Davidson apprenticed with Jim Williams, an old-time sign man. "Neon is an absolute art," Williams preached in his southern drawl while rotating glass in the fires. Increasingly drawn to that art, Davidson scavenged Florida and New Orleans in search of neon relics and lore.
On returning to his native Philadelphia in 1979 (with '59 Chevy piled high with tubing), Davidson began to unearth his hometown's magical neon history--one that complemented the roadside neon version he had learned down South.
He sought out the few remaining tube benders who could describe Philadelphia's once spectacular, but rapidly vanishing, neon heritage. Soaking up their tales, Davidson began to photograph neglected treasures-on-the-street.
'59 Cadillac Convertible, 1993
Len soon set up shop: Davidson Neon would produce new neon while the Neon Museum of Philadelphia would preserve the old. A bar in Florida led to a passion in Philadelphia--and escape from academia!
(For more history, see References and Museum below.)
2. Architecture and Lighting
Neon can set off a building's features or express its function. For over 25 years, Davidson has collaborated with architects, designers and building owners to bring excitement to architectural space. This might entail highlighting roof lines, or accenting soffits, staircases, entryways, coves, ceilings, etc.
For instance, Davidson hung large interlocking neon diamonds from a reflective aluminum ceiling at the Philadelphia IBM Building parking garage to mark elevator locations and provide a dramatic gateway to the offices above.
Innovative signage can also turn a building into a landmark, expressing the history or function of the structure. A pair of 16-foot long Packard cars literally stopped traffic when they were installed in the Packard Building lobby on Broad Street. These "Best-of-Philly" sculptures, produced in conjunction with Bower Lewis Thrower, Architects, have become local icons and hearken back to the building's former use as a Packard showroom.
IBM Garage, 1989
Packard Sedan, 1986
Other examples abound: neon griffin logos atop the information desk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (in collaboration with Venturi Architects); ruby red geometric soffits and hung neon reflecting a circular staircase at the Marketplace Interior Design Center; cove lighting at Penn Mutual's Bistro Below cafeteria.
Bensalem Aquarium, 1995
Davidson's work can be seen in businesses of all types, from the largest corporations to corner mom-and-pop stores. The shops along Philadelphia's South Street are so aglow with Len Davidson's creations that in 1983 the South Street Star christened him The Man Who Neonized South Street.
Keith's Red Snapper, 1990
|Len Davidson's Zipperhead logo has become a nationally known, frequently photographed image. Though pictorial neon has become a dying art in the sign industry, Davidson still goes out of his way to integrate images into many of his signs.|
A stroll along South Street introduces the diversity of Davidson's work: neon waves on mirrors at CopaBanana; funky camel and sunset logo at Alyan's; a neon girl in a cocktail glass at Jim's Steaks; abstract neon ceiling at TLA Video; purple neon backlighting stainless letters at XOG; Peter Max style interior at Bangles and Beads--to name just a few.
In many commercial applications, Davidson utilizes other materials in conjunction with neon. Materials that reflect and play with light--stainless steel, anodized and diamond plate aluminum, glass block, Plexiglas and mirrors--are favorites, as well as more common vinyl backings.
Siam Cuisine Mythological Figure, 1991
Vega Grill on stainless, copper, and glass, 1996
Alma de Cuba, channel letters, 2001
The Kibitz Room, channel letters, 2009
Just To Travel, 2002
The mermaid's tail is an eye-catching sensation. Often, the aim with animated signs is to create a landmark that customers will respond to and remember. The 42' long neon on stainless spectacular at the Trolley Car Diner has dazzled patrons from the day in 2000 that its neon trolley's wheels started turning, its stop light changed color, and its doors opened revealing driver and passenger. It is common for passersby to take pictures of the sign. This 5-point animated sign is the first such neon extravaganza constructed in Philadelphia in over 40 years. It has brought a huge amount of publicity to the diner.
Neon can also be installed atop metal, vinyl, or painted backings to accentuate sign information when the neon is off or when sunlight makes the tubing less intense. For instance, neon is mounted over a vinyl digital print on the double sided Groben's Seafood sign. The digital print adds detail and fills in the areas outlined by the neon. Similarly, the neon letters in the Just To Travel sign (above) are backed with cut out aluminum letters.
