To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Architectural Lighting Magazine asked Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Lite Brite Neon studio to create a blue “25” sign, a photograph of which graces the cover of our Nov/Dec 2011 issue. From where we stand in the 21st century, this may seem like an anachronistic choice. After all, the magazine focuses on contemporary lighting design, whereas neon technology is more than 100 years old and its application as a commercial product is well beyond its peak. But neon is still very much with us today, and not merely as a sign-making medium. The source's vibrant color-rendering and sculptural qualities have made it a favorite of artists, architects, and lighting designers seeking unique solutions. More importantly, however, is neon's artisanal nature. While the source's components are standard industrial products-glass tubes, electrodes, and gasses-every neon object is handmade. “People think of neon as an industrial product, but actually every sign is made individually,” explains Matt Dilling, founder of Lite Brite Neon. “If you take a beer sign, for example, you may see the same one in every corner bar. But if you were to put those signs side by side and compare them, you'd discover that there are actually minute variations from sign to sign.”
Although neon has a somewhat recent history, it is rich nonetheless. “Neon is a form of gas in the atmosphere. Neon lights are a form of fluorescent lighting. The gas takes on a light discharge through a tube when exposed to electrical current through cold cathodes,” Dilling says. “Starting in the late 19th century, a handful of scientists were working with aspects of lights in tubes. In the 20th century it developed into a commercial product. Tesla unveiled some neon at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. George Claude in France got the actual patent for the electrode of the neon light. That launched its application as a commercial product. The first application in the U.S. was at a Packard dealership around 1923-that launched America's innovation of neon. There are neon signs from the '30s that still work today. Because they're cold cathode they don't burn themselves out. And with today's transformer technology you can get great efficiency.”
Founded in 1997, Lite Brite Neon has carved out a niche for itself by producing neon objects for fine artists and high-end retail clients. The studio also recently released its own line of neon fixtures that playfully reference the forms of traditional lamps and chandeliers. “There are only a handful of neon studios in New York City who do what we do,” Dilling says. “Of course there are several other shops that serve your more-standard markets, but we are one of maybe three based on an organic model of working with people and processes.”
While neon, which produces a reddish-orange light, is the inert gas that originally gave the light source its name, most neon signs are actually made with another member of the noble gas family: argon. When exposed to an electrical current in a vacuum-sealed, clear glass tube, the excited neon molecules glow a bright orange-red. In these same conditions, argon, combined with a drop of mercury, results in a strong, steely blue light. From those two base points (the orange of the excited neon gas and the blue of the excited argon), a theoretically infinite number of colors can be produced by treating the interior of the glass tube with phosphor coatings or by tinting the glass itself. Lite Brite Neon typically works with a range of 40 colors.
To arrive at the blue of the “25” sign, argon gas was pumped into a single-layer phosphor-treated glass tube. (The color blue was chosen to reference the colors being used in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue.) Once the gas was in the tube, the open end was sealed. The backside of the sign was then dipped in a UV-resistant black paint to conceal the ligatures that connect the two numbers thereby allowing the “2” and the “5” to stand out as separate objects instead of reading as one continuous tube. Next, the electrodes at each end of the glass tube were hooked up to a high-voltage electrical current, drying the paint and transforming the liquid mercury into vapor. The final step involved mounting the sign onto a glass background with transparent clips and connecting it to a transformer that coverts the 110V that comes out of a wall socket into the high voltage (3,000V to 15,000V) needed to light up a neon sign. The result is a signature piece that speaks to light's sculptural qualities and celebrates its artistic qualities.