Let There Be Neon

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Warsaw Neon Muzeum, via Neon Muzeum

True story: my first trip to Europe, a summer backpacking adventure with some college friends, all guys. We met in Paris, explored, ate, drank. One was vociferous about visiting a strip club, but much to his disappointment, it never happened. Not too long after Paris, we were in Madrid. We didn’t know about the late dinner hours. We were hungry, so we drank gin-and-tonics and nibbled tapas at a café on a busy boulevard. Some time after 10 p.m., we finally ate a huge seafood meal accompanied by bottles upon bottles of cheap wine. As we wandered the streets in a postprandial stumble, our blurred vision and questionable judgment brought into clear focus big, sizzling-red neon letters that read: “Girls Girls Girls.” Long story short: It was not a strip club but a bordello, which we learned only after paying a steep cover and descending into a seedy basement bar. Not even the drink included with admission kept us there for long.

Apparently, my friends and I have the graphic designer Chris Bracey to blame for inventing the “Girls Girls Girls” neon, according to this It’s Nice That interview. Bracey created this now iconic beacon for London’s Pink Pussycat Club, starting the trend for Soho sex clubs relying on neon to advertise. In his words, it was a logical connection: “Like any work of art, it’s got a spirit. Neon is only happy when it’s on, when it’s alive. There’s something sexy about it – it’s no coincidence that the sex clubs all wanted neon signs.”

Rob Alderson writes in his introduction to interview: “Neon was once very much the preserve of seedy Soho strip joints, the garish enticements signposting the border where the real world ended and a more promiscuous, salacious underworld began. Now it’s a staple of art, fashion shoots, and high-end window displays, co-opted post Cool Britannia as the go-to material for a certain kind of ironic metropolitan hipness.”

New Park Pizza, Howard Beach, Queens, via Project Neon

As two-dimensional, high-definition, screen-based interactions flat-screen their way across the world, it makes sense that neon’s body and form are in the air. Just a couple of weeks ago, I made another great book find on a sidewalk in my neighborhood: the original Abrams 1979 edition of Rudi Stern’s Let There Be Neon. Stern was a pioneering neon designer and artist, like Bracey. The book is both a history of the medium (including an impressively technical illustrated glossary) and a call to arms, because back then Stern felt neon was at risk. “Paradoxically, at a time when some architects, lighting designers, graphic designers, and sculptors are becoming increasingly aware of neon’s possibilities, there are few if any young people learning the craft of glass bending,” he wrote.

Maiman's Pharmacy, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, via Project Neon

Of course, as Alderson points out, neon is enjoying quite the renaissance today, at least in terms of aesthetic appreciation. Relying mostly on New York City, Kirsten Hively maintains Project Neon, an ode to “traipsing around this metropolis in the cold and dark to visit pharmacies, shoe repair stores, and bars with good neon signs.”

State Library of Victoria Pictures Collection, via The New York Times

Then there is this recent New York Times story about Stephen Banham’s book Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography (reviewed for Imprint by Paul Shaw). The article’s point of entry is a neon advertisement that sat atop the Allen’s Sweets factory in Melbourne, Australia. In the book, neon is just one example of how vernacular design not only makes its point directly but also speaks volumes about its cultural context.

Polish neon, via Ilona Karwinska

In Warsaw, the Neon Muzeum will open its doors on May 19 as part of the European Night of Museums. (Why the United States doesn’t do something like this is beyond me.) Ilona Karwinska has been documenting—and, in many cases, rescuing—old neons from across Poland, and this museum is the culmination of her work. (Disclosure: I edited her book Polish Cold War Neon.) As the museum’s press release states: “Cold War era neon signs are of high artistic, architectural, and cultural value, and were designed by renowned graphic designers, artists, and architects of the time – through which they formed an integral part of the national and local aesthetic vernacular.”

No wonder Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne included “Night Spectaculars” in their book 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design. Electricity infused the night with a quality of light never before experienced, and its hold on us remains very real. When was the last time you were in Times Square at night? As Heller and Vienne write: “In the 1920s, Dada poets, jazz musicians, and avant-garde writers were inspired by the lighted advertising billboards and saw in them a vivid manifestation of modernity.”

It’s no great revelation that retro is hip these days. This undoubtedly adds to neon’s appeal. But unlike other visual mediums, neon cannot be approximated. It is a singular mode and medium of visual communication, and for that reason, no matter the current design trends, it will remain forever relevant.