Artisan Crafting Gives Neon a New Lease on Life

Electric spaghetti is on the menu, and it's satisfying a lot of light appetites these days. For lighting applications ranging from commercial signage to interior design, neon, that electric spaghetti, or what 1960s psychedelic light-show legend and '70s neon revivalist Rudi Stern has dubbed electric toothpaste, is increasingly the light source of choice.

Flexibility of shape, intensity and variety of color, energy efficiency, and low-maintenance durability continue to distinguish neon in the marketplace. But neon's image in the latter half of the 20th century has not always been positive. It has, for example, been associated with everything from prostitution to urban decay. However, it's been enjoying a major public image makeover of late. And, if it hasn't already, neon could be coming soon to a lighting project near you.

Sheena Gibbs is a designer for Neon Products Ltd., the largest sign company in Canada and the largest leasing sign company in North America. She said that in the past five years interest in neon as a design tool has grown substantially.

It is no longer, said Gibbs, the fall guy in that old Hollywood image that screamed tawdry: “[Years ago] when you wanted to show a real cheap motel in a movie you would have somebody standing beside venetian blinds with a neon sign outside.”

The source of so much urban illumination since its discovery at the tail end of the 19th century and proliferation in early 20th-century Europe and North America lost much of its luster in post-World War II North America.

The plastics developed for the war effort were new. Neon was old. By the 1960s, plastic signage and fluorescent tube lighting had supplanted neon in mainstream America. Said Gibbs: “It was so beautiful, fresh, and clean, and neon was trashed as ugly old junk.” Being hand-crafted, it was also initially more expensive. Neon fell on hard times.

It was a product, said American Sign Museum president Tod Swormstedt, that people associated with bars and joints. Aside from the bar circuit, it was relegated to behind-the-scenes work in channel lettering. Glass tube blowers and benders, meanwhile, were members of a dying craft. But neon endured.

Public interest in it was rekindled in large part by the 1979 publication of Stern's Let There Be Neon. The book's message was, Stern said, “here's a wonderful medium. Use it and be creative with it.” It also opened a chapter “where architects and choreographers, firemen and dentists — everybody — can use the thing and not be intimidated by it.”

Acceptance of Let There Be Neon's message took time to reach critical mass, but those architects and choreographers and even a few firemen have since taken Stern's lead. Neon's re-establishment as a marquee signage medium has followed. For example, in its 2001 survey of the American neon sign industry, Signs of the Times magazine reported that neon had “catapulted past fluorescent as the illumination method of choice.”

According to survey respondents, total electric sign sales in 2000 were 57% neon and 34% fluorescent. In the previous year's survey, neon sales were 41% compared with 47% for fluorescent. Industry representatives echo that trend. Kevin Rourke, national sales manager for New Jersey-based EGL Company Inc., said the use of neon in recent years “has really gone through the roof.”

One of the main drivers behind its resurgence in commercial signage, he said, is brand recognition. “People want a brand identity, a specific logo, and you can't do that with a fluorescent lamp.”

Neon is also hot in cooler climes north of the 49th parallel. Peter Borgford conceded that LED technology, with its long life and low power consumption, continues to make market inroads as a bright new kid on the block, but the general manager for Neon Products' western region said neon's popularity has grown immensely over the past seven or eight years. Borgford estimated the company's total annual sales in Canada to be around $100 million (Cnd) — more than double what they were 10 years ago. He said neon accounted for approximately 40% of that total.

Borgford said neon's initial cost, which ranges between 30 to 40% higher than fluorescent lighting, discourages some clients. And neon's effectiveness drops when exterior temperatures hit the deep freeze of the Canadian north. But Borgford said such drawbacks are offset by neon's longevity and versatility. “Fluorescent lamps probably last a maximum of a year, whereas we've had neon tubes in a location for 10 to 20 years.”

He added that no other light source can touch neon for color range and richness. And its personality leaves fluorescent lighting in the dust. “You get more visible benefits out of neon than you do out of fluorescents,” Borgford said. “It's more vibrant, more individualized.” That visual vibrancy has added a new dimension to neon's public persona and commercial design appeal.

