Neon lights are a bold and cosmopolitan statement that can easily revitalize or accentuate a room or architectural structure. With striking brightness, a multitude of color options, and connections to a retro aesthetic, these lighting pieces can make a room appear modern and nostalgic at the same time. However, few understand the scientific functions or material properties of neon, and many architects neglect its use due to its close association with commercial signage. In the following, we examine how neon works, its architectural history, and how architects can still use it today.
Madalena Bar / Emanuella Wojcikiewicz Studio. Image © Fabio Puttini
Neon gas was discovered in 1898 and got its name from the Greek word “neos”, which meant “the new gas”. It is a colorless, odorless and inert gas in standard conditions, which emits a red-orange glow when placed in an electric field, allowing it to be used as multi-colored lighting.
The first neon lamp was invented by engineer and chemist Georges Claude in 1902 and first exhibited in Paris in 1910. It was first made by molding hollow glass tubes that can reach a length of up to 2.5 meters. The tube is then partially emptied and receives a high voltage electrical current that emits light when activated with neon or other gas. Different colors are obtained by introducing different gases or applying different dyes and phosphor coatings to the glass tubes. For example, mercury discharge tubes produce blue light and replace the initial orange neon light.
In 1923, Georges Claude and his company Claude Neon launched neon signs in the United States and ushered in a vibrant age of decoration that would shape the aesthetics of American cities. Neon was quickly associated with outdoor advertising and became a particularly indelible part of the cinema experience. American advertising director and lighting designer Douglas Leigh is the pioneer of this transformation, and as neon artist Rudi Stern emphasized: “The visual excitement of Times Square in the 1930s was the result of Leigh’s genius as a kinetic and lumen artist.” It was used in the Progress Exposition and at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and neon signs later became an integral part of the popular Las Vegas aesthetic.
However, the neon influence was not limited to the United States. After being unveiled in Paris for the first time, neon lights were initially adopted by Parisian theaters and nightclubs, while in the 1960s even the Soviets “neonized” the Eastern Block capitals in terms of capitalist cities. Similar neon lights developed in China in the 1920s, changing the Hong Kong skyline in the mid-20th century. These characters combined ancient Chinese calligraphy with modern commercial aesthetics, using narrative and cultural symbols.
From its early history to the present day, neon has been closely associated with modernity, a cosmopolitan lifestyle, and an atmosphere of vitality. Architects can continue to use neon signage today to invoke this environment, be it through words, symbols, or abstract designs. For this purpose, neon lights can be combined well with sleek and modern interior design, as used in the LYCS Architecture My lines Hotel shown below. The right symbol or phrase in combination with the right complementary interior can even bring the energy and vitality of the city into a private space.
With such a strong historical partnership that evokes nostalgia for the early 20th century and the cultural symbols of old cinema, Times Square and Las Vegas, Neon has even more potential to create an atmosphere that goes beyond the modern city life. Together with exposed concrete, rustic bricks, and plants, neon lights can create an attractive retro atmosphere that takes people into another time without losing their current and novel character. Interiors in which neon signs are used become extremely memorable due to the distinctive aesthetics they create.
And while neon is often associated with signage, which may seem restrictive or cheesy for some architects, it is often neglected. Rudi Stern continues: “Unfortunately, for many architects, neon is the latest pink” pizza “poster that they have seen, and they strongly reject a medium that is promising as a spatial and ecological element.” Therefore, despite its historical and commercial associations, neon can be much more than retro symbols or cosmopolitan phrases. Abstract designs, atmospheric colors and the kinetic properties of combined light can completely change a room without necessarily referring to historical aesthetics or certain explicit messages. In the housing pictures with. It Home, the architects at BodinChapa, used neon in a “non-symbolic” way to create an incredibly memorable James Turrell-style space that is both calm and radiant. Neon light has the power to completely transform a room, even if it is used as simply as the lining of the ceiling corners due to the unique properties of light in dialogue with the feeling of space. If architects can overcome their business partnerships and examine their relationship to architectural space, neon can become an even stronger atmospheric element than it already is.