Neon has illuminated our cities for decades, and it continues to be installed despite the advent of cheaper, more flexible LED lights.
There is a luminosity that emanates from a neon tube that cannot be replicated by digital alternatives; it manages to exude both a retro chic and a clean futuristic glow.
By Don Abbott
What is neon?
Neon is a gas that was discovered in 1898 by British chemists William Ramsay and Morris Travers. Colourless and odourless, it occurs naturally in the earth’s atmosphere, and it is the reason why a sunset casts fire throughout the sky. When an electrical charge is passed through it, it turns a vivid red. What we refer to when we talk about neon-tubes is in reality one of several gases, collectively known as the noble gases, which all behave in a similar way when electrified.
Glass tubes, both clear and coloured, are filled with neon (or argon, xenon, krypton or helium), and by colouring the internal surface of the tube with phosphor coatings, a vast range of colours can be created.
These tubes are unlike a regular light bulb – there is no filament and they produce no heat; they are cool to touch and handle. There are limits to the tube that are defined by physics, for example, they can be no longer than 2-3 metres in length. Their shaping is undertaken by a professional bender, who must understand the limits of what can be achieved; tight curves and sharp corners can be tricky.
Georges Claude was the first person to supply neon tubes to the commercial market. He started this enterprise in Paris in 1912, and neon signs were introduced into the USA eleven years later. Neon was adopted by the advertising and entertainment industries, especially in New York’s Times Square. Theatre and cinema marquees competed with large, intricate neon tableaux advertising household products, clothing, cigarettes and drinks. In the 1950s, more cost-efficient and impressive plastic signage became popular and neon lost some of its lustre; it became associated with seedy motels and casinos, eventually transforming the gambling centre of Las Vegas into a night time dazzlefest.
Neon in New Zealand
In New Zealand, neon became widely used in the 1960s, and Auckland’s retail axis of Queen St, Symonds Street and Newmarket’s Broadway was the location of a fine collection of large illuminated signs, advertising products such as Beefeater Gin, Keans Jeans and Coca-Cola, as well as adorning the street-side marquees of cinemas such as the Cinerama, the Plaza and the Civic. The light show came to the end of its natural life as advertisers used the new medium of television to reach consumers.
When signwriters and artists use neon today they are often aware of its history, and sometimes play upon this as part of their installation.
The craft of neon signage
Neon signs are usually based on a pattern; some elements may be standard, but each is to a large extent individually fashioned, which accounts for their cost and special nature. Once made, however, they can operate for long periods of time without maintenance; they are reliable, robust, consume very little electricity, and are suitable for hard-to-reach places. Neon is used by all parts of society, from large companies that create complex signs for the tops of buildings to project success; to smaller more innovative companies who often adopt neon to project a cool, hip image.
Because of its nature the craft of neon has much to do with its installation and its situation within public space. A good installation will work in both daylight and night hours. A café sign that says ‘OPEN’ can be installed in an alcove, so that it glows all day long.
Paul Hartigan’s Colony, installed on Symonds Street, is located in a glassed-in foyer of the University of Auckland’s Engineering Building, and takes advantage of the shadows created in the portico. This fiery red work changes with the weather and time of day, creating moods that swing from welcoming and warming, to potentially menacing.
A neon sign can also work unlit; its unilluminated lines present a drawing against the backdrop of its support, or even the sky, so that it becomes sculptural. The Keans cowboy on Queen Street was effective as a large line drawing during the day and became a drawcard on Auckland’s main street; at night it glowed and moved, the complexity of a twirling lasso created by a simple animation.
The impression of movement is another aspect that the craft of neon can exploit well. Simple animations create lassos that swing, drinks that pour and curtains that open. Effective animation can extend the impact of a neon installation into a temporal dimension – the sequence becomes a movie that plays nonstop in public.
Because of their linear nature neon tubes are effective with simple line drawings, as well as text. Good neon signs are a combination of strong line, message and installation site. Surprise, delight and the familiarity of repeated viewings ensure that neon will continue to survive and thrive.
Header image: Country singer Al Hunter featured the Keans cowboy on his 1987 debut album Neon Cowboy. All Rights reserved © Al Hunter