It’s probably easier to list which neon signs in New York were not made by Tribeca’s Let There Be Neon, then which were. The little shop on White Street is responsible for creating some of New York’s most iconic signs like the one at Russ and Daughters, the neons at Mondrian SoHo’s Mister H lounge, the classic sign at Old Town Bar on 18th Street, and most recently, even the sign on Nucky Thompson’s Old Rumpus bar in the Season Finale of Boardwalk Empire.
I've walked by Let There Be Neon dozens of times and always wanted to see inside. Luckily, owner Jeff Friedman was completely welcoming and let me come in and take some photos. The day I went, the team was working on signage for Kiehl’s.
The work of making a neon sign is a delicate dance. Glass benders wave the fragile glass tubes through a blue flame to bend them, while simultaneously blowing air through the tubes to keep the inner passage open for the neon (or argon) gas to flow. The glass benders bounce back and forth around the flame, twisting and bending the tubes until they’re ready to bring the hot pieces over to a table and lay them over a blueprint. Then they repeat, waving them back over the flame, and bringing them back to the table until they’re just the right shape.
Of course, broken glass happens.
Let There Be Neon was originally founded by Rudi Stern, a multimedia artist who worked with Timothy Leary, back in 1972. Friedman took it over in 1990 and has been keeping New York lit up ever since.
Will neon signs ever go away?
It’s a question the New York Times put to Friedman back in 2011, “No,” he says. “People are always saying, ‘I’ve always dreamed of having a neon sign.’ Neon’s part of the American landscape.”
And he’s right. But also, there's an art to neon sign making. It’s impossible to think that in 40 years anyone will be photographing LED sign makers. But neon? Yes. Always neon.