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Neon Evolution

Though perhaps reminiscent of a time gone by, there is still an appetite for neon lighting. Jack Gocher talks to the people still making a living from this traditional, evocative medium

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Matt Phillips from The Electric Sign Workshop puts the finishing touches to a job

Alive and Kicking

Watching an interview with the son of Thunderbirds creator, Gerry Anderson, I was struck by a comparison with neon lights. He said that just because CGI is good, it does not mean you have to use it. He feels there is still a desire for fans to see the very latest live action puppets for his new TV idea and he is probably right. Replace CGI with LED and pup-pets with neon and the argument looks much the same.

“There isn’t any other media in the last 100 years that has infiltrated our society quite like neon,” says Richard Wheater, director of Neon Workshops. He adds: “But is there still a market for it? This is a recurring story and I can confirm that neon is absolutely alive and kicking! We are busier than ever and neon lighting is being used more than ever.

Neon still leads the way when you need a bit more than plain old lighting, and is currently very much in vogue among designers says Kemp London’s Steve Earle

“However, generally neon has been superseded by newer technology when it comes to being selected for very large projects, but this is more to do with the marketing muscle at the disposal of the people selling these new technologies. Neon providers tend to be small companies based in a workshop with a few skilled people bending glass over a flame. LED companies are mainly buying and selling a product and this gives them the time and budget to develop glossy brochures and expensive ad campaigns.”

In the modern market there is clearly a place for many types of sign lighting technologies.

There are applications that are definitely suitable for neon and others for LED, but it only takes a short walk down Oxford Street to see some very bold window installations using neon. This also brings me in mind of one of my favorite bands, Simple Minds, whose music, like neon, always evokes for me a feeling of laid back cool. And as the title of one of their biggest hits says, it is very much Alive and Kicking.

Kemp London is seeing a resurgence in demand for neon, with this recent campaign for M&M showcasing why it is such an evocative medium

Wheater adds: “Neon is cool and every so often, designers remember this and popularity rises. It has always gone through peaks and troughs dictated from a cultural point of view. And while overall neon has slowed down commercially, it is certainly not reversing. Shopping, movies, theatres, everything associated with culture and fashion will periodically focus on neon. Then the bubble pops and it be-comes passé again. But it always comes back and currently we are enjoying a peak.”

So how do companies ensure that when the cultural bubble pops again there is still a business to work on? And how do we as an industry ensure the skills remain to fulfill this demand?

“We specialise in fabricating neon for the creative industry and have set up a range of courses to help teach anyone that’s interested what neon is and what it can do,” explains Wheater.

He continues: “We do this in-house but have a mobile neon facility and have been travelling all over the UK, Europe, and Scandinavia teaching neon as a creative material since 2010. A wide demographic of people are very interested in neon and by learning about it they can create something special for their home, but also potentially be enthused enough to continue with neon and become the fabricators of the future.”

The neon market is vulnerable be-cause it relies on human skill. But many feel that this vulnerability is part of its appeal. Neon has a distinctly human feel to it.

Another key issue is the environment says Wheater: “I don’t subscribe to the throw-away society and this is another reason why I am so passionate about neon. Neon shops have to recycle by law and very little if anything goes into landfill. LED lights fail and because they are cheap, when they fail they are thrown away. We all need to take more responsibility for our environment and recycling is an essential part of this.”

Neon lighting is enshrouded with perceptions of seedy night-life, atmosphere and mystery, but this is also its appeal and we are enjoying one of our busiest times ever

Wheater concludes by affirming his own commitment to neon: “We flatly refuse to provide LED lighting. We specialise in neon and we aim to educate people about it and ensure it has a credible platform. Neon lighting is enshrouded with perceptions of seedy night-life, atmosphere and mystery, but this is also its appeal and we are enjoying one of our busiest times ever.”

Promised you a miracle

Steve Earle, managing director of Kemp London, is a specialist in this area of lighting technology and claims the company’s order books for neon are full to the brim. He advises that over the last few years there has been a real resurgence in all things neon, with the marketplace becoming particularly diverse—seeing orders coming in from the large multiples, TV, film, fashion and photographic industries, as well as art commissions for both the corporate sector and private individuals.

