Secreted in a light industrial estate in East Brisbane is an inconspicuous, almost generic, workshop exterior that once you step inside teases you with its romantic promise of Queensland glitz.
Michael Blazek of Neon Signs Australia is a second generation neon sign maker; hand bending and twisting glass tubes to make or repair the luminescent and iconic typographic and graphical signs we take for granted in our urban surrounds.
In the workshop we see the accumulation of neon signs (and new-fangled LED signs); works-in-progress; salvaged signs no longer wanted or in need of love; the detritus of old electrical transformers; and the gas burners and instruments which are necessary components in the sign making trade.
The making of neon signs is a dazzling fusion between craft, art, science and design. Electric neon signs have been around for over 100 years – slim hollow tubes of glass, filled with neon or argon gas which when mixed with electricity produces a soft “seductive glow”.
When we visit, Michael is commencing work on a small project which requires neon-fuelled highlights to pick up the detail on a kitschy pink flamingo and tropical green plant design. With jazz music playing gently in the background, Michael refers to hand drawn sketches on his work bench – the neon sign maker has the unenviable chore of working on plans in mirror image.
Michael tells us the pattern is reversed because he works the shapes from the back. He uses the scale pattern to check if his glass bending is accurate. After examining the sketch before him, Michael pivots on his feet, flicks on a cigarette lighter and ignites the powerful 600 degree Celsius burner that is used to soften the glass tubes into a malleable material.
It is a wonder to watch the process of ‘making’ and the transformation of thin glass tubes into smooth rounded shapes. Neon sign makers are the contortionists of the sign making world. The hypnotic spinning movement of the glass tube between Michael’s dead-steady fingers makes the work look deceivingly simple. Once Michael achieves the perfect right-angle bend, he raises the tube to his lips and slowly blows air into it.
Originally from Wisconsin in the Midwest of the United States, Michael fell into neon sign making almost as an afterthought. “In 1981, I did a six week course in neon bending which my father taught,” explained Michael in his easy American drawl.
It was his father’s caring attempt to give Michael enough skills to pick up a job while he embarked on an overseas trip. When Michael’s money ran out in New Zealand, he found a job with Claude Neon Signs. The six week course was enough to give Michael the basics in letter bending for sign making eventually leading him to Australia. Michael has been working as neon sign maker ever since and is now president of the Australian Sign and Graphics Association.
“I see too many signs that disappear each week…
Neon is not nearly the dying craft it once was, in a world eager to embrace the energy efficiency of LED technology, with the resurgence of designers, artists and businesses commissioning neon works. Michael’s handiwork is scattered in and around Queensland – from the Scott Redford pylon sign found outside Gallery of Modern Art to the playful signs found in newly established inner-city bars and finally to the repairs of Brisbane’s most famous neon sign Mr Fourex at Milton.
Michael is also passionate about saving old neon signs which he views as typographic artworks. He is interested in creating an Australian Neon Museum to celebrate and preserve the sign maker’s craft.
“I see too many signs that disappear each week. I always wonder what happened to them when they came down and hope they have not been merely scrapped.
“I would love to establish a centre for no-longer wanted neon signs where they could be brought back to their former glory. It would be a place large enough to properly exhibit the magic glow of neon. Australia needs an answer to the hugely popular Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles,” said Michael.
This article is part of an ongoing series that aims to foster industry conversations with local designers, creatives, makers and practitioners through informal studio visits. If you have a studio or workshop you think we should visit, get in touch!