Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Over a century, the trend has come and gone—and come back again. But the technique has stayed the same.
After a brief period on the decline, neon signs are cool again.
That’s welcome news for signmakers, whose art was on the verge of extinction just a few years ago as people preferred the efficiency and cheaper cost of LED lights and plastic signs. Now, from Austin to Vancouver, New York City and Los Angeles, the lights are experiencing a renaissance as Americans embrace what historian and urban anthropologist Eric Linxwiler calls “retro Americana.”
In a two-story workshop in Montreal, one signmaker has been spearheading the revival of neon signs, and the public’s interest in them. While even the simplest signs must be meticulously crafted, Gerald Collard makes it look effortless in a new video that goes behind the scenes of his Atelier Neon Family workshop.
Every twist, every bend of the slender tube that will soon form an O.K. hand gesture, is carefully shaped over flames shooting out from a pair metal burners. At times, his own two hands get incredibly close to the fire—too close for comfort for most people, but not for Collard, who has mastered the art over the past 40 years.
For sharp bends, like the ones that make up the connecting point between the hand’s index finger and thumbs, Collard gently blows into one end of the tube so it retains its diameter. The smoke billows out from the surface of the tube as he marks his progress with an industrial marker.
He and his staff still make the signs by hand for commercial businesses—he told one publication that automation is unlikely to dominate this field; it’s an art that’s more intricate than merely making circles.
The video, from the film company Stereokroma, comes nearly a hundred years after America’s first commercial neon sign reportedly lit up in Los Angeles (though it’s a contested claim). These days, restored signs bring back a vintage charm to cities, while new custom designs are injecting a new, artistic touch to a 20th century trend.
Meanwhile, the technology hasn’t changed. To make the final product glow in brilliant blues, greens, and yellows, Collard explains in the video, the next step is to vacuum out the air, burn the impurities from within the tubes, and pump gas inside—neon for a pink glow, helium for yellow, argon for blue, and so on.