Neon Is the Ultimate Symbol of the 20th Century

The once-ubiquitous form of lighting was novel when it first emerged in the early 1900s, though it has since come to represent decline.

As published in The Atlantic on April 27, 2019

In the summer of 1898, the Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay made a discovery that would eventually give the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the Las Vegas Strip, and New York’s Times Square their perpetual nighttime glow. Using the boiling point of argon as a reference point, Ramsay and his colleague Morris W. Travers isolated three more noble gases and gave them evocative Greek names: neon, krypton, and xenon. In so doing, the scientists bestowed a label of permanent novelty on the most famous of the trio—neon, which translates as “new.” This discovery was the foundation on which the French engineer Georges Claude crafted a new form of illumination over the next decade. He designed glass tubes in which neon gas could be trapped, then electrified, to create a light that glowed reliably for more than 1,000 hours.

The Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris (BENOIT TESSIER / REUTERS)

The Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris (BENOIT TESSIER / REUTERS)

In the 2012 book L’être et le Néonwhich has been newly translated into English by Michael Wells, the philosopher Luis de Miranda weaves a history of neon lighting as both artifact and metaphor. Being and Neonness, as the book is called in its English edition, isn’t a typical material history. There are no photographs. Even de Miranda’s own example of a neon deli sign spotted in Paris is re-created typographically, with text in all caps and dashes forming the border of the sign, as one might attempt on Twitter. Fans of Miami Beach’s restored Art Deco hotels and California’s bowling alleys might be disappointed by the lack of glossy historical images. Nonetheless, de Miranda makes a convincing case for neon as a symbol of the grand modern ambitions of the 20th century.

De Miranda beautifully evokes the notion of neon lighting as an icon of the 1900s in his introduction: “When we hear the word neon, an image pops into our heads: a combination of light, colors, symbols, and glass. This image is itself a mood. It carries an atmosphere. It speaks … of the essence of cities, of the poetry of nights, of the 20th century.” When neon lights debuted in Europe, they seemed dazzlingly futuristic. But their husky physicality started becoming obsolete by the 1960s, thanks in part to the widespread use of plastic for fluorescent signs. Neon signs exist today, though they’ve been eclipsed by newer technologies such as digital billboards, and they remain charmingly analog: Signs must be made by hand because there’s no cost-effective way to mass-produce them.

The French film  Panic  is advertised on the Rialto Theater marquee in Times Square in New York City on November 26, 1947. (AP Photo / Matty Zimmerman)

The French film Panic is advertised on the Rialto Theater marquee in Times Square in New York City on November 26, 1947. (AP Photo / Matty Zimmerman)

In the 1910s, neon started being used for cosmopolitan flash in Paris at precisely the time and place where the first great modernist works were being created. De Miranda’s recounting of the ingenuity emerging from the French capital a century ago is thrilling to contemplate: the cubist art of Pablo Picasso, the radically deconstructed fashions of Coco Chanel, the stream-of-consciousness poetry of Gertrude Stein, and the genre-defying music of Claude Debussy—all of which heralded a new age of culture for Europe and for the world.

Amid this artistic groundswell, Georges Claude premiered his neon lights at the Paris Motor Show in December 1910, captivating visitors with 40-foot-tall tubes affixed to the building’s exterior. The lights shone orange-red because neon, by itself, produces that color. Neon lighting is a catchall term that describes the technology of glass tubing that contains gas or chemicals that glow when electrified. For example, neon fabricators use carbon dioxide to make white, and mercury to make blue. Claude acknowledged at the time that neon didn’t produce the ideal color for a standard light bulb and insisted that it posed no commercial threat to incandescent bulbs.

Of course, the very quality that made neon fixtures a poor choice for interior lighting made them perfect for signs, de Miranda notes. The first of the neon signs was switched on in 1912, advertising a barbershop on Paris’s Boulevard Montmartre, and eventually they were adopted by cinemas and nightclubs. While Claude had a monopoly on neon lighting throughout the 1920s, the leaking of trade secrets and the expiration of a series of patents broke his hold on the rapidly expanding technology.

