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The Defenders of Neon

When it comes to illuminated signs, neon has long been the brightest star. Brenda Hodgson talks to the artisans keeping this iconic medium burning bright

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The North Star, created by Julia Bickerstaff, was commissioned by Trans-Pennine Express Trains to mark the expansion of their rail network

The Defenders of Neon

Since 1912, when the first commercial neon sign was displayed at a barber’s shop in Paris, this brilliant medium has been creating an undiminished wow factor. Neon quickly became a popular choice for outdoor advertising due to its high visibility and eye-catching effect even in daylight.

Always an evocative medium, the real heyday of neon was from the 1930s to 1960s. However, the introduction of LED and somewhat over-cautious concerns, especially by local authorities, about its safety, set neon on something of a rollercoaster ride in the UK for a number of years.

Happily, it is now enjoying a resurgence of interest for both indoor and outdoor installations, with commercial as well as private commissions now on the upturn.

People with passion

The production of neon signage, especially exposed neon, is still very much both an art and a craft-based skill, so it seems appropriate to find out more about the individual craftsmen and women who have made their careers in this field. I wanted to know what initially fired their passion for the medium, what keeps that passion alive, how they see the future of neon, and, most importantly, how the skills can be passed on to a new generation.

West Yorkshire, and Leeds in particular, was once the largest fabricator of neon in the UK. It is no surprise, therefore, that two of our featured artisans, Richard Wheater and Julia Bickerstaff, are based in West Yorkshire.
 
It was while taking an art foundation course in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, that Richard Wheater found himself becoming obsessed with glass, and a desire to work with it was kindled.

“At the time Leeds was throwing up huge glass buildings,” says Wheater, adding: “I wanted to reflect on this and understand the material more. My tutor, David Roberts (a famous Raku ceramicist) recommended Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), knowing they had a glass programme.”

It was during his time at ECA that Wheater’s passion for glass-blowing and neon was really ignited and he secured an exchange to Alfred University, New York to learn the principles of making neon under tutor/artist Fred Tschida.

“In New York the professors have to create exhibitions of their work, so that they keep the medium alive,” explains Wheater, adding: “It was a stunning artwork/sculpture exhibition piece, called ‘Circle/Sphere’, that really inspired me—and stopped other students in their tracks too. I realised the full potential of neon and was really excited by working with it.”

Back in the UK there was nowhere where Wheater could continue his interest and he had to get neon companies to make pieces for him, which he found totally unsatisfactory.

“The whole work looked like the drawing. It seemed impersonal and I felt removed from the process,” says Wheater, adding: “In the UK blown glass work is mainly made by technicians—artists often rely too heavily on makers, whereas in the USA artists make their own neon, and glass departments operate 24 hours a day. I wanted to be more involved; I like to be pushed by a medium.”

In 2010 Wheater established Neon Workshops in Wakefield, which specialises in the development and manufacturing of neon lighting for the creative industry. Neon Workshops regularly delivers neon sculpture courses, both in Wakefield, and in its Mobile Neon Workshop, which attract participants from around the world. Its neon making facilities are also available for public hire. In addition, Neon Workshops hosts an annual exhibition programme of neon related work in its gallery spaces, as well as housing what Wheater describes as ‘possibly the UK’s largest resource library on the subject’.

Wheater’s passion for neon remains undiminished: “For over a hundred years, no other material has been in the running to win the attention-grabbing prize like neon. Yet it is still as fresh and modern as the next futuristic sci-fi movie waiting to be dreamt up. Despite its unnatural allure, neon is nature, the harnessing of a mini lightning bolt, arcing through rare gas—the fourth element. What you’re looking at is 100 percent recyclable, energy efficient, biodegradable, cold, fire.”

Julia Bickerstaff at Leeds-based Neoncraft is a glass manufacturer and maker of cold cathode lighting and neon for all sectors, from trade engineering and signage to art-based or experimental creative works, which are either governed by Bickerstaff herself or guided by other artistic creatives. Having studied art at Leeds College of Art in the early 1980s, Bickerstaff secured what she describes as ‘a job I never started’ at Oldham Signs, which closed in 2003.


