Say It In Neon; The Retro Glam Displays Are Receiving New Sleek Designs Of Your Own Signature.

by Nina Thorstensen

Inside the narrow space of a glass tube filled with neon gas there is a junction where design and craft meet technology. When the distinctive red glow lit the first neon signs it was a culmination of years of work conducted by chemists, physicists, engineers and craftsmen. Neon initiated the era of electric advertising, which we might look back replete with nostalgia for those colourful, playful and tempting visual displays. There is something in the allure of its foggy, mystical glow that over the years transfixed neon into becoming part of popular culture and a larger architectural heritage. This brief evaluation of neon as a transformed yet ubiquitous medium owes its origin in the broader quest for the role that technology has in re-evaluating traditional craft. Discovering neon’s complex history and interweaving the multiple stories behind it brought to light its rare and exceptional qualities.

The technology behind neon lights remains virtually unchanged since its first development in France while the art of crafting the gas-filled glass tubes into eye-catching displays flourished and reached its peak in America. The first neon lamp was invented in 1902 by Georges Claude, a French engineer, chemist and inventor who experimented with applying an electrical discharge to a sealed tube with neon gas. In 1912, the first neon sign was sold to a Paris barber and in 1923 Georges Claude introduced his neon signs to United States where they rapidly became a popular outdoor fixture and an important cultural phenomenon that would leave a lasting effect on the visual display of its cities. During the 1920s and 30s America’s inventiveness with neon brought to life myriad forms of neon displays to guide the travellers and tourists towards the plethora of consumerist offer. Neon displays defined the advertising landscape across the United States and its romance with neon signage has dreamed up collective imagery of America’s most iconic cities brought to light by neon. From humble jagged signs along Route 66, to flamboyant casinos of Las Vegas, the old Hollywood glamour of Sunset Strip boulevard in Los Angeles, to spectacular and blinding neon advertisements of New York city’s Time Square.

“Each neon sign is unique as the process of its manufacture is manual; the glass tube is bent by hand over the fire in order to create a desired layout.”

In Berlin, city known for technology driven firms, this old medium is experiencing a new kind of popularity within the range of fully customized and individualized neon signs. Sygns is an online platform based in Berlin and Göteborg that manufactures customizable neon signs, enabling their customers to give input in terms of colour, size and font of the chosen text. The team is also responsible that the commissioned neon designs arrive in one piece and can be easily screwed directly onto the wall. Nils Lehnert, one of the founders, belongs to a new generation of neon admirers whose encounter with neon installations originated in the context of art galleries rather then streets. He admired the neon artworks by Tracy Emin, David Flavin and Bruce Nauman, which he could not afford so he decided to pay a visit to a neon glass blower himself. After learning about the trade first-hand, he realized the potential gap in the market and dreamed of a more affordable way of manufacturing and retailing individualised neon installations. As an online platform, Sygns connects manufacturer with the customer directly, cutting the middleman along the way, enabling it to offer high quality neon signs at reasonable prices. Today Sygns produces neon installations for both private customers and businesses, employing designers, architects, artists and glass blowers to design and produce signs for their clients. The company hopes to build the market around the old trade of glass blowing and bending, which we are in danger of loosing. It takes three to four years to become a skilled glass blower, which means the supply is short.

Each neon sign is unique as the process of its manufacture is manual; the glass tube is bent by hand over the fire in order to create a desired layout. Then comes the attaching of electrodes, evacuating the air and adding gas. Tubes that are filled with neon generally only emit red, orange or amber light while most other coloured tubes are actually filled with argon. There are now more than 150 colours that can be produced using neon and argon. A very high-current transformer is connected to the electrodes, which heats the glass to about 216 C, while the metal electrode inside the glass is heated at about 760 C. This heating forces the impurities out of the materials and once the tube has cooled, the gas is inserted under low pressure. A well-built neon sign should have a life of over 30,000 hours in comparison to an average 100-watt light bulb with a rated life of 750-1,000 hours. The process of making a neon sign will take around two days and the complex craft behind it assures that it shines as bright today as it did during the time it was made.

Over at Sygns’ Kreuzberg office, Nils considers that neon displays will never fully come back – they will always stay in a niche market. What makes them great are their versatile capabilities and different applications; as part of the design, art and advertising world, as well as customizable designs on their own.