In the following decades, neon’s nonstop glow and vibrant colors turned ordinary buildings and surfaces into 24/7 billboards for businesses, large and small, that wanted to convey a sense of always being open. The first examples of neon in the United States debuted in Los Angeles, where the Packard Motor Car Company commissioned two large blue-and-orange packard signs that literally stopped traffic because they distracted motorists. The lighting also featured heavily at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. At the latter event, a massive neon sign reading futurama lit the way to a General Motors exhibition that heralded “The World of Tomorrow.”

Workers remove a hammer and sickle from a neon sign that reads “Glory to Communism,” visible on the roof of the Communist-run electricity-board headquarters in Czechoslovakia in 1989. (AP)

Workers remove a hammer and sickle from a neon sign that reads “Glory to Communism,” visible on the roof of the Communist-run electricity-board headquarters in Czechoslovakia in 1989. (AP)

De Miranda points out that businesses weren’t alone in embracing neon’s ability to spread messages effectively. By the middle of the century, the lighting was being adopted for more political purposes. “In the 1960s, the Soviets deployed a vast ‘neonization’ of the Eastern bloc capitals to emulate capitalist metropolises,” de Miranda writes. “Because consumer shops were rare in the Polish capital [of Warsaw], they did not hesitate to illuminate the façades of public buildings.” In other words, as opposed to the sole use of the more obvious forms of propaganda via posters or slogans, the mass introduction of neon lighting was a way of getting citizens of Communist cities to see their surroundings with the pizzazz and nighttime glamour of major Western capitals.

Neon, around this time, began to be phased out, thanks to cheaper and less labor-intensive alternatives. In addition, the global economic downturn of the 1970s yielded a landscape in which older, flickering neon signs, which perhaps their owners couldn’t afford to fix or replace, came to look like symbols of decline. Where such signs were once sophisticated and novel, they now seemed dated and even seedy.

De Miranda understands this evolution by zooming out and looking at the 1900s as the “neon century.” The author draws a parallel between the physical form of neon lights, which again are essentially containers for electrified gases, and that of a glass capsule—suggesting they are a kind of message in a bottle from a time before the First World War. “Since then, [neon lights] have witnessed all the transformations that have created the world we live in,” de Miranda writes. “Today, they sometimes seem to maintain a hybrid status, somewhere between junkyards and museums, not unlike European capitals themselves.”

Another mark of neon’s hybridity: Its obsolescence started just as some contemporary artists began using the lights in their sculptures. Bruce Nauman’s 1968 work My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon poked fun at the space race—another symbol of 20th-century technological innovation whose moment has passed. The piece uses blue “neon” letters (mercury, actually) to spell out the name “bruce” in lowercase cursive, with each character repeated several times as if to convey a person speaking slowly in outer space. The British artist Tracey Emin has made sculptures that resemble neon Valentine’s Day candies: They read as garish and sentimental confections with pink, heart-shaped frames that surround blue text fragments. Drawing on the nostalgia-inducing quality of neon, the sculptures’ messages are redolent of old-fashioned movie dialogue, with titles such as “You Loved Me Like a Distant Star” and “The Kiss Was Beautiful.”

Seeing neon lighting tamed in the context of a gallery display fits comfortably with de Miranda’s notion that neon technology is like a time capsule from another age. In museums, works of neon art and design coexist with objects that were ahead of their own time in years past—a poignant fate for a technology that made its name advertising “The World of Tomorrow.” Yet today neon is also experiencing a kind of craft revival. The fact that it can’t be mass-produced has made its fabrication something akin to a cherished artisanal technique. Bars and restaurants hire firms such as Let There Be Neon in Manhattan, or the L.A.-based master neon artist Lisa Schulte, to create custom signs and works of art.

