In the Glow of the Night: Miami’s Art Deco Neon

Screen Shot 2014 08 21 At 9.03.29 AM

One of the special pleasures of strolling along Ocean Drive in South Beach after sunset is the array of neon lights that illuminate its meticulously restored Art Deco hotels. The cool glow of the Avalon, Breakwater, and Colony Hotel signs can trigger an imagined journey back in time to the era of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, chic skyscrapers, and glamorous ocean liners. Miami’s Art Deco district fell into disrepair after the 1950s, but thankfully this neglect actually helped preserve some of its architectural gems. In the 1980s, inspired in part by the massive popularity of NBC’s skillfully art-directed police drama “Miami Vice,” Art Deco aficionados and luxury hospitality developers began buying and restoring the oceanfront hotels that line the waterfront today.

Neon signs were part of the urban landscape from early on in Miami Beach’s development, giving downtown a futuristic look that real estate developers sought during an era that was all about progress and novelty. The technology is older than you might expect: they had their public debut at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. Engineer Georges Claude, sometimes called the “Thomas Edison of France,” had a monopoly on the new technology, which makes use of electrified glass tubes containing rarefied neon. The lights are made by sealing a glass tube with metal electrodes at each end, and filling the tube with gas at low pressure. In a twist of chemistry reminiscent of those fun Bunsen burner demonstrations you might remember from high school, the color of the light depends on the type of gas in the tube. Neon glows red, helium is yellow, carbon dioxide is white, and mercury is, not surprisingly, blue. Neon master fabricators can make tubes into almost any shape. This highly specialized craft resulted in a glowing nightscape populated with curved, Art Deco shapes that still burn bright in South Beach today.

The 1930s were neon’s golden years in the United States: major events like the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York featured copious signage, the most famous of which is General Motors’ “Futurama” sign advertising their exhibition devoted to envisioning “The World of Tomorrow.” Movie theaters, diners, shops and theaters all decked out their marquees and entrances with neon in different colors and shapes.

With neon signs growing in popularity in less savory destinations like Las Vegas in the 1960s, it began to symbolize a kind of cultural wasteland. Tom Wolfe wrote in 1965, “Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs.” In more ordinary settings such as shop windows, the use of neon had declined during this period, as fluorescent lights in plastic casings (which require minimal skill to fabricate and install) emerged as a cheaper alternative for night lighting.

But during this same period, conceptual artists like Dan Flavin, Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman started experimenting with neon in all sorts of clever ways: Nauman used it to illuminate text, as evident in his 1968 work “My Name as Written at the Surface of the Moon,” while Flavin created immersive tableaux illuminated by neon lights in different colors and levels of intensity, which visitors could walk through. British artist Tracey Emin’s neon works capture the look and gesture of handwriting, freezing breezily written jottings in a permanent, glowing fixture. With its increased reputation as a kind of cultural icon in its own right, understood as the product of the Art Deco craving for glamour, the antique and restored neon signs of South Beach should glow for years to come.

Photo courtesy of: Craig ONeal