Once the preserve of strip joints, dive bars, Tokyo streets and US diners, neon lights are having something of a moment.
Edinburgh business, Solas Neon, who work from Leith’s Biscuit Factory, have been in demand, with a small team consisting of Emery Boardman, 29, his partner, Emily Clift, and Sandy Faith, 52.
“Emery set up the business in 2018 as a side hustle, which quickly turned into a fully fledged business”, says Emily. “ With a degree in graphic design, he is from Canada and worked in hospitality for many years before discovering neon. He works with Sandy, who has been making neons since the Seventies. Sandy has taught Emery skills from a largely dying skill in Scotland. There are only a handful of glass benders left. I help design the neons and do the general day-to-day running of the business”.
Some of their work will be included in the V&A Dundee’s Night Fever:Designing Club Culture show, which opens on May 1. “It will be a visual feast”, says Emily.
They’ve also created signs as props for BBC’s Guilt, Amazon’s Grand Tour and Netflix’s Princess Switch 2, and, most recently, they made a bright red light for The Fratellis to use as a backdrop on The Late Late Show with James Corden in the US.
“It was commissioned less than three days before it was due, which is an extreme turnaround compared to our usual four weeks,” says Emily. “We did a couple all-nighters to make the deadline and we've now made our American TV debut”.
However, this is unusual, and 50 per cent of Solas Neon’s business comes from hospitality.
“When covid first struck, that sector was arguably one of the worst hit, which had a domino effect on us too”, says Emily.
However, as businesses are now “scrambling to get their premises ready before lockdown lifts”, they’re steadily picking up commissions.
The team have been tasked with creating signs for Edinburgh’s new Chowtown Takeout, Bross Bagels, Wanderer’s Kneaded, Sneaky Pete’s, Lucky Yu, Down the Hatch, Smiddy BBQ, and the original Civerino’s Slice as well as their new Corstorphine venue, West Slice. There’s also a shoal of multi-coloured neon fish, seaweed and coral at Glasgow’s Variety Bar and a sea blue HAARBOUR spelled out behind the counter at the eponymous fish and chip shop in St Andrews.
It seems there’s nothing that catches a potential diner's eye more than a glass tube of ionised gas, especially in Scotland, where they give dreich winter streets a Bladerunner vibe.
Most of the signs seem to be red or white, but there are few limitations with this craft.
“You can pretty much get any colour imaginable,” says Emily. “However, we always get excited when customers choose really classic retro neon combinations like turquoise and red”.
They’re also planning on diversifying, and using Emery’s hospitality experience to open their own food venue at Leith’s Shore.
“Our pie shop will be called Chums”, says Emily. “It’ll be a classic pie and coffee shop with a very Seventies vibe and of course LOADS of neons”.
It sounds like it will be very difficult to miss. Look out for the glowing signs sometime in early May.