Neon, according to Gibbs, has moved beyond being patronized for its nostalgic allure. “There's a whole area of neon that's finally coming to the fore where people are looking at it as what it is: a light source that can be used really effectively in a number of different ways. You can do some wonderful things with neon that you can't do with other light sources because of its ability to bend, the colors you can get, and how bright it is.”

She pointed to neon's increased use in cove and ceiling perimeter accent lighting and architectural applications both interior and exterior. For Stern, neon's contribution to light's creative versatility is fundamental: “It makes design possible.” And exploring the boundaries of what's possible on the neon frontier are companies like SWON Design.

The Toronto-based firm has its roots in the studio glass movement of the 1960s. But it's a direct descendant of a guerrilla neon art collective led by a Orest Tataryn, Alfred Engerer, and Andrey Berezowsky. The company's name is a distilled version of Skunkworks/Outlaw Neon. The outlaw ingredient was the group's penchant for spontaneous installation of glass and neon artworks in public places.

Guerrilla art exhibits might be good for the bohemian soul, but they don't pay the bills. They also get tired, especially when their perpetrators reach a certain age. After incorporating SWON in January 2001, the 50-something Skunkworks braintrust determined to add some business acumen to the SWON mix. Enter Michael Batchelor.

The design and communications consultant, filmmaker, and TV ad director brought with him business and marketing experience gleaned from running companies in Canada and the United States. SWON's business plan now focuses on commercial lighting projects. The company does everything from selecting, blowing, and hand-powdering glass to designing and installing the finished neon product.

In November 2001 SWON unveiled a major work on the large blank north-facing exterior wall of the Centennial Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia. SWON's 100-tube mural cascades from rooftop down the theatre wall, a waterfall of oranges, yellows, reds, and blues representing West Coast Canada's abundance of running water, mountains, forests, and seaside sunsets. It warms the neighborhood's otherwise chilly architectural character.

Centennial's cultural services coordinator Margo Gram said the selection committee agreed that neon be central to the mural's theme because it was for a theatre so “it should be about light.”

Other factors weighing in neon's favor, according to Gram: It's extremely energy-efficient; the theatre's neighborhood of North Vancouver was historically one of the first in the Vancouver area to be wired for electricity; at one time home to 18,000 neon signs for a population of 345,000, Vancouver is synonymous with neon. It also provides a multicolored gateway to North Vancouver.

SWON followed its Centennial Theatre mural with a 120-tube mixed-color pattern project at the Square One Odeon Cineplex in Mississauga, Ontario. It's largely uncharted territory for neon, Batchelor said. “There's some interesting lighting out there but to actually see lighting as art in public buildings — everything from restaurants to you name it — it's rare.” Also rare thus far is market demand for what SWON does.

Tataryn, who in his other life is a captain in the Toronto fire department, said the challenge is to sell neon as more than a source of light. And, with SWON's works being up to 10 times more expensive than off-the-rack neon, that challenge includes overcoming established market price points.

It's an education process, says Batchelor. “We're trying to create a whole different approach to how lighting can be used. It's not there strictly as an ambient light source that you can read from. It's there as a piece of design or art.”

SWON is currently bidding on such projects as illuminating the Canadian embassy in Berlin. But it has also turned its attentions to residential design. A $70,000 project in east-end Toronto, for example, incorporates light and glass in a 6'×10' (1.8×3m) garden wall.

Revenues in its first year of commercial operation were around $180,000. Batchelor said SWON's business plan calls for that number to hit between $1 million and $1.5 million over the next few years.

It's not everybody's cup of tea nor is neon right for every occasion. Gibbs likens its use to mini-skirts: On some people they look fantastic; others shouldn't bother. But neon appreciation, she said, is getting far more sophisticated. “People are choosing neon now not strictly because it's neon, but because it's a light source that works in a specific purpose.”

From SWON's point of view neon's purposes go well beyond mere decor. Says Batchelor: “What we're saying is that art can be light.”

Timothy Renshaw is a freelance travel, food, and business writer based in Vancouver. He can be contacted at nonstop@shaw.ca.