An Art Overlooked: The Making of Neon Signs

Sometimes we fail to see the craftsmanship that surrounds us. Is the impressive art of neon sign making becoming extinct?

Pattaya, Thailand
Pattaya, Thailand, Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Neon signs have been an eye-catching way to advertise in large cities around the world for a century. Debuting in 1910 in an exhibition by George Claude, founder of Air Liquide, at the Paris Motor Show, their glittering colors took the world by storm. The heyday of neon in the United States lasted roughly from 1920 to 1960, while it peaked in Hong Kong from 1980 to 2000. This wonderful and enlightening video from M+, a museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, explores the culture and process behind the construction of neon signs, an art that is rapidly being replaced by new LED technology. Artisans painstakingly build these signs, twisting glass tubes heated to almost 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. These tubes must be shaped into to designs, some of which are large and complex, fitted with electrodes and filled with gas. The electrical current supplied into the tubes ionizes the gas, which produces light.

Video via wkcda on YouTube.

While neon, argon, krypton and helium, all used to make “neon” signs, are referred to as noble gases because they are largely inert and are not considered dangerous to work with, the craft itself has its perils. True neon lights, which are red, do not contain mercury, which is toxic, but those containing argon, helium or krypton gas do. It also requires a great deal of practice and experience to learn how to bend and handle the tubes. If an artisan does not have a grasp of how the glass will bend, it is easy to get burned or lacerated. The repetitive movement involved is an ergonomic nightmare, while the dangers of electrocution and falling from an installation are very real threats.

These risks may be contributing to the extinction of the art form, but the driving force behind it is economic. There are few workers willing to do such hard work for little pay when LEDs can be built much more cheaply and quickly. Sadly, there is an art being lost and a quality that cannot be replicated. Cities around the globe are taking steps to preserve iconic and historical neon signs, but there isn’t much demand for new work. If it is no longer a viable form of advertising, perhaps neon lighting can survive as an art form in museums and among collectors. Will neon artists find new heights of expression when freed from utilitarian purposes or will the art fade into obscurity?

Mel's Drive-In, Hollywood image © Chuck Coker with CCLicense
Mel’s Drive-In, Hollywood
image © Chuck Coker with CCLicense

2 thoughts on “An Art Overlooked: The Making of Neon Signs

  1. Pingback: A Synkroniciti Top Ten: Most Popular Videos of 2014 | synkroniciti

  2. katmcdaniel Reply

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:

    Reblogging this gem from 2014 to begin our exploration of the theme of glass this week. More new things to come!

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