Commerce and Culture September 2006

Signs of Our Times

In under a century, neon signs—part sculpture, part lighting, part billboard—have gone from marketing tool to tacky trash to folk art

Dan Holzschuh, a Dallas-area sign maker and collector, remembers a trade-magazine article from the early 1970s documenting the trend with photos of a crane “cleaning up” a downtown street by removing all the neon signs. Then “it shows trailers going to the landfill and dumping, dumping all these neon signs.”

By the 1970s, neon was almost dead. The skilled craftsmen who could wire signs and bend glass were retiring without successors. “They were hardly even training anyone anymore,” says Tama Starr, an old friend of mine and the president of Artkraft Strauss in New York, the company that for three generations built the neon spectaculars of Times Square. In the 1970s, the main demand for her family’s wares came from porn merchants—like the red neon curtains of the Pussycat Theater façade—a relationship that made neon seem even less reputable. The signs also fell victim to the symbolic politics of the energy crisis. With Americans turning down thermostats and sitting in gas lines, big blinking signs seemed wasteful—even though they weren’t. Neon signs don’t consume much power, but they look like they do. A cousin of fluorescent lighting, neon is actually quite energy efficient. A neon tube glows coolly when high-voltage, low-amperage electrical power excites the gas within it. The color depends on which inert gas the tube contains—neon for red, argon for blue—and whether additives like mercury are present. For more variety, the glass itself can be colored or a fluorescent coating added.

The low point for neon came in 1982, when Holiday Inn did away with its signature “Great Sign,” replacing the neon extravaganza with a forgettable green plastic box. Of the thousands of Holiday Inn signs that once shone on America’s highways, only one remains to be seen, in the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. What good taste and aggressive regulation couldn’t squelch, corporate image making did. Out went lighted tubes, and in came bright plastic signs or, a bit later, individual plastic letters discreetly illuminated by internal neon tubes.

Neon had a resurgence in the 1980s. Cities including Vancouver and San Diego reversed their anti-neon ordinances, and the Times Square spectaculars reclaimed their dignity when Japanese electronics companies reimported the medium from Tokyo. But today neon is threatened by a new technology: low-maintenance, easily programmed light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which often use even less power than neon and glow more sharply. A year ago, one of the country’s most famous neon signs, the pulsing Citgo logo near Boston’s Fenway Park, was replaced with an LED copy—not quite as elegant, perhaps, but able to survive a Boston winter without repairs. Advertisers prefer LEDs and video screens, which are visible even in the daytime. Instead of wooing customers with mesmerizing signs of identity and presence, these new media display constantly changing information, from brand announcements to recycled television commercials. With neon, “you were looking at a piece of art, and now you’re looking at a manufactured object,” says Starr. Most of those artworks are long gone, carted to the dump to be crushed into compact cubes of glass and steel. Storage problems make neon signs the most ephemeral of commercial arts.

Bob Jackowitz, the vice president of Artkraft Strauss, recalls one of his favorite creations—four nine-foot-high vertical sine waves, each a different color, that danced in and out of one another, perfectly synchronized so they never collided. “If it was at MOMA, it would be a piece of sculpture,” he says. “If it was in front of an office building, it would be functional art. But it was in a disco, so it was a lighting fixture.” When the disco was torn down, Jackowitz was asked if he wanted to reclaim the piece. “I did want it,” he says, “but where was I going to put it?”

Artkraft Strauss itself preserved largely what the workers in its factory happened to find amusing and portable enough to hang on the wall. These remnants—mostly individual letters or small pieces from bakeries and bandstands—went on the auction block in May of this year after Starr sold Artkraft’s sign-construction and -maintenance operation to Clear Channel (which hired the workers but won’t be building new neon signs). As bidders were paying $8,365 for the nearly six-foot-high i from the A&E Biography sign that hung high over Columbus Circle from 1998 to 2005, and $1,793 for a restaurant’s neon caricature of Bob Hope, a crew was dismantling the glass-bending room at the Artkraft factory.

Starr believes that neon had a good run but has no future in the sign business. “There’s no way neon is going to come back,” she says. “It’s very high voltage. It’s dangerous. It involves gases. You’ve got mercury. To dispose of it is a big pain in the neck. It’s expensive. It’s all handmade.” Artkraft Strauss’s business now consists only of designing signs, making deals, and maintaining a huge archive of photos and other historic materials. Of neon, she says: “I like it a lot, but I just can’t see it.”

But a medium as beloved as neon doesn’t disappear—it becomes an art form, justifying special materials and high prices. “We’re up 30 percent for the year, and 90 percent of what we do has neon in it,” says Jay Blazek, owner of Western Neon in Seattle. Blazek grew up in the business—his father ran a neon school in Wisconsin—but, unlike the traditional sign maker, he takes a decidedly contemporary, upscale approach. Western Neon not only makes signs but also designs subtle interior lighting, using neon in curved ceiling recesses, for restaurants and other businesses. Two of Blazek’s fifteen employees are full-time designers, and the shop includes gallery space. “The only way that I can forge my destiny in this business is by creating really interesting things,” says Blazek. “If we just make square boxes and channel letters, other things will come along that are new and improved.”

Virginia Postrel is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at www.dynamist.com/weblog.
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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.

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