In with the new, out with the old. In today's technologically driven world, that's the way things work more often than not. Just ask that Razr flip phone living in the back of your junk drawer next to a Walkman and a pile of floppy disks.
Sometimes, though, the old reasserts itself. Nostalgia kicks in or a new technology doesn't quite live up to its promise. Often a new generation discovers that the simplicity and quirks of an older technology have inherent value. Millennials who grew up streaming music and taking photos with smartphones have discovered the romance of vinyl records and Polaroid cameras as if for the first time. The old is only out until it's back in.
For the neon sign industry, LED technology was the video that (nearly) killed the radio star. Making neon lights requires highly skilled artisans who understand both the science and the art of bending delicate glass tubes by hand over an open flame, filling the tubes with gas and wiring them so they illuminate when electrified. It's a dying art. Or is it?
Lisa Schulte has been creating neon signs in Los Angeles for three decades. Schulte is, first and foremost, an artist. Her sculptures artfully combine found organic material and handcrafted neon tubes of white light. In addition to making her own art, Schulte and her skilled team at Nights of Neon fabricate custom neon designs and rent out neon art and signage from her massive collection for movie, TV and music video sets. Her Van Nuys workshop/warehouse/art studio is a huge, glowing shrine to all things neon. The electric bill for the space runs around $3,500 a month.
“I'm a light junkie,” she says. “What are you going to do? I have to have it.”
Schulte recalls that, when she was getting started in the neon industry, there were at least 10 neon shops in the Los Angeles area alone. “They were run by old-timers,” she explains. “I rode a huge wave with it for a long, long time. Then it completely hit the ground when they started introducing LED lighting and making all those ugly, backlit plastic signs. It really killed 90 percent of the business. I wondered if I was going to even be able to keep my doors open.”
Eric Lynxwiler, a spokesman and board member of the newly reopened Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, witnessed the same phenomenon. “We have lost a lot of old neon vendors who really knew the craft of bending glass over an open flame,” he says. “It's truly a talent. You have to apprentice. It takes years and years of practice, so every time we lose one of these old fellows, another piece of neon history is lost.”
Both Lynxwiler and Schulte are quick to point out that the LED technology that so efficiently wiped out the neon industry has some serious flaws. Lynxwiler pushes against the common misconception that LED is more environmentally friendly than neon. “That is a total fallacy,” he says. “The fact is that neon tubes are just gas and glass. You can take the glass from a neon sign and throw it in the recycling. If the tube breaks and the gas escapes, it doesn't matter. It is stuff we're breathing anyway. Neon isn't toxic. Neon signs are green and recyclable.”
Lynxwiler continues to catalog the newer technology's shortcomings: LED fades with time; neon does not. LED signs don't last; neon can last virtually forever when properly maintained. Sure, a neon sign is more expensive up front, but it's an investment piece you'll never regret.
Schulte notes the aesthetic problems with LED signage. “We've ended up with piles and piles of this plastic crap,” she laments. “Not to mention how ugly the landscape is becoming because of it.”
Recently, as neon shops around Los Angeles have shuttered their doors or shifted their focus to LED, a new generation has discovered neon's hypnotizing glow. Schulte says, “There is this younger generation that hates that kind of [LED and plastic] signage. When they see neon, they feel like it is brand new to them. They're so excited by it. They don't want that other stuff. They also respect the fact that [neon] is art.”
“Maybe the people who are bending the tubes are disappearing,” Lynxwiler concurs, “but interest is definitely rising overall.” When he was in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest in March, he witnessed this neon renaissance firsthand. “That city so embraces neon. They have resurrected the craft in Austin and are utilizing it in beautiful ways all over town,” he says.
For Schulte, whose business has increased threefold thanks to neon's resurgence, the problem now lies in acquiring materials. “So many of the manufacturers went out of business or stopped selling the raw materials I use [for neon] because they focused so much on selling all the LED stuff. Now, say I want to buy 1,000 feet of white neon for a project, I have to call five shops to get that glass and often they just don't have it. I keep telling them to start stocking up. I am a good pulse for this trend.”
Schulte has started bypassing vendors and buying her own raw materials to meet demand: “They don't stock what I need because they felt like it was just gone.”
Neon's brilliant blaze has always been used by businesses to attract customers. “There's something about neon that just calls to motorists,” Lynxwiler points out. But neon also lives at the intersection of commerce and fine art. Part of its current rise in popularity comes from its increased acceptance as a valid medium by the world of fine art. Schulte gets requests daily from artists who want to collaborate with her or pay her to turn their neon visions into reality.
For Schulte, the artistic value of neon has always been the driving force behind her business, even when times were tough. “The main thing for me is my passion for art and neon. I want it to be recognized as fine art,” she says.
Part of MONA's mission is to show works of neon art, not just neon signage. “The MONA was founded by artists who, in 1981, were looking for a home to display their electric art,” Lynxwiler explains. “Museums at the time were not really opening their doors to electric or light artists, so the MONA was formed by artists in order to give themselves a home to display their work.”
MONA's new multimillion-dollar home in Glendale is worth a visit. There are even introductory classes in glass bending held in the museum's state-of-the-art studio.
Like so many older technologies that experience a second or third wave of popularity, the science behind neon is relatively simple. Neon gas glows when it is electrified. Glass bends when it is heated. It's the stuff of high school physics and chemistry. The complexity is in the crafting.
Just as there is something mesmerizing about the drop of a needle into a groove on a record or the magic of developing film in a darkroom, neon's elemental glow is powerful. When it shines, this bright, 20th-century technology holds its own, even in a 21st-century world.