Neon was once very much the preserve of seedy Soho strip joints, the gharish enticements signposting the border where the real world ended and a more promiscuous, salacious underworld began. Now it’s a staple of art, fashion shoots and high end window displays, co-opted post Cool Britannia as the go-to material for a certain kind of ironic metropolitan hipness.
Neon artist Chris Bracey played a significant role in that transformation, reinventing the Soho aesthetic he helped create (He was the first to use “Girls Girls Girls” he tells me). “It all started with Christmas lights,” he tells me. “There was a house round the corner from us that was always lit up and this was the 1950s when Britain was a grey, boring place during there post war austerity years. There wasn’t anything bright so I loved seeing the lights on that house.”
Chris had a way in as his Dad was a neon signmaker working on “fairgrounds, circuses and amusement arcades.” “He had been a coal miner in Wales, working in the dark, and he moved to London after the war because he wanted to work in the light.”
But Chris initially became a graphic designer, working in a Soho studio when “everything was done by hand, “lots of Letraset, lots of cow gum – and if we wanted to touch up a picture of a celebrity because she had a mole or something then we drew into the negative.
“You would have to wait for the main guys to come back from the pub – which could be 2:30pm – before you got your briefs and then you’d have to cram a whole working day into the afternoon and evening to get things ready for the newspapers the next morning.
“Even then London was the market leader for design and Soho was this amazing place where all the creativity came from. It taught me about standards – there was only 100 per cent. You couldn’t make a mistake.”
After a few years though Chris grew disillusioned that only a couple of guys were given the creative work to do, the majority of the people who worked there simply did what they were told.
“I realised that I would have to wait for one of these blokes to drop down dead if I wanted to get my chance. I had been around neon all my life and thought maybe I could do something different with it.
“At the time Soho was really seedy but the sex clubs all looked a bit naff and after a few years I persuaded one of the owners to let me do his sign – I said I’d do it at cost price if I could do what I wanted.”
The Pink Pussycat Club set a new standard with the aforementioned Girls Girls Girls sign and after that the club owners all wanted Chris to bring his expertise to bear on their establishments – “they all wanted something more outrageous than the last.”
It was while he was working on a Soho sign taht his next big break came along – literally. “I always wanted to work in the movies and one night I was working late on a club when an art director called Chris Townsend came up to me and said he was hoping to do a film called Mona Lisa but he couldn’t get in any of the clubs to film it. It used to be a bit of a closed shop but all the cub owners knew me and I said I’d get him in if I could do the signs for the film.”
“Like any work of art, it’s got a spirit. Neon is only happy when it’s on, when it’s alive.”
Mona Lisa was just the start of a star-studded movie career for the former graphic designer, who counts Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and Paul Greengrass among the directors he’s provided signs for. He has a number of celebrity clients too, selling pieces to a modern brand of celebrity like Jude Law, Kate Moss, Jamie Oliver and Daisy Low, as well as collaborating with artists like Martin Creed and David LaChapelle,
What is it about neon that people are so drawn to and that keeps Chris working year after year, now as head of a 14 strong team that includes several family members?
“There’s something about bending the glass that requires real will power and then you bombard it and it’s all down to the gods really, whether or not it’s going to be a success. Like any work of art, it’s got a spirit. Neon is only happy when it’s on, when it’s alive. There’s something sexy about it – it’s no coincidence that the sex clubs all wanted neon signs.
“I think neon takes you somewhere while LED is a bit spiritless. The last neon sign was taken down in Piccadilly Circus last year which I think is a shame. The LED screens look great but there’s no art in that – you could be sat at home watching a big TV screen.”
For now Chris has just placed 11 pieces in The Conran Shop in south west London, he is opening a new show at the Guy Hepner gallery in LA next Thursday and is hard at work on commissions for Selfridges and the Olympic Park among others. Neon it seems, has never been hotter.