Neon: The luminous retro street lighting is one of the hottest interior trends of 2019
Neon looks like magic. From the lines of coloured light that set the night sky of Los Angeles aglow to the familiar 'Why Go Bald' sign on Dublin's Dame Lane, there's nothing to match it. Flashy, trashy and deeply nostalgic, neon has it going on. It's also one of the hottest interior trends of 2019.
Neon is not magic, of course - it's science. Neon is a gas. It was discovered in the 1890s by the Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay. It's one of the four 'noble' gases - the others are argon, krypton, and xenon - so called because they are reluctant to bond with other atoms. In other words, they are snobs.
These gases are invisible but, when sealed in a glass tube and zapped with an electric current, each one lights up with its own distinctive colour. Neon is the most brilliant of them all. "The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget… for nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen," wrote Morris Travers, one of the scientists who worked with Ramsay.
So far, so scientific. In an article for Science History (2012), Jane Boyd and Joseph Rucker describe how the Parisian inventor, Georges Claude, set about finding a way to use neon commercially. His neon lighting was patented in 1910 and two years later, he installed the world's first neon advertising sign in a barbershop in Paris.
Neon lighting was technically difficult to achieve and shockingly expensive, but it caught on. "In New York and London, in Denver and Shanghai, along the main streets of the world, dusk brings forth a million vivid electric signs that make the night alive. There is a new sign language... written in glass!" proclaimed a 1937 advertisement for Corning Glass Works, which supplied tubes for neon signs.
There are still people working in neon today - the 'Why Go Bald' sign was restored in 1999 by Taylor Signs, the same company that had built the sign 37 years earlier - but it's a complicated and potentially dangerous process. First, the neon-bender heats the glass tube and bends it into the required shape. They attach electrodes to the tube and evacuate the air inside. Next, they bombard the interior with high voltage to clean the glass. Then, small amounts of gas are pumped in - usually a neon-argon mixture, sometimes with a little mercury - and the tube is sealed.
The neon décor that we see in today's homeware stores isn't made using gas-filled glass tubes. Most of it is faux neon, made from electroluminescent wire, known as El wire, coated in bendy plastic. It allows designers and artists to make pieces that mimic the colours of neon, and draw deeply on the heritage of neon signage without the risk, cost and complexity of working with actual gas.
"We like El wire for lots of reasons," says Emma Krause of Light Up North, a company that's pioneering the trend for neon interiors. Real neon, she explains, is incredibly bright. That's just what you want for street signage, but much too much to use in people's homes. "El wire is not as bright and it's cheaper to run. You can power it with a battery pack. Also, real neon creates a lot of heat. You couldn't add it to artwork in the way that we do."
At last year's 100pc Design in London, Light Up North collaborated with the wallpaper company Divine Savages to create a wallpaper with strands of neon running through it like embroidery threads. "We literally lit up their wallpaper!" Krause says.
It's three years since Krause launched Light Up North in Saltburn by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire. "My husband and I spent all our money doing up the house and we had no money left for cool stuff," she says. "Then we discovered El wire and started to play around with it."
The turning point, she says, was making friends with Turtledust, a local graphic designer who suggested combining El wire with his prints to make interesting neon artwork. Blondie (135cm x 102cm) for example, is a framed print by Turtledust with the word 'Atomic' running across it in neon wire. The range also includes prints of David Bowie, George Michael and Kanye West. Each of these costs £750 (€863) with the neon and £75 (€86) without (but where's the fun in that?).
For Krause, the joy of working with El wire is that you use it to say anything that you want. "Tell us your idea and we'll work out a way to make it happen," says Krause cheerfully. Bespoke designs start at £350 (€403), but can quickly get expensive. If you prefer a fixed price, a tailored sign (150cm x 30cm) costs £350 (€403). You choose the background, the font, and the colour of wire. Then you have to think of something witty to say. No pressure.
If you have a bigger budget for neon artwork, the new range from Andrew Martin costs £2,195 (€2,525) for a 182cm x 122cm print with detailing in El wire. It's pretty cool, if a little self-conscious and designs include Space Girl, an alluring young wan in a 1970s type space helmet, lit up by neon, and a Nasa space suit branded with Louis Vuitton logos. According to the company's design director, David Harris, this is the kind of thing that appeals to men. "Funky neon artworks, modern art wallpapers, architectural lighting ranges, and great furniture covered in rich velvets and leathers is helping to attract a more masculine following," he says. "Men now feel more confident than ever about their interior ideas and they want to show off their tastes."
You can, of course, get the look for less. Online stores like Red Candy have neon table lamps for £45 (€52) and Amara has a nice neon flamingo wall light for €36. Many, many neon lamps are in the shape of flamingos, possibly because they're pink. Small faux neon lamps often pop up in Penneys and TK Maxx for less than €10. Or - and this is massively exciting - you can buy a 'Make Your Own Neon Effect Sign' kit. The set includes three metres of flex wire in the colour of your choice, along with everything else you need apart from the batteries and costs €14.49 from iwantoneofthose.com.
See also lightupnorth.com, andrewmartin.co.uk, redcandy.co.uk, and amara.com