You may have known this already, but the other day I was surprised to learn that the inventor of neon – who died 60 years ago – was French. His name was Georges Claude, and he erected the first neon sign, not in Times Square or Las Vegas, but on Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris.
Claude doesn’t seem to have been a very likeable fellow – he was imprisoned after the war for collaborating with the Nazis – but his glowing invention won hearts everywhere, especially in the United States, where it became a symbol of urban vivacity.
These days neon can feel somewhat retro compared to its LED successor, but perhaps that’s why it’s having something of a resurgence in fashionable circles. Late last year The New York Times reported that brands like Coach, Tiffany and Stella McCartney had all sought neon’s “liquid fire” to add zest to their stores.
One reason for this is that creating neon signs is a genuine craft; the artists themselves are sometimes called “neon benders”. Marcus Bracey, a third generation neon artist, explains: “To learn this craft is very hard: it can take between five to ten years, if you work with an experienced neon bender full time.”
Bracey’s domain is God’s Own Junkyard, a neon-crammed space in East London. Here you can find everything from signs salvaged from defunct sex shops to tailor-made pieces for movies. It really is an electric dreamland.
Marcus says the family’s relationship with neon began with his grandfather in the 1950s, who supplied signs for circuses, amusement arcades and cinemas. “My father, Chris Bracey then joined the family business in the 1970s, thinking: ‘Sex, I’ll make money from sex. Not from selling it myself but making signs to advertise it for the people who do.’ From Soho to up-cycling and collecting iconic signs around London, then turning them into prestige art, we have managed to navigate the business around to fashion, music and film, working with luminaries like Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan.”
The fact that the way neon is made hasn’t changed for over a hundred years is intrinsic to its appeal, says Marcus, although it also took on an artistic dimension thanks to artists like Bruce Nauman, then Tracey Emin and Martin Creed. “It’s part of our visual vernacular through watching movies,” he adds. “But there’s been a upsurge lately for people who want it in their homes, not just to advertise or decorate bars, hotels and restaurants.”
Neon fans regularly flock to the spectacular Neon Museum in Las Vegas, AKA “The Boneyard”, and there are several Instagram feeds devoted to the art. One of them is for Singapore-based neon boutique Confetti Dreams, an e-tailer of traditional glass neon as well as flexible LED “neon”.
Founder Sarah Chen says she originally started an event company, but diverted into neon when she discovered how difficult it was to source portable signs for weddings and parties.
“I found at the time that the industry deals pretty much only with businesses and stores, making the traditional glass neon signs you see on the façade of shops. They were fragile, high maintenance and very expensive. So I decided to go into creating neon art instead, and make it available to everyone and anyone.”
Chen feels neon’s resurgence was inevitable. “Everyone’s always loved neon, especially in Asia. But now it’s more available and affordable. Our new kind of flexi LED neons are longer lasting, more energy efficient, not fragile and won't heat up with usage, so it's a lot more user friendly.”
Having said that, she agrees it’s a shame that glass neon bending is a dying skill. “I hope younger people can find skilled artisans who are willing to teach them the craft of glass bending and preserve the art.”
For neon-spotters, she cites Hong Kong as one of the ultimate destinations. “There are so many signs that you don't know which one to look at first. It's really amazing seeing old-school neons against the new cosmopolitan city, and on the other end of the spectrum, new style neon art against a retro backdrop.”
For Marcus Bracey, Las Vegas remains the ultimate neon city, “with its blazing hotels and casinos”. But he has a good word for his home town, too: “Piccadilly back in its heyday was outstanding.”
With the perennial vogue for all things vintage, as well as a current fascination for crafts that are analogue and difficult in a world of digital ease, neon’s new moment is unlikely to burn out any time soon.
(All pictures courtesy of God's Own Junkyard)