Where I Work: Inside Let There Be Neon, the 46-year-old Tribeca workshop that revived neon arts

December 6, 2017

Owner Jeff Friedman works on a neon snowflake for a holiday display that went up in Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue flagship store

6sqft’s series “Where I Work” takes us into the studios, offices, and off-beat workspaces of New Yorkers across the city. In this installment, we’re touring the Tribeca showroom and studio of Let There Be Neon, an international supplier and creator of custom neon for signage and artistic applications. 

Back in the early ’70s, neon had gone out of fashion, with cheaper fluorescent-lit and plastic signs taking over after World War II. But multimedia artist Rudi Stern was determined to revive the art and make it more accessible. He opened a showroom studio, Let There Be Neon, in 1972 on West Broadway and Prince Street in Soho, and soon attracted a client roster of artists including Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He even outfitted Studio 54! By 1990, he’d moved to a charming brick storefront at 38 White Street in Tribeca and sold the business to his long-time friend and employee Jeff Friedman.

Rudi Stern sadly passed away in 2006, but he would be happy to see the legacy that Friedman has maintained and how wildly successful the business is today. Not only does their client list still include a long list of contemporary artists, but they’re the go-to sign restorers and recreators for classic NYC mom-and-pop businesses such as Russ & Daughters and Trash & Vaudeville, and Old Town Bar, and do projects with national companies like WeWork, Soul Cycle, and Uniqlo. 6sqft recently paid Let There Be Neon a visit to see their incredible fabrication work and chat more with Jeff Friedman about the art of neon.

The front of the space acts as the showroom, with pieces from past projects, collectibles, and items up for rent.

Rudi Stern was born in 1936 in New Haven, Connecticut. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in studio art from Bard College in 1958 and a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1960. He then moved to New York City and spent the next decade creating psychedelic light shows for the likes of Timothy Leary, The Byrds, and The Doors. Stern was so enamored with light arts that he named his daughter Lumiere!

Since Stern’s time, Let There Be Neon has definitely amassed a huge commercial project list, but they’ve remained true to their roots. For one, the storefront is visible to the street and open to the public, which Jeff says part of the company’s “organic being.” He also ceases to be amazed by “how many people smile when they walk through the door and take a look around.”

Employees bend glass tubing according to sketches that a special computer program prints out.

The company has also continued working on installations with artists, including Tracy Emin, Martin Creed, and Doug Wheeler. Graffiti artist Curtis Kulig turns to them for neon versions of his “Love Me” tag, and in 2001 they fabricated Ugo Rondinone’s “Hell Yes!” piece for the New Museum’s facade. They’re currently working on a neon bar for Iván Navarro, which Jeff says “will be a beautiful and functional piece for a private residence.”

One of the most striking displays in the studio is Jeff’s clock collection. “Every clock has its own story. I love working on them. I love bringing them back to life. It’s great to find old broken clocks-because we can fix them and they are cheaper!”

Downstairs, fabricator Mark Humphreys applies blackout paint to the lettering for the Uniqlo installation. The flowers are for another project. 

Why has neon remained so popular all these years? For one it doesn’t burn out. “There’s no filament inside,” explains Jeff. “We have some pieces [that are] 60, 70 years old that are on every day and they’re still working.” There’s also the nostalgia factor and the trend for businesses to create a “vintage” or “bespoke” aesthetic. While Jeff appreciates this “recent appreciation for artisanal handmade goods,” he also thinks it’s kind of funny since it’s all he and the neon community has ever known.

What’s the most interesting project Jeff has ever worked on? “The Coney Island sword swallower takes the prize. Yes, a neon sword swallower. And he demonstrated when he picked his piece up.”


© All images taken by James and Karla Murray exclusively for 6sqft

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Location: Tribeca

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  1. F

    I’m one of the people who walks in and smiles every time; I’m a dogwalker in the area, and occasionally bring my pups in to look around. (Naturally, I’ve bought a couple of Let There Be Neon T-shirts over the years.)

  2. M

    What a fantastic story with such good detail. Thank you Dana Schulz. And what a perfect pairing to have photos by James and Karla Murray. It’s visually dazzling!