Let There Be Neon: Embracing the 21st Century with Its Light
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Let There Be Neon: Embracing the 21st Century with Its Light

By Louis M Brill

Despite the ongoing competition of more modern light sources as a sign illumination, neon still has a place in the hearts of most sign makers, as well as many American urban skylines.

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One of the biggest advocates of modern neon was Rudi Stern (1937 - 2006) who popularized neon as an art form and a serious illumination source for signage.

Owner Jeff Freidman noted, "it's 36 years later from our shop's opening, and we're still doing neon the same way as when we began."
Photo by Gary Rosenbaum

He dreamed of esthetically setting the world ablaze with glowing light. "I have plans for neon pavements, neon highways, neon tunnels; neon on bridges, under water, outlining trees in parks," Rudi told Omni magazine in 1981.

Rudi Stern introduced neon to the world with his neon shop (NY, NY - 1972), his store front art gallery, his book, Let There Be Neon (Abrams, 1979) all with the same name. Current owner and President of Let There Be Neon is Jeff Friedman who entered into the neon world in 1977 and has had a spectrum of positions at the company. He began with the job of cleaning the studio out, and rose through the ranks to become a fabricator and a production manager. In 1980, Rudi fired him because of a job conflict, which led Friedman to start, Neon City, a new company with Philip Hazard, who was in sales and art at Let There Be Neon, which is where they met. That company was operated for nine years.

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  • Soon after, Friedman was again on talking terms with Rudi, which led to a greater involvement with LTBN. In 1990, both companies talked of a merger, and soon after, LTBN absorbed Neon City and within a year of that Friedman became the President and sole owner of LTBN, as Rudi pushed to pursued his interests in light projections and documentary film. Here in the 21st century, Friedman talked about the current state of neon, and Rudi's influence on neon as an art and craft.

    "Let There Be Neon" was Rudi Stern's 'brainchild' as he created both the company as a producer of neon work and its art gallery (with the same name) as a way to showcase the beauty of neon. Rudi brought a certain artistic sensibility to neon by introducing it as a form of architectural lighting, and by creating a certain commercial art look to it as well. "We like to think that Rudi brought neon into the home as an interior art decor," said Friedman. "For example in his early days he introduced neon as an accessible, populist art medium. He created small neon sculptures formed with bases so people could buy them and bring them to their homes for placement on their coffee tables or shelves. Some of his more popular art works were the neon lips on a base, palm trees on a base, or a Flamingo bird profile on a base. Our neon art gallery is as popular as ever, we still have people coming to visit our neon art gallery. One of our best visits is when school teachers come in with their classes, and we can show kids around, and let them see the art and how neon gets made."

    "Much of Rudi's original artistic efforts still dominate the creative outlook of the company's work with neon. Rudi always described neon as drawing with light and it's still like that today. While we have new leadership at the company, we continue to follow and enhance the guiding principles of how LTBN was started. As to our current neon 'design style,' it's become very elastic and tends to morph with current trends and customer interests and requirements over time," said Freidman. "A lot of work is based on what the customer wants and that has to do with what's popular in terms of logos, stylistic looks and fonts, all which influences how a neon piece gets created. This look changed in the 1980s, the 1990s and again today. However having said that, the essence of LTBN's style is to create a 'clean, classic' look of neon's presence on a sign or an art piece."

    Henri Bendei, (since 1895), the legendary woman's boutique filled their 5th Avenue window with a series of neon embellishments including a chair outlined in neon, a chandelier and neon borders around their windows.
    Photo by Gary Rosenbaum

    Neon does not exist in a vacuum and in this day of LED's shining light, one has to ask if neon still has a prominent place as a source of illumination for signage. "Absolutely," stated Friedman. "From our perspective as a neon shop, we still see a tremendous consumption of neon usage from our customers. But we're also very practical, and we offer LEDs and see a tremendous demand for that as well, depending on what our customers require for their sign illumination needs. However, we are first and foremost a neon shop and still see neon as the dominant sign illumination medium with a continuing demand for it in signage, as well as architectural lighting, graphic designs for the home, film and television prop work and a lot of interior neon designs for corporate clients as well."

    As for the ratio of usage, LTBN says for them in terms of sign illumination, they see about 10% - 12% of their sign projects utilizing LEDs as a lighting source. Everything else is neon. "It's been around for seventy years, and we have as much demand for it today as we ever did," says Friedman. "Not only do we have a continuing demand for lighting up commercial signage with neon, but we're seeing a lot of contemporary art interest with neon. We've had a lot of demand from new young artists who are using it either with a greater artwork or as the main medium of their work. I would estimate that at the very least, we're doing as much as 20% of all our neon work as contemporary art. Most popular artists come to us, among the few we've worked with are Tracey Emin, Olafer Eliasson, Jonathan Monk, (The Estate of) Mario Merz, (The Estate of) Nam June Paik Robert Rauschenberg and Laurent Grasso, as well as newly minted art students who've discovered the glow of neon." As to the current interest in neon, Friedman presented several examples of the different kinds of neon projects that LTBN recently completed and installed.

    Junior's in Brooklyn recently opened a location in Times Square (installed - 2005). Although it is a diner, the brand is known more for its mouthwatering cheesecakes. Following a modern retro look, the restaurant (on W 45th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue) had retained Let There Be Neon to create its illuminated neon look for its location at The Crossroads of the World. This included both a set of back-lit towers and back-lit channel letters with the restaurant's name.

