On any given day along Tribeca’s White Street, you’ll find spellbound pedestrians gazing at a tangle of gas-filled, bent-glass tubes hanging outside Let There Be Neon, one of New York’s last surviving neon workshops.
Opened in 1972 as a means to make the medium more accessible, the shop is the go-to manufacturer for artists like Tracey Emin, Doug Wheeler, Philippe Parreno, and Martin Creed. Other items on the shop’s resume—from a pink truck-stop girl sign for The Sopranos to countless glowing and flickering BAR, PIZZA, and DINER signs for storefronts around the country—attest to the enduring influence of its late founder (and artist) Rudi Stern, who’s widely credited with reviving the craft of neon and revolutionizing its use in art and commerce.
While Stern trained as a painter with Hans Hofmann and Oskar Kokoschka, his primary medium was light. In the 1960s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in studio arts from Bard College and a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, Stern moved to Manhattan, where he created psychedelic light shows for rock outfits like The Byrds, The Doors, and Timothy Leary. He designed installations for artist Laurie Anderson, signs for Broadway shows, and, as an early advocate of video art, co-founded an experimental video and performance space called Global Village in 1969. Stern soon developed a fascination with vintage neon signs, and set his loft ablaze with electric relics.