This animated running horse sculpture, created by Julia Bickerstaff, is displayed in a bar called Leeds Postal Service


Bickerstaff explains: “This was because I saw the wonderful magical light of the neon department. I commented ‘that looks amazing’. It reminded me of the neon shop that the college use to have. However, I didn’t get the chance to use that because they moved the college about and closed that building.

“I had a go and was offered the opportunity to learn the challenging skills and creativity (with much higher pay). It was the opportunity of a lifetime. And, to this day, I enjoy making people’s ideas, thoughts, and passion be realised in glass and light. Not to mention my own too.”


Darren West says that it is the glass-blowers that are left currently working in the field, who all do good, high quality work, which keeps neon alive and hopefully inspires others to follow



Both an artist and designer, Darren West, owner of The Neon Sanctum in Worthing, West Sussex, is a true pioneer of what he describes as a ‘dying trade’. A skilled master craftsman in glass-blowing, he designs and creates original pieces from the very first embryonic sketches to full blown contemporary, colourful neon artworks for both commercial and individual commissions.


The Eden Tree created by Julia Bickerstaff was commissioned by a London finance company to promote their services



When the sign company he was working for folded West started his own studio. “It was all commercial work at that time, such as nightclubs, petrol stations etc.,” continues West, adding: “However, the commercial side went downhill during the 1990s with the introduction of LEDs. So I decided to create neon as an art form, which has been very successful.”

Commercial work now accounts for only around 25 percent of West’s work, with the remainder being artworks and private commissions. Although he notes that recently there has been a massive increase in commercial work for specialised products, such as art pieces, pictures, and text rather than simply logos and facia signs.

“Many large companies are now willing to pay for the individuality and uniqueness of this kind of piece and also keen to work on something more individual for their advertising,” West observes.Keeping the dream alive.

If the artisans working in neon today have anything to do with it, in the words of a 1998 song ‘The game will never be over, because we’re keeping the dream alive’. But, with no formal university or college training available in the UK and the neon shops that once existed within large sign companies now gone, the glaring questions are: how can this be achieved? Where is the training for a new generation of artisans?

Wheater gives an overview of the current training landscape: “I think the future of neon will rely more on the individuals within the sector offering training and hands-on opportunities. When the polytechnics closed down so did any last chance for people to learn neon in any formal way in the UK (and even then it was taught as a vocational rather than a commercial subject). Students on graphics and sign-making courses now work almost entirely on computers. A three month course used to be offered by Masonlite in Kent but that also closed down in 2005. However, there is still a polytechnic in Paris that teaches neon.”

Neon Workshops is the only place left in the UK that offers neon courses, ranging from taster sessions to more challenging courses and those ‘bitten by the bug’ can hire the company’s facilities and also buy hand-built neon machines to use in their own workshops.

Bickerstaff has also given many light based workshops at her studio, as well as in schools, universities, and museums, amongst other venues. She also teaches neon workshops for tubular glass blowing enthusiasts, which attract people from many backgrounds, from sound specialists to architects, hobbyists to academics. The workshops range from one day to a week long.

Fighting for its future

Another key element of neon’s ongoing story within the culture and art of our isle is that it has some ardent defenders that are hard at work ensuring it will be around for many years to come.
 
Andy Nash, managing director of A1 Designs, is such a knight in shining neon, and he explains a key trend affecting the sector and his own personal love affair with this sign technology: “As a company we are finding the market for neon continues to go from strength-to-strength with more companies using it in a variety of applications from main signage and window displays to internal signage and feature lighting.”


“As a company we are finding the market for neon continues to go from strength to strength with more companies using it in a variety of applications from main signage and window displays to internal signage and feature lighting,” explains Andy Nash of A1 Designs



A1 Designs is a company well worth investigating, and has been doing trade work for sign-makers for many years, giving them the capability to offer a highly-creative and unique signage solution to their customers. Nash explains that neon is more than just a business for him, it is in his blood: “On a personal note I have been involved with neon from a young age, as my father Terry Nash ran his own sign company since I was around four years old. Before that time he worked for one of the largest manufacturers of neon in London, Electroneon Signs (not to be confused with a current company with a similar name), that carried out a great deal of work all over the UK, including theatres and many of the shops and establishments in Soho.

