The signs of the times

Skyline Neon in Northeast Minneapolis Credit: Photos by Eric Best

You likely don’t know their names, but if you’ve walked by a storefront or grabbed a seat at a bar in Minneapolis, you’ve likely seen the handiwork of Brian Crawford, Matt Thompson, Jeff Monzel or Robert Johnson.

The four are neon “benders” — the makers of neon signs and lighting — and collectively they are responsible for much of the custom neon lighting in the Twin Cities metro. 

Both locally and nationally, the neon sign industry has shrunken to a small fraction of what it once was before the last recession, due in part to cheap and easily maintained LED lighting, now ubiquitous on storefronts. Despite the downturn, each bender continues their own, usually one-man shops in Northeast Minneapolis, the state’s unofficial capital of neon sign manufacturing. 

“We’re dinosaurs. We truly are,” laughed Monzel, a bender of more than 25 years who runs Lightadot Neon & Glassworks.

For this generation of benders, Minneapolis was a regional hub for neon sign manufacturing because of its cheap studio space, its businesses — bars and beer companies, as well as neon tubing suppliers — and its proliferation of neon schools. Local colleges and the American School of Neon, once located in the North Loop’s trendy Colonial Warehouse building, churned out benders for larger sign companies, instead of just neon-specific shops. 

Then as the economy dropped, LEDs, or light-emitting diode lights, advanced into the mainstream, touting energy efficiency without the craft of local artisans. 

“The neon industry probably lost 80 percent of our work to LEDs, at least,” said Thompson, an alum of the American School of Neon and founder of Skyline Neon. “There’s almost no schools in the United States.”

Jeff Monzel of Lightadot Neon & Glassworks heats glass tubing with a ribbon burner for a sign.

Now a smattering of benders — named for the act of heating and forming the sign — are adapting to keep the lights on.

Brian Crawford, who was in the first class at the American School of Neon, founded Ne-Art Custom Neon of the Marshall Terrace neighborhood nearly 32 years ago. The shop hosts two auctions each year offering restored beer signs, which are popular in “man caves,” garages or home bars. 

“I think [neon] is becoming less local. It’s local here because we’re a scene here in Minneapolis,” he said.

Robert Johnson of Neoneon Art & Design came into the industry as a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Though he does commercial and custom interior work like other shops, Johnson also creates unique art pieces that combine neon and clocks or acrylic backdrops. As another source of income, he also sells Star Wars collectibles, a business that has at times rivaled the neon work. 

Monzel, who started learning through elective classes at the University of Minnesota, has survived by combining glassblowing and neon bending.

“If you don’t find new applications for your studio, you’re in trouble. If you don’t diversify, you’re going to die in this business,” he said.

Monzel keeps the neon tube uniform with air pressure from a tube in his mouth.

Signs of a different time

In recent years, the switch from traditional neon lights to LEDs has been most noticeable in the relighting of the city’s iconic riverfront signs. 

Last fall, a developer renovated the Pillsbury’s Best Flour sign, a 75-year-old neon sign, with LED lights. On the other side of the Mississippi River, the North Star Blankets sign on top of the historic factory building was relit with similar lighting. 

The nearby Gold Medal Flour sign is perhaps the most iconic neon landmark still lit in the Twin Cities. 

Two more aging signs with neon components, the Grain Belt Beer sign and St. Paul’s “1st” sign upon the First National Bank Building, are now dark as their respective owners plan to relight them, whether in neon, LEDs or other combinations. 

A spokesman for August Schell, which recently bought the Grain Belt Beer sign, said in a statement that the company hasn’t made a decision on the type of lighting it plans to install by 2017. 

For these historic signs, the material that developers use in relighting them is decided largely by cost, along with historic relevance.

Aaron Hanauer, a senior planner with the City of Minneapolis, worked on the Pillsbury’s Best Flour and North Star Blanket projects. He said because of the steep price tags that come with these high-profile projects, the material largely comes down to what the owners can afford, though the city might not always support replacing neon with LED.

“They’re expensive projects,” he said. “If it was a close estimate [between LED and neon], there could be a time when we would not support replacement.”

Elizabeth Gales, a historian with Hess, Roise and Company, said local, state and federal reviewers, who approve grants and other funding for these projects, have been open to the long-term viability of LEDs over neon. The historic consulting firm is working with August Schell on the Grain Belt Beer sign relighting. 

“We’re in an interesting period where LED has really been impressive as it has evolved so it’s interesting to see how open the historic reviewers are. What it helps to confirm is that they want to see these historic signs reused and relit,” she said.

For Larry Abdo, owner the Nicollet Island Inn, the price and cost of operations are too high to add a neon sign. For the latest addition to the historic building, he’ll be adding a LED sign, a move that needed city approval. 

“We love the look of having a neon sign up there,” he said, but “there’s a lot of maintenance.”

Monzel bends the heated glass into position over a sign blueprint protected by a screen. 

Who will be the next generation of benders?

With just a handful of benders left in the city, several shop owners worry that there won’t be another generation to carry the torch. 

Shops used to be able to afford to pay people to learn, Thompson said, but the same model doesn’t exist anymore. While aspiring benders may find classes, several shop owners said they can only afford to hire experienced sign makers or apprentices who are ready to make commitments to the art.

Johnson has taken on four apprentices in 25 years, but the cost of training can be prohibitive and there are barriers to opening a shop with fewer neon suppliers and materials than ever before.

“No one is going to hire a neon bender straight out of a neon school. I wouldn’t hire anyone without five years of experience,” he said.

For Monzel, training the next generation of benders is just too costly. Monzel said he can’t take on apprentices because of the liability, and there wouldn’t be enough interest to keep another school open. 

“The market wouldn’t support a batch of new kids coming up,” he said.

There are local programs, such as through the Minnesota Center for Glass Arts, that are taking on hobbyists, artists and other students to advance the medium. 

It’s programs like these that make Thompson optimistic there will be some benders to one day fill the demand. 

“When you think about neon, it’s been around for 100 years. There’s a million neon tubes out there, so there’s always going to be a market, but it keeps getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Monzel’s finished product, a custom interior neon sign, hangs in his Northeast Minneapolis shop.

Photos by Eric Best