“I think there is still a certain romance and nostalgia to neon, people tend to think back to the Vegas strip and the neon illuminated casinos,” says Earle, adding: “They also think of the Art Deco district in Miami with iconic hotels like the Colony or Break-water with their neon accented facades. 

Exposed neon achieves a certain luminosity and hue with its 360 degree light, I await the day that an LED excites me in the same way that neon can

“I don’t believe that this is some-thing newer LED technology will ever be able to achieve looking back 30 or 40 years from now. Exposed neon achieves a certain luminosity and hue with its 360 degree light, I await the day that an LED excites me in the same way that neon can.”

(Above & Below)?The Electric Sign Workshop completed this project for the Rynd bar and grill in Reading, creating a vintage feel for the interior design

Kemp London recently produced some neon artwork for Transport for London that was exhibited at the top of the Shard for the launch event of the night tube service. The neon was representative of the actual tube lines and crossed above and below each other creating an amazing tube map that was reflected in the glass over the London skyline and was visible from across the city.

Kemp London’s project for Transport for London shows the tube map in neon. It was commissioned for the launch event of the night-time London Tube services at the Shard

Earle adds: “We are currently working on producing the neon Christmas campaign for Fiat for two 96 sheet size billboards at Westfield, London.  It involves a full neon Christmas scene with citrus orange glass dynamic galloping reindeers pulling the iconic Fiat 500 as the sleigh. Rudolph’s nose is in ruby red glass with an auto dimmer for additional effect.”

Kemp London is always experimenting and pushing boundaries by using neon in different ways and recently had a mother request that her visually impaired child spend some time in its showroom looking at the bright coloured neon tubes to help develop her eyesight.

“This was unexpected but made us think of neon in a whole different way,” says Earle, concluding: “We believe there will always be a place for neon in the market place, but will it still be as popular in five years’ time? The honest answer is I don’t know, but for now we can’t produce it quickly enough—long live neon.”

Don’t you forget about me

Matt Phillips of the Electric Sign Workshop also believes neon is still very important to the market: “Our clients are split roughly 50/50 between private and commercial.

(Above & below) “Exposed neon achieves a certain luminosity and hue with its 360 degree light, I await the day that an LED excites me in the same way that neon can,” says Kemp London’s Steve Earle

“I do a lot of art pieces for homes and personalised neon signs for events such as weddings and birthday parties.

“These are usually neon mounted through a folded aluminum signtray. I never use low quality composite, it’s all properly made traditional signs here. Most of our commercial clients are restaurants and bars around Central London. Although it’s usually interior signs rather than fascias, this is because a lot of premises are not allowed exterior neon due to planning or landlord rules. Design agencies also always seem pretty fond of a bit of neon in their office and we’ve recently made a few pieces that have been used in advertisements.”

O Factoid: Neon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, following hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. O

Phillips sees neon having plenty of opportunities as the company is doing a lot of personalised signs for people’s houses in addition to a variety of vintage looking pieces—which almost always requires neon.

“After all, who wants an LED sign in their house? (Apart from inside cabochon lamps of course). There’s also the other advantages of the brightness and colour and the warm incandescent glow with neon that many people find attractive,” says Earle.

Indeed, The Electric Sign Workshop did a lot of internal neon for a brand new and very cool bar/grill called Rynd in Reading. This involved 6' (1.82m) clear red straights mounted vertically behind raw steel cages as lighting features and a large, vintage, Americana style built-up metal lozenge with purple outline neon text in front of painted text and drop shadow. The whole thing has a rusted/distressed finish and a steel cage to protect the glass. There were also a couple of sentences in clear red neon, mounted directly to the rough brick walls.

Neon Workshops’ Land to Sea project shows that neon is very much hands-on

Phillips is confident for the future, “I think the future looks good for neon. It’s so versatile that I don’t think it will really go out of fashion. There will always be at least a niche market. Which is fine by me.”

With more comebacks than Quo, neon will probably outlast all the other sign technologies. It worms its way into the human experience and is just so much cooler than other signs. Long live neon, I say. 

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