Animated Trolley Car Diner, 2000
Groben's Seafood, 2004
By choosing a soft palette and utilizing dimmers, neon can be used in a variety of ways in the home. Figural sculptures of all types--carrots in the kitchen, baseball player in a child's room, fish by the swimming pool, skyline in a den--have enhanced the look of hundreds of homes. Architectural and abstract designs are also popular, ranging from orchid lighting on the underside of a railing, to turquoise and purple waves behind a glass block bar, and multi-colored geometric abstraction along a hallway.
As with all installations, but particularly in homes, extreme care is taken to hide wires and hardware for the cleanest possible look.
Philadelphia Skyline, 1992
5. Neon in Colleges, Schools and Libraries
Academic settings are increasingly utilizing neon for showcasing architecture and brightening signage. Neon can add pizzazz to cafeterias, bookstores, dorms and other public spaces. When applied to sculpture, neon's infinite forms and electric hues can produce campus landmarks that are bold or whimsical, funky or elegant. Academic projects include:
Davidson Neon would love to bring their design skills to your campus. Working together, the creative possibilities are limitless...
6. Art & Dumpster Diving
Roots and Culture
|Len Davidson's neon sculptures range from abstract and pictorial drawings in light, to fanciful constructions that integrate neon with found objects (such as giant spoons and forks, trash from Lemon Hill Park, tree stumps, and eyeglasses). Davidson is a founder of the Dumpster Divers, a collective of artists and creative misfits who are "saving" Philadelphia via recycling junk into art.|
Davidson's sculptures have been exhibited locally and collected nationally. His pieces are stimulated by dreams, outsider art, and monthly Dumpster Diver meetings, as well as commissions. In conjunction with fellow Divers Charlie Szoradi and John Huss, his 18-foot high animated Liberty Bell Flower was a focal point of the 1995 Philadelphia Flower Show. A Tower of Babel dream led to a Plexiglas and 3 color neon Tower of Babel construction with an emerald green neon snake twisting through the tower.
Liberty Bell Flower, 1995
Tower of Babel, 1990
7. Gift Pieces
Figural pieces are very popular: golf icons for the sports fan, hippos for the animal lover, soup pots for the cook, 1957 Chevys for the car nut. Names in neon and abstract designs can also light up a loved one's birthday, graduation, or holiday.
More elaborate pieces are also readily available and are only limited by one's imagination. For instance, a large animated scuba diver with moving flippers was commissioned as a birthday present by a woman for her scuba diving spouse.
Davidson restores old signs for businesses and collectors. Dozens of rare neon clocks, neon on porcelain spectaculars, and graphic window signs have been rehabbed to their former beauty. We also purchase or trade for historic neon to display in the Neon Museum of Philadelphia collection (see icon below).
Three of our most renowned restorations are the Giles and Ransome 1947 animated Bulldozer in Bensalem, PA, the huge, 1940s Reading Terminal Market sign and the marquee of the 50's era Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pa., famous for the cult movie "The Blob." All three restorations brought spectacular neon icons back to life, and continue to generate local and national publicity for their owners.
Giles & Ransome Bulldozer, restored in 1999
Colonial Theater, restored in 2002
Reading Terminal Market, restored in 2006
We have also done pro bono restorations for signs so enticing they just had to be restored. For instance, The Club Bali's woman in a cocktail glass holds another glass, and was the logo for a bar based on the show "South Pacific." This 60+ year old sign had fallen into disrepair. Davidson screeched on his brakes when he discovered its remains, sought out the owner (who didn't want to pay to fix it), and ended up fixing it for free.
1950s Club Bali, restored in 1986
Davidson later met the retired sign man who made Club Bali's sign. A fabulous sign to Davidson, the retiree recalled it as "an average job" for the 50s, and went on to describe much more brilliant masterpieces. Such was the mesmerizing quality of the pictorial signs of yesteryear. Thus it is all the more important that the few remaining examples be saved. See Vintage Neon Book.