    Junior's Times Square with its modern retro look, had retained Let There Be Neon to create its illuminated signage for its location at The Crossroads of the World. This included both a back- lit tower and back-lit channel letters with the restaurant's name.
    Photo by Gary Rosenbaum

    Along the top of the restaurant's roof awning was an installation of closed-face channel letters with the following: RESTAURANT JUNIOR'S BAR. Each plastic covered channel letter was back-lit with a 15 mm neon lighting that spelled out Junior's, making it as easy as possible for cheesecake lovers to directly home in on the center of the cheesecake universe.

    To insure that far-a-field midtown cheesecake fans were able to easily find Junior's, a set of 40-foot sign towers were retro fitted from the location's previous incarnation (which LTBN had done originally), with each of the towers located at a building corner and facing its nearest street. Each tower was illuminated with even back lighting following the vertical shaft of the column. The column's main facade was clad with white frosted Lexan panels, each back lit with fluorescent lighting. Planted on each tower's front facing frosted panel was a vertical formation of plastic, opaque orange letters that spelled out its two locations; Brooklyn and NY. Along the sides of each tower were exposed vertical 15mm citrus orange tubing

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    The top of each tower has a separate light box decorated to look like one of its take out cheese boxes. Directly above the main tower column was a series of incandescent chase lights, and above that, a back-lit segment stating the obvious (to most New Yorkers anyway) MOST FASBULOUS RESTAURANT. Above that is the crown of the column with a cake box look of a white frosted background. Neon colors reflected the corporate logo and included an EGL Citrus orange and an EGL 4500 white. Overlaying the frosted panel in the center of the sign face is the Junior's logo with a series of red candy stripes running diagonally across the sign face.

    Hunter College
    Hunter College on Manhattan's Upper East Side acquired a temporary neon art installation on a set of overhead pedestrian walkways that connected a set of main buildings and spanned from Lexington Avenue to 68th Street. The exposed neon overhead hanging piece was commissioned by French light artist Laurent Grasso for Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The neon artwork (installed 2008) was composed of the repetitive phrase "DAY FOR NIGHT FOR DAY FOR NIGHT (etc.).

    The exposed neon overhead hanging piece was created by French artist Laurent Grasso for Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The neon artwork was composed of the repetitive phrase "DAY FOR NIGHT FOR DAY FOR NIGHT (etc.). The phrase referred to a film production technique and was also metaphorically seductive, because the illuminating neon is only visible once night begins to fall.
    Photo by Gary Rosenbaum

    Grasso said his illuminated phrasing was a tip of the hat to French cinematographer Francois Truffaut and his movie by the same name (Day For Night) which is also a cinemagraphic technique by film makers to create an artificial 'night look' by shooting in day light with blue filters over the lens to give scene being filmed a simulated evening look. The neon's blue color was symbolic of the blue filters used in film making for the simulated night look and was also metaphorically seductive, because the illuminating neon is only visible once night begins to fall.

    The neon installation which was temporary (September - December, 2008) and was mounted on a series of overhead pedestrian bridges at Hunter College that connected several main buildings to each other. The repetitive phrasing stretched across the glass wall of the walkways, following the entire length of each walkway. "The transparency of the bridge walls for me is very interesting," said Grasso in a NY Times statement, "because it's like the neon letters are in suspension with the sky behind it."

    As LTBN became involved in creating the Grasso neon artwork, several challenges guided their efforts. "The bending of the 20mm clear neon was not easy," said Friedman. "and all the tubes were formed over a traced template to create the uniform curves and identical likeliness of each of the six-foot tall neon letters to create the words that made up the repetitive phrasing of the artwork."

    "The second challenge was its instillation, since the neon art was temporary, we couldn't drill through the pedestrian walkway walls to create artwork anchor points. We brought in an engineer who proposed a solution of using a Unistrut system of nuts and bolts that enabled us to mount the neon artwork in a proper fixed instillation for the length of its showing. To illuminate DAY FOR NIGHT, we used 32 transformers, and easily had at least 1,100 feet of neon attached to the college's east side pedestrian walkways"

    "TRASH & VAULDVILLE is a vintage clothing store in SoHo, NYC and to enhance the ambience look of the store's interior" said Friedman, "we were commissioned (installed in 1982) to create a beautiful graphic neon (six feet across) of a Buick convertible which was wall mounted inside the store, using both 8mm and 10mm neon. Hazard did all the designing and artwork on the project (he is the proud owner of a 1952 Buick so he didn't have to go far for inspiration). Hazard created the detail of the car which was outlined in turquoise and florescent blue pumped neon with a touch of gold neon to high light the passengers. If a neon style could be trademarked I would like to think this neon piece would easily represent the LTBN look."

    If a neon style could be trademarked this neon piece would easily represent the LTBN look. The company was commissioned by Trash & Vaudeville to create a beautiful graphic neon of a Buick convertible which was wall mounted inside the store.
    Photo by Let There Be Neon

    Let There Be Neon's art gallery is also still active as an ever evolving showcase of all things neon. The gallery is located at the shop and continues to exhibit an ever changing presentation of exclusive neon creations. There are custom, vintage and stock items, as well as current projects on display. The gallery also hosts biannual art installations. Past shows have included "Neon Elvis," "Eat Light," "Neon Furniture," and "Travelling Light" which was in association with the Museum of Neon Art and 'GAS' (Glass Arts Society).

    The Soul of Radiance
    Let There Be Neon and all its fellow neon shops have come full circle as Freidman has noted. "It's 37 years later from our shop's opening, and we're still doing neon the same way as when we began. Neon still has a dramatic appeal for people and businesses. It's still a craft and always will be and that counts for a lot. It's still made by hand and when it's done right, you can get a sense of the soul of its radiance coming from the light." Thus neon lives on, its burnished light an afterglow of homage to Georges Claude, Rudi Stern and others who will come after them.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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