Neon Typography: Crafted in Hackney


I have a serious addiction to Neon Typography. Like most little London moths I’m attracted to the pretty lights so I was pretty excited to meet the guys at Kemp London who spend their time crafting bespoke Neon Type signs from their creative Hackney studio. I had to know more about the technical process and what creative director, Steve Earle loves about what he does…

Steve, what’s your story? How did you get to where you are today? I was always fascinated with art and design. After leaving school I trained as an apprentice stencil cutter before progressing into screen-printing, design and neon sign manufacture. I studied in the “University of Life” and vintage neon signs became my passion.

Of all the Neon signs you’ve crafted over the years, which is your favourite? It is difficult to pinpoint any particular neon as a favourite as I find each particular piece looks incredible in it’s own right, but if I had to choose, a recent piece we made some amazing huge vintage style steel letters with neon inserts for the Bruce Willis film Red 2.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old? An Astronaut, I was always fascinated by the Space Shuttle missions.

What’s the proudest moment of your career to date? Being commissioned by the London 2012 Olympics to manufacture an art piece using aged stainless steel panels inlaid with intricate brass lettering with a poem by the Poet Laureate - Carol Ann Duffy and working with the incredibly talented art typologist Stephen Raw.

Can you give me a brief description of the technical and creative process involved in creating neon signage. What tools are required and what materials do you use? From concept and design of the neon we produce full size mirror image working drawings that are used as a template to bend the glass in a hot flame to the required shape, electrodes are put on both ends of the glass sections and air is removed by a vacuum pump, high voltage is then passed through the tube to burn off impurities and anneal the glass. The glass is then pumped with either neon or argon gas depending on the colour required.  Block-out paint is applied to certain sections of the glass that are not to light and finally the glass is aged by connecting it to a transformer to ensure the gases stabilise.

Do you need to promote Kemp London? Well, most of our work comes through recommendation; Kemp Signs was founded back in 1868 so we are a well-established name within the sign and design community. We’re currently re-developing our website to include our prop hire section for vintage neon and signs and also ‘a take me home’ section where we will be selling some of our smaller neon art pieces. I don’t find much time to do social media so tend to leave that side of things to our ‘head of chat’.

Where do you find inspiration to come up with something unique every time a brief comes in? Most of my inspiration comes from trawling through architectural antique scrap yards and vintage 50’s Americana. I love finding old vintage metal items and visualising how I can upcycle them into rejuvenated pieces particularly if I can intersperse them with the use of neon and bulbs to ‘bring them alive’.

What do you love about what you do? I love watching as a piece of work takes shape whether that is a neon or restoration of a vintage sign. I like seeing our clients being enthralled by the finished piece.

What are you working on at the moment? Current projects I am working on include signs for the ‘Kiefer Sutherland - Series 24’ and neon pieces for Nike and Coca Cola.

I can’t wait to see them… So, have you noticed that stores are looking to increase their Neon lights? There has certainly been some peaks and troughs in the neon market over the last few years but I think there has been a real resurgence in the popularity of neon over the last 12 – 18 months with high demand for private commissions for homes as well as the retail sector who are turning back to the ‘Retro look’ for their window displays and internal store design.

What changes have you had to make to the designs to make them look artistic? Most of the neon art pieces we make tend to be words and quotes that often have real personal meaning to the client, in terms of design we are quite often presented with a piece of A4 paper with the clients own handwriting which we then enlarge and use as our working drawing, these neons tend to have a Tracy Emin feel about them.

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Is LED efficiency being implemented into neon lights? It’s a common misconception that neon is expensive to run and LED can replace it, but in reality neons cost pennies per day to run and in terms of longevity I still have neons that were made 15 - 20 years ago in perfect working order. In comparison LED’s tend to have a 50,000 hour life (that’s about 5 years) before the diodes start to fail. There have been some attempts by the LED manufacturers to make LED flexible imitation neon tube but this has failed to take off due to high production cost and also the poor luminance levels particularly in daytime. Neon cannot be beaten for brilliance day or night with its 360-degree light.