One hundred, not out
This year marks the centenary of the first commercial neon sign, which was sold to a Paris barber shop in March 1912.
Imagine the impact the sheer brilliance of this sign must have had in a world of mainly flat painted shop fascias and hanging signs. No wonder people stopped to stare, and no wonder the demand for this intensely eye-catching form of signage quickly spread to the Unites States and across the world.
(Above and below) Atmospheric lighting effects with
cold cathode created by Avenue Signs
To celebrate this historic landmark in the history of neon, in October, Richard Wheater, managing director of Neon Workshops in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, ran a 100 Years Celebration Workshop in Paris.
It was held at the Lycee Polyvalent Dorian, the first school in the world to offer an ‘O Level’ qualification in glass blowing and one of only four schools in the whole of mainland Europe that still teaches neon sign-making for commercial applications to students from the age of 16.
Paris is still the best place to see neon; there is absolutely loads of it”
During four days of demonstrations and evening presentations, eight participants were assisted in transforming their ideas into neon by four international neon makers and artists—Richard Wheater and Julia Bickerstaff from the UK, Denis Lambert from France, and Matt Dilling from the USA.
“Paris is still the best place to see neon; there is absolutely loads of it. And there are still many neon shops throughout France with around 20 in Paris alone,” says Wheater.
The USA is also still a major market, neon having become an intrinsic part of the culture of cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where it continues to flourish.
However the recent of history of neon in the UK has been a very different story, neon specialists reporting a general decline in demand for neon/cold cathode signs and lighting.
Batting on a sticky wicket
Steve Archer of Avenue Signs in Chatham, Kent comments: “Avenue Signs has always been a large supplier of neon due to the history of the company; our neon workshop manager having previously been the manager/instructor of the British School of Neon. The past twelve months have fluctuated in demand, especially within the art world, due to many budgets being cut, as art tends to be one of the first areas to be put on hold.”
However, seasonal work takes up some of the slack, with Christmas in particular being a very busy period, meeting demands for retailers and artists alike for Christmas-based neon work.
Overall, Avenue Signs has seen a decline in general neon signage for illumination of built up letters which is now predominantly LED’s.
As a trade glass shop, Gillingham-based Magpie Neon has seen a change in demand recently, with a decline in sign manufacturers asking for neon or cold cathode tubes to illuminate their built-up or halo-lit letters.
“However, there are still some discerning sign manufacturers that like to offer their clients a bespoke light source, offering a wide range of colour and depth of light rather than the few strips of ‘fairy-lights’ that seem to suffice in today’s market,” observes Magpie director, Ken Gleeson.
Northumberland sign company, Logotech, which designs, manufactures, installs and maintains neon signage, has seen the market become more stable over the past twelve months but, as yet, there is no indication of it returning to previous levels.
“Neon is not as much of a force as it used to be. A lot of glass shops have closed down and many fitters don’t know how to fit neon because they have only trained in LED,” explains director, Ian Henderson.
Caught in the slips
Exposed neon signage by Admiral Signs London for 50s
themed Ed's Diners
The increase in use of LEDs, local authorities and major retail shopping centre chains, as well as the perceived cost, are seen as the major influences on the decline in demand for neon and cold cathode signs and lighting in the UK.
Martin Harris, director of Admiral Signs London, disputes the received wisdom about LEDs as being environmentally-friendly and long-lasting: “If you look around, there are a lot of LED signs with whole circuits out and various diodes going out after only being in operation for few months or so. Conversely, some of the neon/cold cathode installations we have fitted have been in use and are still working after more than ten years, such as the lettering at the Victoria Palace Theatre, Renoir cinema and Curzon Soho.
“As for LEDs being green, with the amount of plastics that are used I cannot see that being the case. Whereas the glass, metal and even the mercury used in neon are all recyclable,” he adds.
Neon is deemed ‘dangerous’, but anything is dangerous if not installed correctly”
While Admiral signs still produces a fair amount of neon signage for the 1950s-themed ‘Ed’s’ diners, as well various cinemas and theatres, the company is finding that even these are being forced into changing to LEDs because that is what shopping centres demand.
Logotech has seen a demand for neon signage continue to
remain steady from customers such as night clubs
“Neon is deemed ‘dangerous’, but anything is dangerous if not installed correctly. This is partly due to the fact that there have been a lot of inexperienced fitters out there, which has resulted in neon being given a bad name over the years because they don't calibrate it correctly, so it does not last,” argues Harris.
Henderson notes that neon appears to have gone off people’s radar in the UK, with some people even thinking it does not exist any more, and believes that local authorities have played a significant part in this: “Councils and planning permissions are difficult as neon is often seen as lowering the tone of an area, especially exposed neon. There are problems in UK with the perception of neon as local authorities often turn down planning permission. Some councils even have a total ban on all illuminated signage.”
