Reports on the death of neon have been somewhat exaggerated. LEDs did finish off the use of neon in interior and exterior architectural lighting, but neon tube bending shops survive here and there. Neon’s vibrancy and sizzle make older signs worth preserving, and the next generation of neon artists are finding wider acceptance of this unique form of expression. In February the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) reopened at its new, permanent home in Glendale, CA. Beyond exhibiting relics of a bygone age, neon fans are heralding a resurgence of the medium in both commercial speech and as an art form.
Neon artist Lili Lakich has been exhibiting in Los Angeles since the early 1970s and is one of the original founders of MONA. Her major public works in LA include L.A. Angel, which brightens the California Plaza downtown, and Flyaway at the Van Nuys airport.
“We go thru periodic surges of interest then decline then interest and decline,” she said. “Right now it’s surging upwards.” She described the design community’s interest in neon as cycling every 12 to 15 years. “Young people love neon. One of the things that’s caused it to come back recently was when Disney opened their Cars Land theme park neon,” Lakich said. “It’s always something new when it comes back.” She reports a surge of interest in her neon art workshops and sees neon signage at retailers or coffee shops and bars attracting selfies and “free” promotion on social media.
Neon word art by Tracey Emin and Glenn Ligon, among others, is widely exhibited and collected. Ligon’s animated Double America 2 is currently exhibited at The Broad, the new contemporary art museum founded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad in downtown Los Angeles.
“Everybody seems to be doing quotes on the wall. I did some work for Microsoft for their breakroom in San Francisco; sayings like “Have Fun” or “Innovate” to motivate their employees. They want to do it with something that’s fun and lights up,” said Roger Daniells, owner of CR Glow Custom Neon in Stockton, CA. He finds enough work to keep his one-man shop busy: fabricating window wraps for tattoo parlors and refurbishing “picked” beer signs for home game rooms.
“With neon I can recycle the glass, or I lop off the cathodes and add new ones. I can easily recycle 50‑60 year old signs. The magnetic-type power supplies are sometimes still good. The electronic power supplies we have now are more efficient. But with this 100‑year‑old technology, that’s really the only thing that’s changed.”
Some die-hard devotees of neon cite the frailty of LED drivers as a shortcoming of the reputedly long-lived technology. According to J. Eric Lynxwiler, a spokesman and board member at MONA, “LEDs are trying to kill [neon] but the cheapness of plastic and the promise of LEDs has not yet proven its worth. Their promises have not come true. LEDs burn out. They’re not the green technology people thought they would be. And neon: we’re finding out that neon does actually last forever. That neon really is a green technology. That the technology of a 1920s neon sign is the same as today.”
Lynxwiler cites an artifact at the historic Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown LA. During a 2012 renovation, a hardwired neon tube was discovered that may have been burning continuously since the 1930s. Lynxwiler is admittedly biased, but “everything we’ve been saying about neon, which was a neon tube built in the twenties and thirties would still work today, was proven true with this one tube. You cannot say that about a fluorescent tube lighting plastic or about LEDs, which die at the drop of a hat.”
Los Angeles Neon + Cathode is one of the remaining neon companies in the LA area that does architectural work. Jan Carter, principal, explained that, due to the rise of LEDs, interest from architects has dried up and he is considering reinventing his business as a signage company. Neon is expensive to make and power; the glass tubes break easily and are hard to replace. Shock and fire hazards are also higher.
“Neon is like it’s alive inside the tube. It actually moves around,” countered Kim Koga, longtime director at MONA, describing the unique 360° glow of ionized neon and mercury gases. “Neon is glass and it’s a gas and it’s electrified. There’s nothing like it and nothing will replace it. LEDs might someday be brighter; they might get a whole palette of colors. But it’s never going to be a gas. It’s never going to emit the same quality of light that neon does. There are still – especially in an area like LA or any big city – there are still people who work it and use it.”
A new home for neon
Other neon collections may appreciate the artistry of twentieth-century neon craftsmen, but MONA is unique in its celebration of both fine art and vintage signage. Since 1981, MONA has exhibited in different venues, including a long-running (since 1993) exhibition at Universal CityWalk that features some of the collection’s most stunning and historic pieces. The museum’s new permanent home in Glendale features four or five changing exhibits a year and conducts neon art classes and restoration demonstrations. Shimoda Design Group designed the 8400 sqft renovation of two existing buildings, adding the double-height glazed entry. Interiors and lighting are stripped down and simple to let the exhibits shine.
MONA also operates popular bus tours: Neon Cruises, guided by Lynxwiler, cover architecture, history and culture and provide an opportunity to contrast neon with other technologies. “The best reason to take the tour as a sign fan is to see how much vintage illumination survives in Los Angeles. I claim that Los Angeles has the best surviving collection of neon from the thirties, forties, fifties. And it’s because Los Angeles is so spread out; we’ve managed to save a lot of it economically,” he said, citing several works that have transcended advertising. “We have that all over Los Angeles. That neon sign or that neon sign was built for commercial purposes in the thirties, forties, fifties, but it’s now become such an icon of Los Angeles, there’s no way we can get rid of it.”
Koga describes these signs as folk art: created for a purpose, but highly designed and all handmade. MONA restores and exhibits donated signs for their aesthetic, cultural or technical merit; both figurative work and typography. Complex animation or rare colors would merit restoration, which can cost anywhere from $1000 to $50,000, according to Lynxwiler.
The refurbished Brown Derby sign, unveiled at MONA in August, represents Hollywood’s Golden Age. The restaurant opened at Hollywood and Vine in 1929 and closed in 1985. “That’s the thing about these neon signs. So many people relate to them. It’s part of their childhood,” said Lynxwiler. “These signs have gone beyond advertising, and they have become something far greater… They just have rich cultural importance.”
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