Since the 1920s, the cities of the world have been given light and life at night by the flickering, almost phantasmagoric lettering of neon signs. As efficient LEDs replace glowing tubes full of neon gas, though, the art of the neon sign is dying out.
Produced by Cpak Studio, The Making of Neon Signs is an intriguing and slightly melancholy documentary that reveals the intricacies of a dying craft that may very well not exist a decade from now. Talking to a number of neon sign designers in Hong Kong, the last bastion of neon sign design, it’s an exploration of a fascinating art that requires far more ingenuity than might first be apparent.
In Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, the design of a neon sign starts first with choosing from a pool of calligraphers, each of whom has a distinctive style. Restaurants prefer calligraphers who specialize in simplistic scripts, which are almost clerical in nature, whereas a clinic that sets broken bones or a kung fu dojo might choose an artist with a more visceral style.
Once the letters of a neon sign have been designed, it’s time for a sign manufacturer to construct it. Handled by craftsmen with decades of experience, a glass tube will be heated up over a (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit) flame until it is hot enough to be bent. This is all done by hand and without protective gloves. This turns out to be a big factor that influences neon sign design. The decision on how many tubes to make each sign ultimately comes down to what the smallest piece of glass a neon sign maker can bend without burning his hands.
When the glass of a neon sign has been finalized, the tubes are colorized. Neon signs use one of two noble gases to create their light: the titular neon, which gives a sign a red light, and argon, which produces a blue light. To make other colors, the inside of the glass tubes are coated in powder; blue powder with neon, for example, produces a pink neon sign, while a green tube would turn orange. Once the inside of the tubes are coated, they are sealed, filled with gas, and hooked up to transformers.
It’s a fascinating craft, but neon signs are dwindling in popularity. There are obvious reasons why, of course. Neon signs are expensive to make and power, they break easily and are hard to replace, and they are fire hazards as well. Even so, it still seems sad that any art that requires this much craft–and gives a city at night so much charm–would eventually die out. It’s a reminder that progress often comes with a human cost.
Hat tip: Jonathan Hoefler