In an attempt to redress this balance, in 2103, Neon Workshops will be offering subsidised workshops to local authorities to educate them about neon, with a pilot programme starting in west and south Yorkshire.
Exposed neon can be more costly to produce because it is a craft skill, but Henderson urges end users to consider the quality and lifetime of the results: “Once the initial outlay for design and production has been met, it doesn’t cost any more to run than other forms of illuminated signage and Logotech is still repairing hand-made signs that we produced 20 years ago.”
Reviewing the situation
Monsoon resteraunt sign by Logotech. Built up polished
stainless letters with exposed amber neon fitted to the
outer edge of the lettering
In spite of these issues, there is still a market for neon in the UK, albeit a changing one. Whilst in the past Avenue Signs has supplied vast quantities of cold cathode lighting throughout many different sectors of the industry both to the trade and to lighting specifiers, today the market for this form of neon has taken a step back.
“Although orders still come through it is nowhere near the same quantity as in the past,” says Archer, adding: “However, there is still a high demand for neon art which we have always provided and shipped around the UK, Europe and the world. Overall, we have developed a reputation, not only for standard neon signs but also art pieces and lighting features that push the boundaries of neon where no other form of lighting would create the desired effect.”
Magpie Signs has seen a growing demand from end users wanting neon signage in shop windows and interiors, as Gleeson explains: “We do seem to be doing a lot more exposed neon lettering on a one-off basis rather than the multiple roll-out trade work, which was the bulk of our work in the past.”
This Autofix sign by Logotech incorporates face and halo
LED lighting, a polished stainless steel rim and return
letters, complimented by exposed brilliant blue neon below
Neon Workshops is currently undertaking a lot of commissions for words or text in neon. A piece of neon artwork created for Mary McCartney—photographer daughter of Sir Paul McCartney—which was mentioned in a magazine feature, has also resulted in an increased demand for artwork for domestic interiors.
Halo illumination work that gives a really strong impact, is still a major market for Logotech, which regularly recommends this to its customers.
More recently bespoke work has increased, for small independent businesses and pubs, where owners are more aware of what appeals to their customers in terms of design.
“It’s customer-led work. People who want something a little bit more individual are going back more to exposed hanging boxes. The market is definitely there for stand-alone businesses that recognise that hand-made, quality signage implies a certain quality about their premises and customer service,” explains Henderson.
Going for another century?
Magpie Neon proves that using a technology that is more
than one hundred years old can still look fresh,
contemporary and high impact
So what is the future for neon, and are there any clear emerging trends?
“I have noticed neon making a slight comeback with quite a few shops up the West End having it in their windows,” observes Harris, adding: “You can’t get better than a neon sign for visual impact; with over a hundred years of neon being on the market, I don’t think you can beat it.”
Wheater also comments: “It’s difficult to tell if there are any clear emerging trends. Neon Workshops deliberately targets art/craft market. However, our courses for the public are selling out more quickly now and students generally go on to hire our facilities to continue their work and also commission work from us. When someone does a course that is just the beginning of our relationship with them.”
The most common reaction I get when I first flick on the switch is ‘Awesome!’”
Gleeson has noticed an increase in interest from the younger, artistic design workshops: “People are asking for hand-written slogans to be made in neon, or random, colourful shapes to enhance a certain project that they are working on, or just something to mount on a wall of their home. It’s interesting work and it’s very rewarding when you see the delight when a customer sees their idea created.
“The most common reaction I get when I first flick on the switch is ‘Awesome!’, which is probably the same reaction as when the first commercial neon sign was turned on a hundred years ago.”
This bespoke art created by Magpie Neon highlghts just
how evocative the medium of neon is, and potential new
markets for the technology
Henderson says that it is a niche market, but we will start to see more of neon if people understand and relax their attitude to it: “It’s a craft skill that has not been nurtured and supported. People don’t appreciate the flexibility to create intricate designs. We need to educate customers about creation of neon, including correct fitting. And we need to educate people generally—including local councils and planners—so that we can make our high streets more vibrant.”
He continues: “Neon gives deep saturation of colour and still has the same ‘traffic-stopping’ effect as the early signs. However, colours have moved on. They are no longer gaudy and brash; there are now some very subtle and soft colours as well, but with the same great intensity.”
At the birth of neon signage 100 years ago, only a few colours were available to sign designers. After the Second World War, phosphor materials were researched intensively for use in colour televisions and by the 1960s, about two dozen colours were available. Today, there is a choice of nearly 100 colours.
If the sheer passion and enthusiasm of the skilled craftsmen in this sector has anything to do with it, we may yet see a re-kindling of neon’s bright flame. In Los Angeles there are neon societies that try to conserve neon signage, especially when old buildings are demolished, and also to get some of it switched back on.
Wheater concludes: “If only it was seen a little more that way by decision- makers in the UK. I am certainly aiming to celebrate neon and give it a future.”