Martin Wartman, a student at Northern Kentucky University, works on a neon sign at the Neonworks of Cincinnati workshop connected to the American Sign Museum, in 2016. (John Minchillo / AP)

Martin Wartman, a student at Northern Kentucky University, works on a neon sign at the Neonworks of Cincinnati workshop connected to the American Sign Museum, in 2016. (John Minchillo / AP)

Neon’s story even continues to glow from inside museums such as California’s Museum of Neon Art and the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. If it can still be a vital medium for artists and designers working today, “neonness” need not only be trapped in the past. It might also capture the mysterious glow of the near future—just as it did a century ago.

Tidying Up With Marie Kondo Isn’t Really a Makeover Show

The organizational guru’s new Netflix series isn’t about judgment, decor, or the spectacle of mess. It’s about cultivating empathy for the things that surround us.

As published in The Atlantic on January 4, 2019



About halfway through “The Downsizers,” the third episode of the new Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the 11-year-old Kayci Mersier and her 12-year-old brother, Nolan, are sorting through gigantic piles of clothing, piece by piece. They bid a grateful farewell to the things they no longer wear, and let others—the ones that “spark joy”—know they will be happily worn in the future. “You’ve done so much good for me; I thank you for that,” Nolan tells a jacket, giving it a little hug before setting it down. “You know ya girl isn’t going to get rid of you,” Kayci assures a colorful T-shirt. When Nolan encounters a neglected striped hoodie he’d forgotten about, he exclaims, “How have I not worn you before? You give me so much joy!”

The full episode reveals the Mersier siblings to be lovely and conscientious kids, but their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness in this moment have a guiding force: the world-renowned guru of home organization, Marie Kondo. Standing with the whole Mersier family in the kids’ bedroom, Kondo affirms the sentiment that’s at the heart of this ritual and of her “KonMari” method: “Gratitude is very important.” It’s not a concept that tends to loom large in American home- and personal-makeover shows, but its towering presence in this binge-worthy streaming series marks a welcome change of pace.

Kondo achieved worldwide fame in 2014 when her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, was translated into English and published in the United States, where it became a New York Times best seller and sold more than 1.5 million copies. With the 2016 publication of her follow-up, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, Kondo’s books have now sold more than 11 million copies in 40 countries. Which is to say, her “life-changing magic” is well known. Many of the families who welcome Kondo into their home on Tidying Up announce when they meet her that they can’t wait for her to work wonders on their clutter. When this happens, she is quick to let them know—in the nicest possible way—that they themselves will be working the magic.

If not exactly supernatural, Kondo’s effect on people is transformative, and that’s because her attitude is rooted in empathy rather than in judgment or in a prescriptive approach to outward appearances. Chatting with her interpreter, Marie Iida, on the walk from the car to the front door of her clients’ home at the beginning of each episode, Kondo finds something genuinely nice to say about every house before entering. She cuts a singular figure: Sporting a neat haircut with bangs and wearing pink lipstick, she dresses in a uniform of white tops, colorful skirts, black tights, and black ballet flats, which don’t seem to hinder her efforts even when she leaps onto a kitchen counter to tackle a tall cabinet.

A still from an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (Netflix)

A still from an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (Netflix)

Kondo notices what each family cares about right away. Within minutes of arriving at the Mersiers’ home, she inquires about their love of music, pointing out all the instruments in the apartment. She then formally introduces herself to each house, and in some episodes gathers the whole family with her to silently thank the house for sheltering them, and for its cooperation as they begin their KonMari endeavor. During this ritual, Kondo’s clients are silent and hold hands, some almost tearful, visibly moved by the experience.

When visiting a grieving widow in Episode 4, Kondo makes a beeline for an antique carousel horse, noting that the house seems to be full of fun. In doing so, she deftly acknowledges the thing that’s so hard for her client Margie to say: Her late husband was good-humored and whimsical, and the process of sorting through and giving away his possessions—for instance, the collection of Hawaiian shirts that anticipated a retirement full of adventure and travel—terrifies her like the prospect of a second death. Seeing Kondo’s joy at hopping on the horse (which she’s only permitted to do because she’s 4 foot 8), Margie visibly relaxes. Barely saying a word, Kondo communicates to her client that it’s okay to keep enjoying things while making way for a new future.

