Neon is making a comeback. Here’s why.
“It was like painting with tubes, which could be animated in every way imaginable,” says Lynxwiler. This “liquid fire” inspired fashionable American glassblowers of advertisements both large (“Vegas Vic,” a 40-foot-tall cowboy still flashing in Las Vegas) and small (lit motel signs to say “vacation” or “no”). Neon has become particularly emblematic of the lonely highways of the American West, luring weary travelers to a soft bed, a hot meal, or a hot blackjack table.
(Find out why it’s the loneliest road in America.)
Neon featured in some of the funniest architectural styles of the 20th century, frosting the Art Deco hotels and apartments of Miami’s South Beach and depicting the Space Age restaurants and drive-ins of Los Angeles in a futuristic form known as Googie, named after a now defunct Hollywood cafe. And the resorts of Wildwood, New Jersey feature the Doo Wop style, where projecting roofs, sunny colors and kidney-shaped pools are accompanied by a side of neon.
But by the 1970s, neon had fallen out of favor. “People thought of neon as something glamorous and beautiful, and town centers were full of it in the 1950s,” says Bovey. “But at some point it became associated with stickier things, like tattoo shops.” It didn’t help that as movie marquees and hotel signs became “modern”, neon shimmered on pawnshops, adult bookstores, and even in grim movie typography..
Since neon requires some maintenance (keeping it clean, lit, and free of damaging bird poo), many companies have found it easier — and cheaper — to peddle their shows from Broadway, pizzerias or air-conditioned motel rooms with backlit plastic panels. A universe of neon lights disappeared, was scrapped, or simply dimmed as mass-produced billboards and television screens proliferated.
The lights come back on
As neon faded towards the end of the 20th century, American collectors and curators began to collect old signs, sometimes for free. They repaired them to hang them in their homes or businesses. “Then neon started resurfacing a bit in the 1980s, both with Day-Glo fashion and New Wave bands,” says Lynxwiler. “Just watch a WHAM music video and you’ll see.”