Spotlight: Let There Be Neon

With Let There Be Neon (at 38 White) celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, I thought it was an excellent time to talk to owner Jeff Friedman (below, with Carl Ozehoski) and get the tour that I have always wanted. The place is a treasure trove of neon art, or art and neon, as well as a real working factory — one of the last of its kind in the neighborhood.

To mark the occasion, LTBN has commissioned work from five artists — Ivan Navarro, Curtis Kulig, Zoe Buckman, Hank Willis Thomas and Steve Powers — each of whom will produce an edition of 10. Stay tuned for more on that.

I was able to watch the sausage get made and chat with Jeff about the history, the highlights and what’s next in the world of custom neon. Short answer: the future is bright.

How did you get started in this business?
I started working here in 1977 right from Brooklyn College — I met Rudi Stern [who founded the company] through a mutual friend. I didn’t know anything – I just got thrown into it. Then in 1980 I got fired (that’s a great story for another time) and started my own thing and it went really well. A few years later Rudi and my relationship thawed and we merged companies and quickly thereafter I bought him out. He went on to pursue film and painting.

When did you open this store? Why here?
Rudi Stern opened the first store in 1972 on Prince and West Broadway — 451. We had two floors – the top floor as a gallery and the downstairs was the shop, and it was really tiny. I can’t believe we did what we did in that space, but you make it work.

In 1980 we took a space on Broadway and Broome that was a sub-basement but it was incredible and we put the shop in there. Rudi knew our time on West Broadway was limited and that rents would go up so he found this place in 1984. It had 15-foot ceilings, no columns, and it allowed us to have the glass shop in here and the basement for more fabrication work.

Obviously it’s different now. Baby Doll was on the corner, Exterminator Chili was next door, El Teddy’s was on West Broadway. But other than those places there were very few reasons to come down here if you didn’t live here. Coming down here on my little motor bike, once you crossed Houston Street, it was quiet all the way down to Canal and then White Street, forget it, There was nobody here, nothing.

What are you known for?
Let There Be Neon was definitely the first neon gallery ever and we were creating things that you now see every day. And when I say “we,” it’s a collective process — there were contemporary artists working with neon who predate us. But when you think of the neon palm tree, the neon heart — that all came out of Let There Be Neon in the ’70s. You would not see that now if not for our work.

Rudi in the ’60s did a lot of light projection shows – Filmore East, Tim Leary experiences or whatever they called them, and he loved neon. His concept was to buy old neon signs and resell them and to display them because he felt they were so beautiful.

His genius is that he realized he could offer people custom neon and not just for business but for the private person. He brought together creative people from different fields – carpenters, fine artists, plumbers, everybody and we created something new and fresh.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Every day is different – every project is different, I love the creative spirit of it, I love seeing a piece to fruition from somebody’s conceptual idea. I was a shop guy – I loved working with my hands and when I started here I discovered I could work with my hands. It’s such a beautiful thing to build something – it’s so gratifying.

What’s your most elaborate project?
We recently did this exterior art piece – a fire escape ladder in neon in San Francisco for a public art commission by Ivan Navarro. That was like a three-year project between conception, engineering, permitting – it was a big thing.

Any neon in your house?
I have a couple of pieces from artists.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot since you started. How have the changes affected your business?
My first real gut feeling about it even on White Street, and this is going back years, was when they put those huge tree planters on the sidewalk. I think the main goal was keeping trucks off the streets because they just bought a $5 million apartment.

We are a small business and we are trying to exist here, and now it’s impossible for us to even park our vehicle between the outdoor café things, which I agree with, but still. And the bigger problem is these people who work in the courts down the block and they have their own private vehicles with permits. My concern is someone who has a permit to use their private car – it’s just not cool. We got truck parking on the corner, and they just take these spots and you know no traffic officer is going to ticket them.

As a small business it’s really tough.

So how are the signs made?
We get the raw material from a warehouse. You heat the glass until its soft, then put it on the pattern to shape it. It gets processed with the gas and then sealed. There’s no filament, just electrodes at the ends that provide a charge and the molecules get all excited and that makes light. The gas is pure in the tube, and as long as it is vacuum sealed, it will never change. We have signs here that are 70 years old and have been on every day since they were made.

[See the video below with master glass bender Ed Skrypa crafting a sign for Sweetgreen.]

Tell me a good customer story.
I always tell the story of the neon sword swallower from Coney Island. He had us make him a red neon sword that was encased in a certain plastic tube so he could used it in his act. He demonstrated it on pick up. He did it and then he turned the switch on and you could see the glow through his chest – I am not kidding. He really really did.

We also did a “will you marry me sign” for someone and it would up being in a Modern Love column in The Times long after we did it, so that was bizarre. It turns out the guy who proposed asked the neighbor who lived across the street from his girlfriend to put the sign in the window. We made it on a panel so she could just prop it up.

There was also a famous story about how Howard Stern prevented a guy from jumping off the GW Bridge — he talked the guy down on the air, and that guy came in to the show later with a new lease on life. And he had us make a piece for Howard and gave it to him on the air. The best part of the story is Howard touched something and got shocked.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
For lunch you have your usuals – Tribeca Deli, Broadway Fancy but that closed, I try to avoid Chipotle – some of the guys go to Popeye’s Chicken on Lafayette, Saluggi’s is great, Spanish place on Church, they are phenomenal. Dinner of course is a whole different animal isn’t it? I was very skeptical but I really like going to the oyster bar at the Roxy and sitting there and having a drink and a light bite (we did all their neon and so it feels even better).

What does the future hold?
The future is bright, no pun intended. We didn’t know what was going on with covid for a while, but the business is healthy, we didn’t skip a beat, we are encouraged by what we are seeing, and the diversity of clients we have now gathered over the years — it really feels really good.

We don’t own the space unfortunately but we have great landlord who we love and I know we are great tenants. It’s always been easy, both sides have been fair. Hopefully that continues.



  1. Congrats to you for the many years of craftsmanship!
    I too have been making glass for 42 years now outside Philadelphia. It’s still what I love doing. Let’s keep it burning bright for all future generations to enjoy.

  2. They are best people and Rudi Stern very together and a good

    friend. Neon signs and Art are the Best. Survival in Tribeca

    neighborhood is not easy.

  3. LTBN has done an amazing service to those of us in the neon industry by working with artists, collectors,
    encouraging neon in the house/apartment, as well as on Madison Avenue and film.
    Here’s to another 50 years!

  4. anyone that shows neon interest – i recommend ‘let there be neon’, and ‘the new….’ and i have a couple of copies!

  5. Thanks for mentioning the late, great Rudi Stern. He popularized neon as an art form. I met him on my first assignment for the Soho Weekly News, and we stayed friends until his untimely death. You can see my photos of the West Broadway Gallery and the basement workshop at

  6. Congratulations from your neighbor at 281 Church (AST Sound).