Born of breath, heat and a spark, neon signs have reached a level of cultural symbolism.

Neon is attractive because it is an enigma, its meaning and significance constantly in transition and hard to confine—it is simultaneously all things and nothing. As a design element, the neon sign crosses many disciplines— visual communication, typography, wayfinding, industrial design, as well as landscape and urban design.

While having a practical function as a literal sign, neon extends as a metaphorical sign. As a symbol, it represents a series of seemingly contradictory things. What started as a natural gas element is now synonymous with superficiality. In film and art, neon has come to represent both communal activity and loneliness; popular culture and subculture; opulence and decadence. These shifts in meaning are emblematic of the shift in the social position of neon that has occurred over time. “There’s a tight connection between inner-city decay and neon’s decline… an advertising technology once used to decorate luxury stores and churches turned into a symbol of the rundown and the red-light district,” Christoph Ribbat suggests.

Neon signage in Queensland experienced peak saturation in the 1950s and 60s…

Although neon is often associated with cities such as Paris, Las Vegas and Hong Kong, it has certainly left its mark in Queensland. Pioneered in France by Georges Claude in the 1900s, neon signage made its way to Australia by way of his Claude Neon sign company in the 1930s. Neon signage in Queensland experienced peak saturation in the 1950s and 60s, particularly in Surfers Paradise, where neon signs illuminated a long stretch of the Gold Coast Highway.

From SLQ’s collections it is evident that Brisbane’s shopping districts used neon as a beacon for advertising hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and local businesses. Neon signs were once widespread in regional Queensland with motels and service stations hugging highways featuring distinctive neon signs designed to attract the eyes and interest of passing motorists.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the steady decline of neon sign making, due to the advent of new technologies and a diverse range of social factors. With progress came new human desires—desire for bigger, faster and more flexible. Plastic and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) met these demands quite easily—new signs were cheaper to make, faster to produce and more flexible in their use. Neon sign making as a craft is the anti-thesis of this. It requires an individual to have a highly diverse knowledge of light, science and glass bending. As a process it requires an investment of time and effort as signs are highly elaborate to design and then produce. In a society of high business turnaround, the time investment required to develop neon signs no longer matches the speed of the industry it was originally intended to serve.

Neon signs were used as landmarks…

In the past, neon signs were a way of navigating busy cityscapes. In the absence of mobile technologies and mapping, Neon signs were used as landmarks to identify where people were located and where they needed to go. “Finding one’s way has become less a matter of looking up than of looking down on a four-inch screen,” Birde Tang so astutely articulated.

Despite this, today neon is experiencing a renaissance due to its ability to adapt to the needs of a new generation. While it is still applied in the development of signs for niche small businesses, it is now most commonly applied in art, where the presence of the hand and the human touch still holds its significant value.


Photo credit:
Image 1: Biloela Palms Motor Inn, Queensland, 2013. Photo by Kelly Hussey-Smith + Alan Hill
Image 2: Wallace Bishop Arcade, Brisbane, Queensland, 1939
Image 3: Protozoan installation at Qld Museum by artist Brook Andrew. Image courtesy of Michael Blazek of Neon Signs Australia
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