In the introduction to each episode, Kondo states her mission: to “spark joy in the world through cleaning.” Her method is deceptively simple. She has clients begin with clothing, move on to books, then paper documents, then komono, which means “miscellaneous” in Japanese and encompasses the kitchen, bathroom, garage, and other objects. Then they finish up with the final category, which is sentimental items. There’s something about the way in which Kondo explains the goals of her exercises that gets her clients to open up. This is the key difference between Tidying Up and most other reality shows: There’s no sense of competition, and the ostensible makeover at the heart of every episode simply involves regular people becoming happier and more at ease in their own home. Kondo doesn’t scold, shame, or criticize. Things spark joy or they don’t, and it’s fine either way.

The families whom Kondo visits—all of whom live in the Los Angeles area—range from newlyweds and the parents of toddlers to empty nesters and retirees. They hail from an array of ethnic backgrounds; some are well heeled and others live modestly, but none are full-on hoarders, nor are any of them extremely rich or desperately poor. Kondo isn’t dealing with people who appear to need serious psychiatric help or whose homes are legitimately unsafe or unsanitary—a key difference between this show and the popular A&E series Hoarders, which aired from 2009 to 2013. Tidying Up also doesn’t address the topic of generational trauma and the way it can shape people’s relationships with their possessions, which Arielle Bernstein wrote about for The Atlantic in 2016. Kondo’s clients are merely (sometimes profoundly) stuck: Short on time or long in denial, they’re either frazzled parents trapped in a Sisyphean rut with laundry or older folks overwhelmed by decades’ worth of clutter.

The genius of Kondo’s approach is that she cares not at all about renovation or decor. Her clients’ homes might be stylish or drab, spacious or cramped, but she treats them all the same: Every newly tidied room gets the same gasp of delight that signals Kondo’s pride in the family’s accomplishments. The host never suggests adding an accent wall or some trendy shiplap to spruce things up. Instead, she shares her clients’ joy at finding space and reconnecting with meaningful heirlooms. In Episode 2, in which Kondo helps Wendy and Ron Akiyama sift through mountains of vintage baseball cards, Christmas decorations, and clothes, the couple unearth Ron’s father’s diary, which includes an entry from the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor and chronicles the family’s experience at an internment camp during World War II. In the garage, the couple finds a huge collection of beautiful antique kokeshi dolls, which are turned on a lathe and brightly painted, and which Wendy didn’t even realize they owned. Now in the cleared-out garage, the dolls have a place of honor, and a tangible piece of the Akiyama family’s history can be enjoyed.

Though she never comes out and says it, Kondo clearly believes that most people have way too much stuff. In this way, her ethos resembles that of the legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams, who is the subject of a new documentary by the Helvetica director Gary Hustwit. Rams doesn’t mince words about the threat consumerism poses to our planet: “The world 10 years from now will be a completely different place,” he says in the film’s trailer. “There is no future with so many redundant things.” The jam-packed closets, garages, and cabinets of Kondo’s clients perfectly illustrate Rams’s point: Americans’ collective denial about cheap goods, impulse purchases, and thoughtless accumulation is literally choking our homes and our world. That’s why Kondo begins by instructing her clients to put all of their clothes on the bed. When confronted with the enormity of the pile, they’re shocked, and then they become motivated to make careful decisions about what they really want to keep and what they can part with.

Feeding that internal motivation, rather than offering direct instruction, seems to work. In Episode 8, “When Two (Messes) Become One,” Kondo is working with a newlywed couple who just bought a condo, and one spouse, Alishia, finds herself at an impasse with a dress her late grandmother bought for her years ago. While sorting her clothing, Alishia notes that the dress no longer fits, but she’s torn because it connects her to a happy memory. Somehow, she feels that she should part with it. Kondo then throws Alishia a curveball: “The point of this process,” Kondo says through her interpreter, “isn’t to force yourself to eliminate things; it’s really to confirm how you feel about each and every item that you possess.” In other words, You do you. With the pressure eased, Alishia feels ready to say goodbye to the dress, which someone else will now be able to enjoy, knowing that she has room for other keepsakes to remind her of her grandmother—and a well-organized closet of clothes that fit.

