A hundred years ago, members of the Arts and Crafts Movement professed a philosophy they called ‘truth to materials’. This meant using the most appropriate material for any application, and emphasising the quality of the materials used rather than hiding them. The sentiment is well expressed by Christopher Dresser:
All graining of wood is false, inasmuch as it attempts to deceive; the effort being made at causing one material to look like another, which it is not. All “marbling”, too, is false: a floor-cloth made in imitation of carpet or matting is false; a Brussels carpet that imitates a Turkey carpet is false; so is a jug that imitates wicker-work, a printed fabric that imitates one which is woven, a gas-lamp that imitates an oil-lamp.
I love the beauty of wood, concrete and metal, and I generally agree with the principle of truth to materials, especially in architecture and furniture design. It’s a shame when a beautiful oak floor is covered in synthetic tiles, or when plastic siding tries in vain to imitate wooden boards on a newly built house.The cheap deception is revealed in a few short decades as the elements wear it away.
On the other hand, the sign-making trade has a long history of making one material appear to be another. As soon as you roll a coat of primer onto a wooden panel, you have already begun to hide the innate qualities of the wood (although the sign will last longer). Gilded elements give the false impression of being solid gold. Painted drop-shadows and highlights give an illusion of dimensionality to flat letters. More recently, distressing techniques such as crackle-varnish and stain are used to make a new sign look like a weathered artifact. Dresser would probably take a dim view of such techniques, but just as the fine artist adds paint to a canvas until the canvas itself looks like a landscape or portrait, so the sign-maker applies his skills and tools to make a substrate look like something it is not. This leads me to the subject of neon and ‘faux-neon’ signs.
Applying Faux Rust to Channel Letters in our Workshop
When neon first began to shed its glow on the night-time streets of American cities, many of the more conservative set considered it an ugly visual blight – crude, bright and attention-grabbing. Certainly, the glass tube letters had their limitations; the stroke width always had to be uniform, the curves couldn’t be too tight and the colour selection was limited. But neon artists worked within these limitations and the new style of sign spread around the world, not because of beautiful designs or letterforms, but because they glowed!
A Neon Sign in San Francisco (image courtesy of Thomas Hawk)
In an age where billboards can play movies, it seems quaint to think that these humming glass tubes were once considered modern. Now, there are a hundred cheaper and more efficient options for illuminated signage. Even as neon has largely fallen out of use, it has gained a certain nostalgic respect, with an accompanying surge of interest in preserving old neon signs, and the few remaining neon artists kept busy with new orders. While in the past, customers wanted the ‘glow’ (which could only be obtained with glass tubes), today they are fascinated by the tubes themselves, and the somewhat awkward letterforms which could be made from them. Countless bars, restaurants and even museums are full of old neon signs. Some of them no longer work, but they’re still immensely satisfying to look at.
A boy admires neon letters in Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum (image courtesy of Jane McDevitt)
A fascinating offshoot of this modern-day ‘neon-love’ is the ‘faux-neon sign’. That is, non-illuminated signs which have been made to look like neon. I have seen several such signs, and find them fascinating. Why? because the monoline industrial curves of neon script were born of necessity, not aesthetic taste. A faux-neon sign is more like a painting of a sign than a sign itself. Without the limitations of neon, the sign-painter or designer chooses to emulate the look of tubing, because they find it beautiful. Here are some examples:
…And one by New Bohemia Signs
Sandwich Boards by New Bohemia Signs
A slightly subtler faux neon sign, also by New Bohemia
What got me thinking about this very specific category of signage? At our workshop, we also had the opportunity to fabricate what is possibly the world’s only hand-carved faux-neon sign. It was based off the iconic sign for the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco and now hangs in a client’s home in Colorado.
Hand Carved ‘Neon’ Sign
The Real Neon Buena Vista Cafe Sign, in San Francisco
We’d be happy to make another for anyone who’s interested.
Sorry, Christopher Dresser.