It’s been nearly 30 years since the neon sign for the Brown Derby restaurant went dark. That iconic Hollywood eatery built in the shape of a hat is what architectural critic and Los Angeles hype man Reyner Banham categorized as a structure of “commercial fantasy.” It was part of the roadside vernacular of buildings from the ’20s and ’30s, whose whimsical exteriors were designed to attract potential customers driving by in search of food, lodging, or the occasional tourist trap. While L.A.’s novelty architecture and its equally fantastical landmarks have been well documented by Banham and others like him, less has been said about the cultural importance of the spectacular neon signs that once lit up these historic sites.
Enter the Museum of Neon Art (MONA), a non-profit dedicated to preserving neon signage that has been discarded due to commercial redevelopment or changing design aesthetics. Since 1981, MONA’s founders Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins have worked to educate the public about neon as a historical and contemporary art form, as well as the scientific principles of electric media and kinetic art. Their growing collection has recently found a permanent home in Glendale, California and on August 13th, MONA held a celebration for the relighting of the original Brown Derby sign, restored and on display in all its former neon glory.
I spoke with MONA’s curator Eric Lynxwiler about the current exhibition on typographic signage, and how the public is responding to the new installation. “Our museum draws a lot designers and people who love typefaces or neon roadside Americana. We also get adults coming to see remnants of their past, and who are looking to introduce that to their children. People gain a new understanding of what it is that we no longer really have in the city streets of America: neon signs.”
“Neon is a medium that they may have taken for granted for years as just a part of their everyday environment, and now they see it on a pedestal in a museum.”
The majority of the current show is comprised of restored signage from the ’20s to the late ’60s, as well as a series of photographs produced by the internet collective #SignGeeks. Like typographic birders, Sign Geeks travel the country documenting rare or endangered neon signs that could be potentially acquired by MONA if they’re at risk for being demolished. Any sign that’s accepted into MONA’s collection must meet three levels of criteria based on aesthetic interest, technical merit, and cultural importance.
Lynxwiler says that vernacular typography like neon is important to preserve because over time, as these design objects become removed from their original commercial function, something transformative occurs. “Eventually these signs change. They begin as advertising, but then there’s a moment of transcendence, some undocumented moment in time, where a sign becomes a cultural symbol, and even artwork.” He cites the Broadway Hollywood sign as an example, an Art Deco logotype originally belonging to the Broadway Department Store chain. The stores have long since closed, and the building has been converted into luxury lofts, but the sign remains as an iconic piece of the local skyline, and L.A.’s eclectic design past.
What’s exciting about navigating through MONA’s exhibit space is how close up visitors can get to these historic signs. (No pesky docents to shoo you away from the artwork here.) Some pieces, in various stages of repair, rest like sleeping giants on the floor, while others, like “Chris’ + Pitt’s BBQ,” with its neon fascia and flicker-bulb interior, emit a carnivalesque glow that draws in viewers from across the room.
“It’s approachable,” Lynxwiler says of neon’s enduring appeal. “In fact, it’s so approachable that people actually forget that they’re massive boxes of electricity and reach out to touch them in the gallery, or lean against them like an old friend. There’s a familiarity there, people relate to them because they’re part of their environment.”
Next year, we’ll have to say goodbye to vintage favorites like the bovine shaped “Economy Meats,” or the Atomic-era “Zodiac Room,” as they’ll return to their storage facility to make way for MONA’s new exhibition featuring more science-related work from contemporary neon benders, including plasma-based installations and even a Tesla coil. “The museum really needs to represent both sides of the electric coin, which is what we were founded to do, celebrating the signage of the past while also representing electric art of today,” Lynxwiler says.
Regardless of the era of neon that fills MONA’s gallery space, the gentle hum of electricity is always there, along with a team of volunteers and neon benders in-residence, dedicated to preserving this craft for future generations of #SignGeeks. “Neon thankfully has never died since its introduction to the United States in the ’20s. It’s been beaten down by backlit plastic and LEDs, but it always rebounds—always.”