Liquid fire: the masters of neon

From its heyday in America during the ’50s and ’60s to its present day renaissance, it seems that neon has come full circle. Summer Brooks discovers why the world hasn’t fallen out of love with neon just yet.

The first neon sign was sold to a barber in Paris in 1912, and whilst little has changed in the logistics of neon sign-making, their use has expanded to cover so much more than just drawing attention to an establishment’s exterior.

Today, neon is seen beaming bright in art installations, at live music events, in retail outlets and as part of architectural design. In 1981, the Museum of Neon Art opened in Los Angeles as the first museum in the world devoted solely to neon art, and still to this day it advocates the creative use of neon and electric media and continues to raise awareness of the cultural and economic value of historic signage.

A (glass) piece of history

Many say that neon’s history is what gives it its charm – a sense of nostalgia certainly keeps neon around as a popular form of signage. But aesthetically, it is still as striking as it was in 1912 – and whilst LED has come a long way, it cannot yet manage to compete with neon and the high regard in which traditional neon is held.

Rob Sprackman, director of Cabot Neon Signs, wanted to preserve the neon work that the company does as his uncle Pete (who does all the glasswork for the company) has been bending glass since 1985. “I think people like neon because it’s got a lot of history behind it,” Sprackman says. “I think a lot of people try to make money out of it too – we get a lot of old stuff coming in from the States. So, [clients] have bought an old neon clock from a Los Angeles bus station and they get it repaired and restored, so they can go on to sell it with its backstory and its history.”

Sprackman’s grandfather started the business in 1956 and it has remained in the family ever since. A recent project which saw the firm restore Bristol’s first moving neon sign, The Mauretania, came full circle for Sprackman as it was worked on by his grandfather in the 50s and 60s.

He says: “People like the handmade nature of neon and the work that goes into it. A lot of high street retailers, especially restaurants, and pubs and clubs have latched on to [neon]. I think people like the authenticity of it – we try to show people how it’s made on our website. It’s a real skill. People appreciate the artwork involved and the fact it’s handmade and bespoke.”

Lighting up the market

Carousel Lights started off by making specialist fairground lights in commercial lighting solutions and made the natural progression into neon. By combining neon and fairground lighting, Carousel has enjoyed growing yearly success, with rapper Pusha T and singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor in its clientele.

“Our clients come from a huge range of sectors,” says Ben Reynolds, director at Carousel Lights. “Visual merchandising is one of the largest, and the chances are that most people in any UK high street this Christmas will have seen some of our lights in shop windows. The hospitality sector is also huge, with restaurants, bars, hotels, nightclubs and music venues such as the NEC and O2 all being customers and wanting that something to stand out from the crowd. We also do a lot of work for brand owners, whether they want their logo in lights for their offices, press shoots or marketing campaigns. We receive great briefs for set design for TV and theatre too.”

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Neon on clear acrylic designed for a barber shop by Carousel

Relatively new to the trade, Goodwin & Goodwin has been involved with neon signage projects for about eight years and whilst its workforce is just 20-strong, the company has some big clients under its belt.

Husband-and-wife duo Viviane and Paul Goodwin started the sign-making business in 2009 – Viviane looks after operations, whilst Paul uses his passion for typography and experience as a creative director at a top London agency to bring stunning signage solutions to a range of clients, including Google, GQ, Fortnum & Mason and H&M.

Chief operating officer Viviane Goodwin, comments: “We do not see neon disappearing anytime soon, it has nostalgic vintage charm that we, and our customers, have fallen in love with. A lot of the design projects we are involved with had a nod or reference to the past and neon is perfect for taking that nostalgia trip.”

Goodwin’s favourite project to date saw the company create a neon sign for The Bike Shed, a motorcycle club based in Central London. “It combines hand-crafted metal channel letters in a script font with neon insert – the end result is epic.”

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Goodwin & Goodwin’s work for a motorcycle club

Goodwin & Goodwin was commissioned to make a bespoke neon sign for singer Rita Ora to feature in her home with the words ‘Anywhere’, as well as completing neon work for Ed Sheeran.

Celebrities and music stars in particular are often looking for a bespoke piece of neon to work as a feature in their homes. Carousel was approached by Sophie Ellis-Bextor to recreate a symbol close to her heart. “She has a famous tattoo on her arm in the shape of a heart with ‘family’ through the middle,” explains Reynolds. “She asked us to bring it to life as a feature light for her kitchen, so we created the word ‘family’ in neon with fairground lights around the perimeter and a powder-coated heart with a polished steel ribbon. It looks stunning and gets talked about a lot, especially as she often puts photos of it on Instagram.”

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A personal neon piece created for singer Rita Ora

Southern Neon in Southampton has certainly seen its clientele broaden. David Pigott, director and co-founder of the firm says that people’s expectations of neon have changed over the years.

“I think people still like neon because it just looks better than LED. It’s an effect you just can’t get any other way,” he explains. “I mostly do a lot of exposed neon nowadays. I’ve definitely seen an increase in demand for neon, we’ve done work that has appeared on the OXO Tower in London for the launch of the Playstation 4 console, but I’ve also completed private work like a wedding gift commissioned by the bride for her groom.”

Fired-up for the future

Despite neon experiencing a resurgence, many traditional and modern neon sign-makers do not see it slowing down in terms of its popularity. Reynolds of Carousel adds: “It [neon] used to be used very much as internal illumination in signage, much like fluorescent tubing, but better solutions came along for that particular application.

“Many of our customers also love the way that it ages, just like a good wine. As it gets older, the areas with tighter bends in the glass start to fade and each one is totally unique. The range of colours available is stunning too, but I’d say the main reason neon has seen a resurgence is because it’s being incorporated into beautiful designs.”

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Topshop’s pink neon piece that featured in its flagship store

Neon certainly stands the test of time, too. A neon sign was recently discovered in Los Angeles, still glowing after 77 years of constant use. When installed correctly and to regulations, they pose no harm to human life despite many misconceptions. The issue facing neon at the moment is a potential ban on mercury in cold cathode lighting as part of changes in RoHS (The Restriction of Hazardous Substances) regulations.

ISA-UK (formerly the BGSA) is working with the European Sign Federation (ESF) to ensure neon signs are not included in the mercury ban. They were met with some success in August 2018 when it was agreed that neon signs using over 1000v would not be included. The ESF is working to create a document that will lead to best practice for handling mercury in the use of making neon signs, in the hope that it will demonstrate to European authorities that neon should not be included in the ban in any capacity.

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Even modern companies like Deliveroo are seeing value in neon as in this display by Carousel

David Catanach, director of ISA-UK, says that the future of neon in the UK is uncertain. He comments: “We’re grateful that we can continue with [neon pieces] above 1000v, but the industry really needs to show that it’s doing something about it, because one day someone is going to ask about neon signs that are under 1000v.”

Sprackman of Cabot Neon says there is a misconception around energy consumption for neon and whilst it is not as low as LED, it is still surprisingly low. “I see a place for LED in the market, I don’t try to knock it. What does slightly annoy me is when people making LED neon call it neon, when it’s clearly not. We don’t produce the faux neon, we only do the real stuff which is fine because it’s niche.” It is that niche, and that taste for nostalgia that will hopefully keep neon firing up emotions in people for many years to come.

First published in SignLink.

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