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Tired of Twee Edison Bulbs? Bring On the Neon

Mr. Dilling believes that even a few years ago, a design like “Rexy” would have been unthinkable for a legacy brand like Coach. But recently Tiffany & Company, Bergdorf Goodman and Fendi, among others, have hired Lite Brite to help them liven up their images.

“If you’re Coach, how do you remarket yourself?” Mr. Dilling said. (Besides picking a strangely hippie-sounding name, Tapestry, for your parent company.) “I mean, you make leather handbags. That’s tough. You have to think of something that cuts through the visual clutter, and neon definitely cuts through.”

But even as fashion brands are using neon to showcase their modernity, they’re also hoping to invoke our nostalgia. While installing a cascading neon rainbow in Stella McCartney’s store in the meatpacking district, Mr. Dilling overheard multiple shoppers mention its “retro” quality. (Never mind that they each thought it evoked a different decade.)


Matt Dilling, 38, has run Lite Brite for almost 20 years.

Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Tiffany, too, has taken up neon to try and reclaim some of its midcentury irreverence. In the 1970s, for instance, the company’s celebrated window designer Gene Moore created a neon-lit Chinese food container spilling diamond-encrusted pendants instead of noodles.

Richard Moore, the vice president of creative visual merchandising at Tiffany (no relation to Gene Moore), said that type of creativity “has not necessarily translated to consumer perception of the brand, and that’s why neon feels particularly relevant right now.” This fall, Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue windows display a neon orange “Don’t Walk” hand wearing an engagement ring. The (perhaps obvious) symbolism: A Tiffany ring will stop traffic. Like the Chinese-takeout container, said Mr. Moore, “it’s very urban, very New York, very iconic.”

He said that today’s young people are especially attracted to things that are handcrafted, as most neon is. Signs are created by artisan “tube benders” who heat the glass in 2,000-degree flames, shape it and then fill it with gas.


This fall, the Fifth Avenue windows of Tiffany & Company display a neon orange “Don’t Walk” hand wearing an engagement ring.

Tiffany & Co

Argon with a dash of mercury naturally shines blue, while neon is naturally “motel sign” red. These are the classic colors that first arrived in the United States from Paris in the early 1920s and replaced the pointillist incandescent “spectaculars” that dominated city center marquees.

“Whatever you could do with light bulbs, you could do in bigger, better, clearer ways with neon tubes,” said Eric Lynxwiler, 44, a preservationist and historian at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, Calif. “Every business in the nation that wanted to be perceived as modern in that Art Deco era had to have neon.”

Neon dimmed briefly during World War II, as chemicals and glass grew scarce, and then proliferated across the American highway afterward, as businesses competed for a car-bound public. But by the late 1960s, spurred in part by Lady Bird Johnson’s national “beautification” campaign, townships began passing anti-neon laws. That, along with the introduction of cheap, backlit plastic signs, ended the medium’s glorious run.

Neon returned briefly in the 1980s, its comeback linked to 1950s nostalgia. Today’s resurgence, though, which Mr. Lynxwiler says we’re riding “in a big, big way,” seems more about hope for the future. “We want the promise that everything is going to be O.K.,” Mr. Lynxwiler said. “We want the joy back. We’ve moved away from the dark Edison bulb toward something bright.”

At DeKalb Market Hall, a new food hall in Downtown Brooklyn, all vendors were instructed to hang a neon sign. “We’re bringing the city back pre-hipster,” said Anna Castellani, 46, DeKalb’s managing partner. “I’m definitely not complaining about missing the ’70s or ’80s in New York. But I love the chaotic nature of a street full of different lights. You feel like you’re in the city.”

Neon has also become central to a handful of urban renewal projects in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Oklahoma City, whose downtown, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was home to 52 car dealerships, many of them neon lit. After decades of urban decline and the devastation of the 1995 bombing, civic and business leaders sought to develop that old stretch of “Automobile Alley.” This included grants for new businesses to hang neon.


At DeKalb Market Hall, a new food hall in Downtown Brooklyn, all vendors were instructed to hang a neon sign.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“We felt like it could be a very important movement to help us regenerate the neighborhood,” said Rand Elliott, president of Elliott & Associates Architects and chairman of the Automobile Alley Association’s design committee.

To date, 29 businesses have hung neon on the six-block stretch of Broadway, including a massive 24-by-23-foot reproduction of the original Buick sign, which was installed in 2014. “Each sign is very distinctive,” Mr. Elliott said. “It’s like art hanging on these buildings.”

And yet even as these new signs go up and restoration efforts increase, many of the historic signs have shut off. In New York City, the red, green and yellow P & G Café facade at 73rd and Amsterdam has vanished; so too the luminous purple sign with an excitedly leaping girl in Times Square and the multistory signs for Eagle Clothes and Kentile Floors in Brooklyn.

“There were so many signs here, that nobody thought we should preserve them,” said Mr. Dilling, who works just a few blocks from where Eagle Clothes once towered above the Gowanus Canal. “And now with the development, they’re gone.”

The same developers who are taking over these spaces sometimes hire Mr. Dilling. He is currently making a five-foot-tall record for Henry Hall, an upscale residential complex on the West Side of Manhattan, where Legacy Recording Studios once stood. There will be a trendy restaurant named after the studios, once the East Coast center of film and Broadway recording, and a “Jam” room with Fender Stratocaster guitars and the neon record.

Mr. Dilling is mostly tranquil about these changes. “For years reporters would call and be like, ‘Neon’s a dying industry. How does it feel to be one of the last guys?’” he said. “But it just dies to be reborn.”

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