The Making of Neon Signs

Every neon sign has a “start and stop position,” a point on each letter where a tube begins and ends. I’ve just learned how a signmaker chooses this point, and it’s something I’d never have guessed. It is fascinating.

It’s nothing to do with a letter’s traditional form, or its cultural dimensions. These are the first ways that neon speaks to us, whether it’s the plainspoken sans serif on a liquor store or the elaborate fantasy of a Las Vegas casino. In The Making of Neon Signs, an eleven minute film produced by Cpak Studio for M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, we’re introduced to a craftsman who first approaches signs from the their cultural angle: the bank that wants something honest, the restaurant that wants a simple semi-cursive script, or the sports club that uses the strong and powerful Northern Wei style. But none of this affects a letter’s start and stop position.

It also has nothing to do with neon’s visual aspects, how single-line letters work in small sizes, but different kinds of intricate doubling are used as letters get larger. Nor does it have to do with the physical considerations of the medium, the ways that inert gases combine with different kinds of colored glass to produce efflorescence, or the ways that glass can bend, or the order in which pieces can be attached. Even as I watched men without gloves hold incandescent glass rods over an 800°C flame, the obvious didn’t occur to me, which is this: you design the letter so that it’s possible to bend it into shape without burning your hands.

There are other great moments in the film that I won’t spoil, and some terrific footage of vintage sign maquettes that designers will love. Spend eleven minutes with it today. —JH

The Neon Boneyard

Our own Andy Clymer has returned from a trip out west with some fine photos of Las Vegas’s infamous neon boneyard. A project of the Neon Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of one of the nation’s great lettering traditions, the neon boneyard is of course located in the Las Vegas desert: an ideal climate for preservation, and convenient to the center of the energetic neon carnage of the 21st century.

Years ago I enjoyed a tour of the boneyard during a visit with Yesco, the Young Electric Sign Company, who are responsible for the haberdashery of a significant number of megawatts on the Vegas strip. It was with a combination of pride and horror that I discovered how many H&FJ fonts were being used on the new digital signs that were fast replacing the old neon: even today, Yesco’s own site advertises their digital abilities using a little Knockout. For a type designer with a love of signs, it’s a very odd feeling. —JH

Lettering Obituary

Gertel’s Bakery, 1914-2007, died last week from complications arising out of escalating land prices, finally succumbing to demolition on November 2. It was 93.

Born at 53 Hester Street, Gertel’s storefront had long been a fixture of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Between the early forties and late fifties, the store acquired a new facade, with the store name rendered in a carefully executed script, and a “streamer” below. The auxiliary lettering, including the memorable one-liner “Bakers of Reputation,” was made in the contrasting “gaspipe” style of flat sides and rounded tops.

In a daring (and endearing) move, its neon sign included three different forms of the letter “E,” which friends recall fancifully as a nod to the neighborhood’s melting pot history. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Gertel’s was regularly photographed in public, though often unable to hide the tragic effects of irreversible sun damage.

Gertel’s will likely be survived by a condominium, Luxury, and an awning, Arial. —TFJ

Photo: Jeremy Perez-Cruz, 2007

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