Neon is everywhere. It booms out of Instagram feeds, beams from the homepages of online homeware shops, hangs in the entrances to It-bars and signposts nail bars. It has long replaced strings of fairy lights as the whimsical flat décor of choice; from hot pink flamingos to multi-coloured dollops of ice cream and juiced-up unicorns, our homes are drenched in the stuff. But why are we so perpetually drawn to this stellar element?
Neon as we know it burst onto the scene in 1898, when Scottish chemist William Ramsay and his assistant Morris Travers first discovered the chemical element – Ne in the periodic table – in their University College London laboratory. By 1902, an entrepreneurial French chemist named Georges Claude had begun experimenting with it and had soon fashioned the world’s first neon lamp suitable for practical use. In 1912, a business associate of his had sold the first commercial neon sign to a barber, and by the time the decade was up the Paris Opera House was ablaze with Claude’s lighting. In 1922 he sold two of his famously fluorescent signs to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles for $24,000 – and neon crossed the pond.
Claude’s electric merchandising heralded in a new, eye-popping era of advertising. By the 1960s, downtown streets selling sex were dripping with blistering, red neon. Even in 2018, the sizzle of crimson envelopes erotic districts across the globe. Why red? According to colour psychology expert Karen Haller, there are two simple explanations. “Not only does red represent passion, lust and desire but it’s also the colour that advances towards us the quickest, so there’s little chance of it being missed.”
It was that unmissable glow that came to characterise run-down urban sprawls in the 1950s. Fluorescent gaseous streaks slashed through drab cityscapes, flickering hopelessly at the bottom of a rainy alleyways. Neon became indicative of a city’s underbelly. But how did something once so glamorous get such a bad rap? As author and historian Christoph Ribbat (who quite literally wrote the book on neon) explains, “in the 1950s, when cars and plastics took over, businesses needed bigger signage because people were speeding by in cars” – but the influx of automobiles also meant that the “middle class were able to move out to the suburbs, so inner cities became desolate and caught in a downward spiral. The more dilapidated the downtown area, the sleazier neon seemed – in real life and in Hollywood movies.”
Despite its complicated relationship history with trade, neon survived and burns brighter than ever today. Artist Richard Wheater – whose neon work has been shown across the world and who has run neon workshops since 2010 – likens our very millennial fascination with neon to our millennia-long attraction to fire. “Neon contains plasma, just like fire does. It’s often referred to as fire in a glass. We’re still drawn to fire, thousands of years since we depended on it for survival. It’s almost ingrained within us.”
Celestial shine aside, Marcus Bracey of Walthamstow-based neon emporium God’s Own Junkyard puts our unquenchable thirst for the glow down to something more thoughtful. “If you want something hanging in your house that has soul, you want neon. It’s an instant hit of happiness. It started out as a simple glass tube, and now look at it. It’s true craftsmanship. It takes time. It’s a handmade product made of an 800C flame.” This is echoed by Ribbat, who points out that “neon is a limited kind of technology and doesn’t overpower its environment. When you look at neon you can’t help but wonder how the glass was blown. It’s the imperfections that draw us back.”
Little wonder, then, that we now find neon displayed in art galleries and shops – not just pointing us towards them. Artists like Chryssa, Tracey Emin, Bruce Nauman and Lisa Schulte have all been part of the movement that melded an innately industrial material with high art. Neon has, in a unique way, become somewhat of a guiding light for society in transition. Perhaps in 2018 we need that more than ever.