesting efforts is MONA’s role in the LUMENS project – Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs – which works to conserve and restore important neon signs in public settings. The museum states, “To date, MONA has restored a number of historical neon icons, including tower signs, theater marquees and rooftop signs. MONA also helped to restore a section of the famed Chinatown district neon.”
Since neon is part of every movie and memory of Los Angeles, the Museum of Neon Art also offers the Neon Cruise, a nighttime narrated bus tour around the city, which highlights important light-up signs on the street. The tour takes place from May through October.
Light fans at the other side of the country will enjoy the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, established by collector Len Davidson in 1985. The collection of over 100 vintage signs includes many treasured advertising works – Buster Brown and his dog Tige, Levi’s hot dogs and the Pontiac Indian head logo.
Thirteen of the best signs were placed on display at the Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St., near Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal Market. More of the collection can be viewed in Davidson’s book, Vintage Neon, published by Schiffer and available at Amazon.com. To view the colorful signs online, visit www.davidsonneon.com.
Iconic neon signs exist in every community, and cities that care will find a way to ensure the continued existence of these landmarks. For example, a 58-foot-tall Western Auto sign with 2,500 lightbulbs and 1,000 feet of neon dominated the nighttime sky in downtown Kansas City, Mo., throughout much of the 20th century. The company building is now lofts and condominiums, but the huge red and white sign still shines over the skyline.
Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.