A Lasting Obsession with Neon Artistry

For over 100 years, the neon sign has been lighting up cities from Las Vegas to London. But could this cheerful glow be lost?

New Yorkers successfully fought for the preservation of a large neon sign that was prominently displayed on Brooklyn’s Ninth Street for decades. The sign advertised ‘Kentile Floors. The sign will move to another location as part of a redevelopment plan. This celebrates not only the products of a synthetic flooring manufacturer that stopped operations in the 1990s but also the enduring love affair people have with neon.

Ginia Bellafante writes in the New York Times claiming that Kentile Floors tiles were asbestos-containing. The company was subject to years of litigation from plaintiffs alleging its tiles caused cancer cases. Bellafante regards the Brooklyn sign campaign as “an extension to the creative class fetish for workingman’s lifestyle, the same sensibility, that has resulted [in the] New York Times]] in the fashion for Carhartt jackets and Essoshirts, trucker caps and factory paraphernalia among recent graduates of higher Eastern colleges – the ultimate symbol for the denied privilege.”

Perhaps. However, Kentile Floors or any other venerable neon signs are more than just a selling point. They also attract the eye like fireworks. They bring life to cities. They recall the glamour of downtown bars and speakeasy diners of the 1930s, and the thrill of getting there. Petula Clark sang “Downtown” in 1964.

Just listen to all the traffic in the city.

Energy replacement

One of London’s most beloved neon signs, Lucozade, advertised for years the bubbly energy drink. The sign was seen by many people who walked along the elevated road to Heathrow Airport. This cheerful sign with a bottle of sparkling golden bubbles pouring into a wineglass dates back to 1954. The original message, “Lucozade Aids Recovery”, was later changed to “Lucozade replaces lost energy” in the 1980s. It was threatened by demolition 10 years earlier. After six years of hard work by residents, and others’ support, the sign was transferred to Gunnersbury Museum and a replica was mounted at the side of the nearby car showroom. Margaret Hodge from Britain’s culture ministry commented that there was “no energy lost” because of the residents.

When JC Decaux – the sign- and street furniture company – announced plans last year to replace the replica bottle with a digital display showing the familiar, comforting old bottle transforming into the modern Lucozade Sports drink, it was another round. Lucozade is now owned and managed by Suntory, a Japanese drink company. It’s possible that they did not realize the value of the happy marriage neon and nostalgia to so many people.

While LEDs and fast-moving digital displays have replaced neon lights along main roads worldwide, neon still has a strong appeal. While the Piccadilly Circus in London has lost its last neon sign, which commemorates Sanyo (another Japanese company) since 1987, the Neon Museum located in Las Vegas’ spectacular Space Age lobby of La Concha Motel, designed by Paul Revere Williams, has been organizing tours of the incredible neon heritage of the desert city for busloads. Hong Kong remains a beacon for neon signs.

The neon kings

It all started in 1896 with William Ramsay, a British chemist, who discovered the extraordinary properties of the very rare gas – it makes up just 0.0018% of the Earth’s surface – when he placed neon into a glass container and used electricity to charge it. It was, he claimed, like the Northern Lights. A blaze of bright crimson light kept his fellow scientists spellbound.

Georges Claude (a French engineer, entrepreneur, and entrepreneur) displayed two neon signs that measured 12m in length at the Paris Motor Show. The public was impressed. Claude’s Air Liquide, his company, had neon signs all over Paris during the years that preceded World War I. In 1919, the lights in Europe were back on. The entrance to Paris Opera was lit with neon. Four years later, Claude sold a pair of neoprene signs to Earl C Anthony’s Packard store in Los Angeles. This set the pace for the many neon advertising signs that would follow, including Kentile Floors.

They helped make the Depressed Thirties bearable, as neon signs were a beacon of light in the Roaring Twenties. Hollywood, Times Square as well as countless family-friendly movie theatres and family restaurants were all home to neon signs. Signs were an art form, with each one handcrafted. You can see the artistry behind the mixing of colors using different gases. While neon shines red, there are violet light, blue, helium pink, and krypton silvery-white options for argon. While neon has lost its popularity among advertisers, it is still favored by artists such as Tracey Emin, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman.

In neon signs, the 1930s Las Vegas world will be evoked. The first sign was a 1926 sign for Royal Typewriters on Nanjing East Road. They were also featured in movies like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner of82, on album covers like John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll 1974, and in lighting – in bands of pure white – Hong Kong’s origami-like Bank of China which was opened in 1990 by I M Pei (a Chinese-American architect).

It was during the 1960s and 1990s that neon signs were commonly associated with slumbering areas of inner-city streets. These areas were increasingly redeveloped in the 1990s and brought back to a comfortable, lucrative lifestyle. These were home to backstreet dives and sex bars. The neon hints at the more sinister side of city life. These old signs wave a flag to a blue-collar, industrial society of synthetic floor tiles. Wheel alignment and automobile parts are high above.

Despite the economic lure of LED and fluorescent lighting being cheaper, Neon continues to shine, despite the odds. Neon residents are determined not only to keep neon signs for sale or Kentile Floors lit but also for entire city centers like Hong Kong’s. LED Neon Sign, a bright, emotively uplifting, and immensely popular firework lighting symbol will forever be known as ‘downtown’.

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