Making light work: a short history of neon

Miami's South Beach is alive with its jewel-like night-time glow, and the Las Vegas Strip offers the last word in neon overload. But how did a tube of gas become the ultimate symbol of the 20th-century city?
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The Independent Culture
From the moment when seven, glowing, metre-high letters were installed on a Champs-Elysees roof-top in 1912, writing CINZANO large across the Paris sky, neon became a natural part of the 20th-century city. It made the outside of Art Deco cinemas as spectacular as the movies they showed and turned Times Square into a massive, three-dimensional advertising space. Combined with the lavish casinos, it became the USP - and perfect symbolic representation - of flashy, trashy Las Vegas. And finally, from its commercial beginnings, neon broke its exclusive ties with the world of vernacular design and made its way into the art gallery. Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins set up MONA (the Museum of Neon Art) in Los Angeles in 1981 - a counterpart to Rudi Stern's East Coast Let There Be Neon and nurturing point for artists who feel comfortable saying things like: "neon has the power of the flame, a power that draws you in, a concrete version of a life force and the kinetic excitement of fire."

For something that has been around for over 80 years, though, it is a strangely unchanged technology: inert gas trapped in a vacuum-tight glass tube. Argon makes the familiar blue light, for example, neon itself the vivid orange-red. Once a clearly visible sign of prosperity and progress, neon's new role seems to be to represent a pastiche of modernity and glamour, as in Miami's South Beach and endless retro blinking bar signs - a bit of old kitsch, or a flash of inspiration from a bygone age?

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