The other essential point that pervades Tidying Up but mostly goes unarticulated is that home organization is historically women’s work. In many of the families featured on the series, the moms are the ones shown leading the charge to clean. Still, Kondo’s approach short-circuits this dynamic somewhat not by pointing out the gender disparity (the word feminism is never uttered), but rather by insisting that every member of the family take responsibility for their own stuff. Nolan Mersier, the preternaturally wise tween from Episode 3, sums it up this way: “I want to learn where I should put things, but at the same time, I kind of like my mom having to know where everything is, because I don’t have to think about it as much.” It’s as good a summary of “worry work” as any.

Kondo’s strategy isn’t explicitly tied to correcting gender imbalances, but this can be a beneficial outcome of a process that prompts clients to find empathy in unexpected places. The host worked as a shrine maiden in Japan during college, and there are elements of the KonMari technique that borrow from Shinto beliefs, specifically the notion that inanimate objects are bearers of kami, or divine essence—in the same way that plants, animals, and people are. That’s why Kondo taps piles of old books to “wake them up,” folds clothes so that they can rest more comfortably, and asks her clients to thank pieces of clothing for their service before setting them aside. Paradoxically, the exercise of cultivating empathy for the things that surround us, rather than encouraging materialism, seems to lead Kondo’s clients to also have empathy for one another, and for themselves.

The 1950s Holiday Classic You Won't Hear at the Mall This Year

Sixty years ago, Stan Freberg’s satirical song “Green Christmas” angered advertisers for partaking in an age-old American tradition: criticizing the commercialism of the season.

As published in The Atlantic on December 23rd, 2018

Starting around Thanksgiving, one can hardly run an errand or ride an elevator without being serenaded by Christmas music. The songs cover familiar seasonal territory—silver bells, open sleighs, roasting chestnuts—as well as a timeless emotion: desire. Just think of Eartha Kitt flirting with “Santa Baby,” Mariah Carey donning a Santa hat to sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” or George Michael pining for a lost love in “Last Christmas,” by Wham! But all of those romantic lyrics about wanting and wishing also happen to tap into a different, but no less powerful desire: the urge to shop.

Which is one reason there’s a holiday classic that those racing to finish their gift shopping won’t hear this year: “Green Christmas,” by Stan Freberg. When it was released by Capitol Records 60 years ago, the song caused a huge backlash from major advertisers, many of whom threatened to pull radio ads in protest. A young DJ at the time—one George Carlin—was almost fired for playing it on the air. “Green Christmas” (originally styled “Green Chri$tma$”) can best be described as a holiday choral jazz parody inspired by the narrative of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Updated from 1840s England to 1950s America, the 1958 track is set in an advertising agency where the company chairman is named Mr. Scrooge, and a client named Bob Cratchit wants to devise a purely humanitarian holiday message for his small spice company.

In Freberg’s recording—which is part song, part extended skit—the color green refers not to environmental concerns but to cold, hard cash. At a meeting where clients have been invited to propose Christmas advertising gambits, one describes a plan to put up billboards of Santa Claus smoking his brand’s cigarettes and flexing a pair of toned biceps—one with a tattoo that says “Merry Christmas,” the other sporting ink that says “Less Tar.” When Bob Cratchit says he plans to send his customers cards featuring the three wise men following the star of Bethlehem, Scrooge at first thinks he understands the ploy: “I get it! And they’re bearing your spices. Now, that’s perfect.” When Cratchit says the card will just say “Peace on Earth,  goodwill toward men,” a fellow executive at the table mutters, “Well, that’s a peculiar slogan.”

