Niche Market | Let There Be Neon

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market takes a peek inside a different specialty store and showcases the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Let There Be Neon
38 White Street
New York, NY 10013

At the soft gradient between one era and the next, the light of modernity becomes one of nostalgia.

That's the glow that burns at Let There Be Neon in TriBeCa. 

"I just think that the light that it gives off is absolutely beautiful," Let There Be Neon owner Jeff Friedman said. "It's warm, it's human, it's made by hand."

Friedman, 55, began learning the trade at the neon sign shop in 1977, five years after it was opened by Rudi Stern and Charles Schwartz. He left for a few years to start his own business, and then merged it with Stern’s in 1990.

In an age when scrolling LED signs and electronic screens dominate Times Square, it's hard to believe neon — this century old technology — will burn on much longer. Indeed, many neon shops have closed in the city or transitioned to producing LED signs, which have lower labor costs.

But according to Friedman, his shop can hardly keep up with all the requests coming in, particularly from clients who desire shapes like the hot pink "truck stop" girl hanging in the window. She's flirting with your visual memory — her silhouette was featured prominently in "The Sopranos." Set decorators in the film, TV and fashion industries are some of Friedman's biggest customers. Many rent that very truck stop girl, a pizza guy, or one of the innumerable bar signs starting at $225. Purchase price is higher — average sized signs cost about $475.

There's a rotating gallery of neon art hanging on the walls of the 3,500 square foot shop — vintage clocks, ironic glass hammers, the Manhattan skyline. The candy-colored lights are what intrigue shutter-happy tourists exploring downtown. But they could just as easily pass Let There Be Neon's work on a walk around the city. The shop refurbished the famous Old Town Bar and Russ and Daughter signs, produced a sign for the new Hôtel Americano located near the High Line and innumerable restaurant and pizza beacons.

Neon signs have always hovered on the border separating function and art. The medium itself — thin glass tubes filled with electrified colored gas — reflects a line drawing. Since its invention, motels, diners, bars and parking garages have used neon's gentle colored gleam to beckon customers against the stark contrast of night.

Customers email designs or come in with hand drawings that are then tweaked by Gary Rosenbaum, the art director, who gives specs to Ed Skrypa, the glass bender. Watching Skrypa work is to get a taste of alchemy. Working on a cursive "K-I-T" sign (short for kitchen), he bends glass, attaches electrodes, handles sheets of mica, drops bubbles of mercury and heats neon gas to make colored light flicker on and off.

According to Skrypa, the process hasn’t changed in a hundred years. He does use a new electronic gauge to measure the temperature, but also continues an old technique of laying scraps of burning newspaper on the glass tubes, claiming it’s more accurate. "When I see the newspaper burn, get really black, I know its 430 degrees," he said.

Contemporary artists frequent the joint, like Helene Aylon, who sat down with Friedman to specify specs on a "tiny pink dash" for her upcoming art exhibit. She had previously come to Let There Be Neon for a related piece presented at the Warhol Museum. "There was like a pink aura over my piece, which was the liberation of God, G-D," she explained.

At some point neon may solely be used for art, in period films and to upkeep vintage work; but for now, there always seems to be a customer with a whim. Russell Greenberg entered the store days before the birth of his son with the idea to design a sign displaying his baby's name.

"I've always loved neon, the clean lines, consistent intensity, no hot spots that you get with LEDs or anything like that so, I've always wanted an excuse to use neon, and if I can't find it in any of my projects then I'm just going to stuff it in my baby's room I guess," he said.

Who are your customers?
We have such a huge range of customers, I've got to tell you honestly, that's the beauty of doing this job, dealing with so many different people, whether it's restaurant owners who we do a lot of work for, whether its a hi-end contemporary art work which we do a lot of work for, we fabricate a lot of contemporary art, we do a lot of Tracy Eamon (sp?) work, Tracy's an artist from the U.K. who loves to work in neon, we also do a lot of work with Ivan Navarro who is a Chilean artist who is based in Brooklyn now, and working with them is just so much fun and so great because you can imagine how highly creative the work is and then we'll work with, like, a pizza shop five minutes after that. And then we could go up to Bloomingdales and do an installation there and then we could go from there to somebody's home and install "Joe's Place" for them because it's a birthday present for a husband, It really just ranges so tremendously. 

Interview with Jeff Friedman, owner of Let There Be Neon.

Who are your customers?

We have such a huge range of customers, I've got to tell you honestly, that's the beauty of doing this job, dealing with so many different people, whether it's restaurant owners who we do a lot of work for, whether its a hi-end contemporary art work. We do a lot of Tracey Emin work, Tracy's an artist from the U.K. who loves to work in neon. We also do a lot of work with Ivan Navarro, who is a Chilean artist who is based in Brooklyn now, and working with them is just so much fun and so great because you can imagine how highly creative the work is. And then we'll work with, like, a pizza shop five minutes after that. And then we could go up to Bloomingdale's and do an installation there and then we could go from there to somebody's home and install "Joe's Place" for them because it's a birthday present for a husband, it really just ranges tremendously.

Can you make any color?

Not necessarily, because we buy the raw material from a supply house to the trade, a sign business, a neon business. What makes the color of neon is either the glass itself can be colored, there's phosphorus inside some tubing, or the gas that we put inside. And we only put in neon, which is red, or argon, which is blue. So by combining the different colors of gas and glass we get different colors. If you take a blue tube, you put red gas inside it, you get pink. It’s like mixing watercolors with light.

Why do you think people want neon signs as opposed to any other kind of sign?

Well, I think it's a functional light, and it's an artistic light even if it's not used for artistic purposes. I just think that the light that it gives off is absolutely beautiful. It's warm, it's human, it's made by hand.  I think that's apparent in the finished product, and I just think that also there's certainly a bit of nostalgia involved where it's an older product, people like that, some people like that. But it's also very modern, and there's proof in the contemporary artwork that we're doing with new, young artists. It's a very new, fresh medium to them.

Where do you see neon fitting into New York City?

New York has a lot of neon but unfortunately New York also likes to knock things down and build new things a lot, unlike a city like Chicago or San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, where they've preserved not only a lot of the old architecture in the buildings but a lot of the old signage that goes with it. And New York tends not to do that and I think it's directly attributable to the high cost and value of real estate. You can quote me on that.

( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Let There Be Neon owner Jeff Friedman and artist Helene Aylon.
Let There Be Neon owner Jeff Friedman and artist Helene Aylon. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
The famous "truck stop girl" used in HBO's TV series, "The Sopranos."
The famous "truck stop girl" used in HBO's TV series, "The Sopranos." ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Ed Skrypa building a neon sign.
Ed Skrypa building a neon sign. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Ed Skrypa moves a neon piece so that the gas spreads evenly.
Ed Skrypa moves a neon piece so that the gas spreads evenly. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
The finished piece.
The finished piece. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
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