America is glowing again as neon makes a comeback

Neon signs make a comeback

This spring and summer, exhibits featuring neon will light up museums, galleries and botanical gardens across the U.S.

It's been nearly 100 years since this country's first neon sign was imported from France, and a new generation of neon lovers is making America a little brighter again.

CBS News' Mark Strassmann went to Austin, Texas, to meet the man responsible for 300 of that city's iconic signs.

Evan Voyles describes his work as "doodling in light."

"It doesn't really advertise the brand. It's getting closer to art than it is to signage," Voyles said.

Evan Voyles CBS News

The street Voyles is most known for in Austin is South Congress Avenue, where his canvas of neon runs for blocks.  

"This is my turf. And so this is saying, you know, 'Welcome.'"

The 58-year-old designed a fish-riding cowboy for Yeti, the popular cooler company. It's just one of his distinctive signs along the avenue.

"That was the first outdoor commercial sign I ever built," he said, gesturing towards a Tesoros Trading Company sign. "And when I finished it, and we had it on the wall, and we lit it up, I jumped up and down. I was amazed. It looked so great. I couldn't believe I'd done it. It was like pulling off a magic trick I didn't know how to do," Voyles said. 

Neon sign designed by Evan Voyles for water cooler company, Yeti.  CBS News

Since then, his hometown skyline has taken on a growing glow. 

Neon signage isn't just decorative — it has a job to do. "Its primary job is to communicate an idea, form an impression in your head that will make you go into the store. If I don't get people in, then I have failed," Voyles explained. 

As American folk art, neon found its heyday in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  A landscape of colorful lights stretched across the country.  But when cheaper plastic and LED signs came along, neon fizzled.

That is, until recently.

"People have always loved the American roadside and the attraction of that glowing neon sign in the distance," said Eric Lynxwiler, a historian who wrote a book about neon's glory days.

"Neon is definitely making a comeback right now. Every neon artist and neon vendor that I know in Southern California is working more now than they have in the past few decades," according to Lynxwiler.  

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Throughout the U.S., new and newly-restored neon signs now light up businesses, stadiums and hotels along with art galleries and museums.

"I think neon is definitely representing a retro-Americana that people are embracing. But it's also a technology that people haven't seen for a while and they are falling in love with it yet again," Lynxwiler said.
The technology itself has barely changed in over a century.
"I find it a great irony that in this day and age I am essentially building something from the age of buggies," Voyles said. "But to me it's like, I am bringing you the past. I am tying you to something you don't even think about." 

Voyles designs the sign's blueprint, but bending neon tubes is a special skill. That's where Kirk and Rory Tunningley come in. They own Big Dog Neon in Lockhart, Texas.
"In weeks I was producing tubes that functioned. But to make good-looking tubes, probably took a year and a half," Kirk said of learning the process.

Las Vegas neon, preserved

It's a feel that comes from experience — the glass tube between the fingers, the slow and steady breath control that keeps the tube from collapsing in on itself as it's heated up to 1,200 degrees and then bent.
Once the glass takes shape, gas is pumped in.  Most signs today are actually filled with argon gas, which is more versatile — but the iconic vivid red color is all neon.
For Voyles, the romance of neon is "that line drawing with light and color. And that there's no better way to do that yet. I just don't think they're gonna invent it in our lifetime."
Voyles has brought this city a new glow with his take on the blurry line between art and commerce.