As in a Broadway musical, the dialogue in “Green Christmas” is frequently interrupted by people bursting into song. When the chorus sings “Deck the Halls With Advertising,” an announcer promoting the fictional Tiny Tim Chestnuts intones, “Tiny Tim’s roast hot like a chestnut ought!” echoing the famous slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Mr. Scrooge laments that Christmas comes but once a year, adding that it’s incumbent upon businesses to seize the shopping season. Cratchit tells Scrooge that “people keep hoping you’ll remember” whose birthday Christmas celebrates, but no one listens. The song closes with a chorus of “Jingle Bells” highlighted with the sound of a ringing cash register. Cratchit’s disappointment echoes that of his namesake in A Christmas Carol, but instead of worrying for his own family, this Cratchit is concerned about the disdain with which Scrooge and his company seem to treat the buying public—which is to say, everyone. And unlike Dickens’s Scrooge, this one experiences no Christmas awakening.

Freberg, who was born in 1926 and died only a few years ago, knew whereof he wrote. In addition to being a successful voice artist, comedian, and writer, he was also a creative director who was widely credited with helping introduce satire to the previously irony-free world of advertising. He won 21 Clio Awards over the course of his career, during which he created successful ads for HeinzSunsweet Prunes, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, Encyclopedia Britannica, and scores of others. One product you won’t find on Freberg’s credit list is tobacco: He was steadfast in his objection to advertising cigarettes. And there was, in fact, a Stan Freberg Show, which premiered on CBS Radio in 1957 as a replacement for Jack Benny’s program. Freberg’s stance on tobacco resulted in the show’s failing to attract a sponsor; it lasted only 15 episodes. In other words, the fact that you might not be familiar with Freberg’s work underscores the message of “Green Christmas.”

When the song was first released, Freberg was told by a Capitol executive that he’d never work in advertising again. The record was lambasted in advertising trade magazines, and caused advertisers to demand that their segments be played with a buffer of at least 15 minutes from the song. A station manager at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles described “Green Christmas”—apparently without irony—as “sacrilegious.” But Freberg wrote in his 1988 autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, that despite the attempts to limit the exposure of “Green Christmas,” he got loads of fan mail about the record, much of which came from members of the clergy who admired its message. About six months after the song’s release, Coca-Cola and Marlboro both approached Freberg to work on satirical ads, and though he rejected Marlboro, he ended up worked with Coca-Cola on a successful campaign. Despite (or perhaps because) of the controversy, Freberg’s career as an adman spanned decades.

The ruthlessly commodified landscape that Freberg warned about hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has only grown more insidious: Social media, smart devices, and native-ad content have made Christmas commerce impossible to avoid. The low-key, conversational tone of much contemporary advertising allows it to fade seamlessly into the background noise of daily life. The Mr. Scrooge of “Green Christmas” would be positively giddy at the idea of digital beacons that track your movements via your smartphone, then creepily show you online ads for the very thing you just shopped for in real life. And the fact that you tend to hear cheery Christmas songs while shopping is not an accident: Retail “soundtracks” have been a fixture of the holiday season in America since Muzak went mainstream in the 1950s. But retailers also understand that there’s a fine line between setting a festive tone in stores and driving shoppers crazy. Over and above sheer auditory annoyance, the tension between loving and loathing holiday tunes is just one facet of a long-standing ambivalence about Christmas and consumerism.

One vein of Christmas commentary holds that the holiday has become much more businesslike than it used to be. However one might feel about the ways in which the holiday today differs from that of a fondly remembered childhood, modern Christmas itself is as old as Americans’ anxieties about its alleged commercialization.

The way Christmas is now celebrated, with its twin focus on retail and childhood, is a cultural tradition that dates back less than 200 years. Even the way one imagines Santa’s workshop, which is superficially rustic but conceptually modern, contains a subtle critique of 19th-century capitalism. One classic depiction comes from an 1866 Harper’s Weekly illustration by Thomas Nast called Santa Claus and His Works, which shows Saint Nick sewing clothing for dolls, finishing wooden toys by hand, and consulting a hefty Record of Behavior—presumably to prepare for the big December 24 toy run. Santa’s portrayal here is like the Christmas equivalent of a Craftsman-style bungalow, or a 19th-century Gothic Revival building: It employs the imagery of a romanticized medieval past to disguise the guts of a rapidly industrializing consumer culture.