7 minute read

SO 18 Craft Light


By Eric Johnson

Craft light

Understanding the power — and promise — of neon

No, this is not about craft beer trends. It’s about another fluid medium—the craft of luminous tubes better known as neon. Light art, light advertising, neon has always been such. Its power to visually influence is incomparable. Neon evokes emotion, triggers memories, and suggests a variety of moods and past experiences.

The craft of neon is alive and well today. Made in America, locally-practiced, often using “ingredients” made by American companies. There’s a bit of a neon “renaissance” happening. In my travels, I’ve even talked with craft brew folks interested to learn the craft of neon.

While obviously different, the crafts of brewing and neon are alike in ways. Art and science. Hand-crafted by well-trained, passionate practitioners. Requiring years to achieve mastery. It’s physical work, best performed by folks with serious work-ethic. Projects require a starting vision, and a step-by-step plan, to the end result. Ultimately, both are created for the appreciation of a broad audience of “consumers.”


Two tribes, kindred spirits, linked through the celebration of craft and appreciation of the arts. Shared values including the belief in community and traditions of mentorship. Brand identity and visual messaging integral to both professions.

Does neon have “soul?” It always has. Let’s take a look at where it has been and where it is today. Perhaps you’ll find inspiration for embracing neon into your own identity expression.

A bit of history

Neon lighting is 100 years old, with a storied past. And like brewing, it has gone through many cycles of societal change. Sometimes it’s been “hot,” sometimes not. Styles come and go.

First commercialized by Frenchman Georges Claude, by the late ‘20s through the ‘30s, neon use boomed worldwide. Considered the ultimate in modern and high-tech, neon became symbolic of the trends of the time. Not limited to “light advertising,” neon was widely integrated into architectural design and brand identity expression. The burgeoning movie film industry constructed the greatest theatre marquees of all-time. Neon was the rage.

World War II turned the lights out. Literally. With the post-war boom, neon became the cultural symbol of another era. Think motels, diners and Times Square “spectaculars.” Las Vegas’ glamour signature was the large-scale neon sign. “Vegas Vic,” the city’s first mega-sign Neon, was built in 1951. It’s in the neon museum today, brilliantly displayed.

The ‘50s saw incredible advance in use of “light” advertising, especially for beer, brands both local and national. This era was also the time for full-on adoption of the fluorescent lamp.

During the ‘60s, neon was increasing embraced as a fine art medium. Renowned artists

Bruce Nauman, Stephen Antonakos, Rudi Stern, Lili Lakich, Martial Raysse and others used luminous tubes for creative expression. Andy Warhol viewed neon as one of “the great modern things.”

Yet, aesthetic trends always evolve. Starting with the ‘70s, neon was seen as less “cool.” Garish, often poorly-maintained signs became the symbol of decay of America’s rust-belt cities. Neon was tacky. Neon was sleazy. Times Square was perceived as the ultimate eyesore of peepshow porno and panhandlers. Ebbs and flows, by the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, there was a fresh neon renaissance. The suburban skies were ablaze with colored light. Channel letters




on storefronts, border tubing on buildings, POS signs in windows, neon was everywhere. Similarly with beer advertising. Anheuser Busch rolled out tens of thousands of Budweiser “bowtie” neons. Every beer brander wanted neons. At peak year, almost a million window-frame neons were made.

The “death” of neon

Fast forward, enter the era of LED. By the early 2000s, technology advances brought LED into mainstream lighting applications. Truly revolutionary, the LED is the Edison light bulb of our times.

Early sales pitches by LED marketers took neon head-on. “We’re going to kill neon,” said one European company. In the next 15 years, as LED technology continued to progress rapidly, neon use did indeed diminish. White LEDs took over most sign applications previously using neon-type tube light sources. Similarly with LED substitution for fluorescent lamps, actually.

Today, neon is not dead. True, as a utilitarian light source, LED is prime. For “art light,” there’s still nothing like neon.

Neon schools to know

• Brooklyn Glass, Brooklyn, New York (http://www.brooklynglass.com/)

• FOCI Minnesota Center for Glass Arts, Minneapolis (https://www.mnglassart.org/)

• Western Neon School of Art, Seattle (https://wnsaseattle.org/)

• Museum of Neon Art, Glendale, California (http://www.neonmona.org/category/education/ )

Contemporary neon

Aesthetic appreciation of the art medium is lively and diverse. Local and national preservation movements abound, dedicated to archiving our neon history. There are several neon museums across the country. But those ventures are about saving cultural artifacts. Similarly, neon window-frame signs are as collectible as ever. Nostalgia is the word. You can look them all up on the web.

While your browser is open, take a look at what’s happening today with light art. There’s an incredible community of contemporary artists working with luminous tubes and glass. For starters, do a Google Image search for these artists: Shawna Peterson, David Ablon, Wayne Strattman, Evan Voyles, Leo Villareal, Kelsey Fernkopf and Meryl Pataky. There are many more. You’ll experience some stunning creativity.



Today, neon is not dead. True, as a utilitarian light source, LED is prime. For “art light,” there’s still nothing like neon.

In the branding/advertising world, neon has been featured in recent campaigns for Prada, Southwest Airlines and Fiat. Spirits brands including Absolut, Bacardi, Bulleit Bourbon have done so as well. Restaurant chains such as Chuy’s Tex Mex apply it prominently. Trade press in restaurant design trends indicate that Neon is perceived as pretty cool. That includes

BrewDog’s use of neon in their global chain of bar/restaurants.

Neon is accessible. From a supply chain perspective, LSI/ Voltarc, Waterbury, Connecticut is the world’s leading provider of glass tubing and electrodes. Joe Walsh, Voltarc’s national sales manager, says business is steady. He confirmed the company’s continuing investment in neon supplies.

Want some neon for your own? There are hundreds of custom-made neon fabrication shops across the country. There are volume-quantity producers as well. Most notably, Antigo Sign & Display, Antigo, Wisconsin. ASD specializes in the needs/interests of craft brewers. Steve Friend, president of Antigo, is passionate about neon and craft brew. He offers highly convincing arguments for both.

Want to learn how to make neon? There are several excellent schools. You’ll also find that many individual neon craftsmen are welcome to taking on an apprentice or passing on traditions to those with recreational interests. Here are links to a few of the more prominent schools.

Possibilities for neon in craft beer branding/promotion abound. Colored tube light, it’s a powerful, passionate medium. And, there’s nothing like it when done right. Neon signs can last for decades, especially when sourced from tradespeople who are tops in the craft.

This article is a quick teaser on a profession with the heritage of a century. Resources abound if you’d like to learn more. I’m glad to help as well. I have 30 years logged in support of the community. Feel free to email me at ericj@cbam-mag.com.

Eric Johnson is the strategy director for Craft Brand & Marketing Magazine. He can be reached at ericj@cbam-mag.com.


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