Friday, July 19, 2013

The Light Fantastic

When neon was the new new thing.

 If you’ve flown through O’Hare on United you might have walked through the tunnel connecting Concourses B and C, with its abstract neon patterns on the ceiling that change in time with the music. I think of it as the “disco tunnel,” and it always makes me smile as I pull my case behind me under the glowing canopy. But it shows neon used as a purely decorative form, a long way from its high point as an advertising medium. Flickering Light, Christoph Ribbat’s intriguing history of neon, explores neon’s use in art, its value in advertising, and its cultural legacy.

In 1923, the first neon signs in Los Angeles belonged to Earle Anthony, who paid Claude $24,000 for twin orange-and-blue signs that read PACKARD to promote his auto dealership. They immediately caused traffic problems as people stopped to wonder at these illuminations, but within four years neon had become commonplace. It was on the East Coast that neon first came into its own. The 1930s were the high point for neon creations in New York City, many built by Artkraft Strauss, who also created the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. In 1933 real steam rose from the neon sign for A&P Coffee, and the cup released a coffee aroma to passers-by. Another showed an illuminated bottle of Bromo-Seltzer pouring into a glass. In 1941 the Camel sign arrived, showing a man blowing smoke rings (made of steam). The Camel man lasted for 24 years (although his face was repainted, making him a GI, a war pilot, or a civilian, at different times).

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