“When I was around seven years of age I fitted my first neon sign with my father: Flicks Movies. Since that young age I had been involved in a variety of different parts of the business, but eventually I decided to go to university to study a degree in computer science. When I finished my degree, I ended up working with my father in various roles within the business and have ended up taking over and running the place, Terry is now semi-retired and still keeps a hand in with the company. Through the years we have been involved in a large variety of projects, one of our recent projects has been for a Superdry pop-up shop. Today we manufacture a wide variety of signage, whilst still being specialists in neon and cold cathode.”

Another very important supplier of neon to the sign-making industry is Southern Neon. I caught up with founder David Pigott, who explains some salient points about the mystique and capabilities of neon: “The technology has evolved over the years resulting in the transformers/inverters really improving with lowering energy consumption and with a high standard of safety features, thus improving further what was already amazing reliability compared to the alternatives. The beauty of neon is that it has really grown in terms of the type of customers we attract. There is an affection and a love for its translucent beauty and so whether it is people specifying neon for one-offs or large corporate companies requiring neon to create impact and a unique look for the branding in their stores, it really has a wide range of demand.

“Another advantage in using neon is that it can easily be repaired years later, whereas for an LED version you will be replacing the whole sign. You can create much sharper and more abstract three-dimensional shapes than with LEDs. Also, there are a lot of untrue myths about neon, spread by those who favour the alternatives.”

O Factoid: Around 1902, the first neon lamp was invented by Georges Claude, a French engineer and chemist, who was the first person to apply an electrical discharge to a sealed tube of neon gas to create a lamp. O

 
Julie Pigott, co-founder of Southern Neon, has helped David grow the business from small beginnings in 1989, moving through two workshop units and then finally into their own premises in Southampton. Julie explains that their success has been built on David’s skill, combined with his love of the craft and always putting the interests of their customers first. She adds: “We try to stick to what we are good at and feel we have developed our neon in terms of its refinement and the way in which it is framed and finished. When people require neon for their home, or as atmospheric pieces in a restaurant, the casing for the neon needs to be seamless. This is also very important for our trade customers, as they are staking their reputation on our work. We are very mindful of this and always pay very great care to respect the fact that trade work is trade work and to remain the silent manufacturer behind the scenes.”


(Above & below) Southern Neon caters for a wide range of applications from small one-off personal commissions through to branding work for major corporations











Fuelling the flame

So, where does the future of neon lie? How can its flame be kept burning bright and inspire not only a new generation of makers but new end-users too?

West comments: “The glass-blowers that are left currently working in the field all do good, high-quality work which keeps neon alive and hopefully inspires others to follow. From an end-user point of view, neon transformers are now of a better quality and, therefore, eliminate safety concerns.”

If the message was understood that neon is a 100 percent recyclable, energy efficient, and clean medium, then more end-users might consider it


Wheater adds: “Young people, such as graduates, are beginning to look for something more craft based and creative; it’s about having something tangible. The resurgence of interest in vinyl records is a prime example. If the message was understood that neon is a 100 percent recyclable, energy efficient, and clean medium, then more end-users might consider it. Furthermore, with regard to LED products, these are changing rapidly so that replacements cannot always be obtained, which considerably reduces the cost-effectiveness that is regularly claimed for them.”


This striking neon sculpture was created for The London Cocktail Club by Darren West, who adapted the club’s own design to suit neon



Bickerstaff takes up the theme of LEDs with some passion:

“I think the future of neon is happening right now. With the introduction of LED and the reduced skill base and durability LED offers, neon has one very powerful tool to its advantage—‘reality’. LED just isn’t neon.

“Sure, there are plenty of faux neon producers now, obsessively advertising their produce, but it is just not neon is it? That shimmering light, the handmade quality, what I call ‘the giblets of neon’—the painted out bits, supports, wires, transformer, etc. that give neon its power of presence.”

The final word on the subject comes from Bickerstaff: “The future of neon is held by the general public, the population at large. They have the power to lobby, to preserve and to nurture knowledge and history. It’s similar to the old saddle-makers of the early 1900s, who saw the motor car take their work; but you can still buy a saddle today, because people still want to ride horses. LED can do lots of things but not neon nostalgia.”


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