December 6, 2017
By Peter Saunders
Gérald Collard, a 40-year veteran of neon lighting and glass art, has collaborated on projects ranging from commercial neon signs to advertising campaigns to album art to light structures for stage and film sets. Today, he continues to serve a niche market for neon art from his Montreal design studio, dubbed ‘Neon Family,’ in an old industrial building across from the Lachine Canal.
“I have a very simple shop and it’s fabulous because I am passionate about the work,” he says. “I don’t know how long the current resurgence in neon’s popularity will last, but we’re getting lots of jobs and our clients love what we do.”
Inspired by illumination
Collard grew up in Sherbrooke, Que., where his interest in neon lighting was sparked by the large, luminous cross on Mont Bellevue. He began his career in a local sign shop before moving at the age of 20 to Montreal, where he knocked on the door of Claude Neon—a well-established manufacturer named after Georges Claude, the French engineer and chemist who commercialized neon tube lighting in the early 1900s—and asked for work.
“That was 40 years ago, when Claude Neon was the exclusive manufacturer of neon signs using patented technology,” he explains. “I worked with them for three years, learning from the old-timers.”
Shortly thereafter, Claude Neon was acquired by Pattison Sign Group.
“I took that opportunity to start up a new, small shop called MLS Manufacturing, with my business partner, Paul Sicotte,” Collard says. “We built miles and miles of lighting systems for disco mirror balls, flashing lamps and signs.”
After that business closed in 1992, Collard went back to working for other local sign companies. He also started to teach neon classes at Espace Verre, a prestigious specialty glass school in Montreal.
“People came from all over the world for those classes,” he says. “We helped them go on to open their own neon and glass shops throughout Quebec and Ontario. I’ve worked at the school for 25 years and I continue to teach glass-blowing techniques there today.”
Old technology, new studio
Three years ago, following a nearly fatal bout with cancer, Collard established Neon Family, serving as president alongside his sister Lucie and his daughter Gabrielle.
“I had a new chance for life, so for the first time in my career, I opened my own shop,” he says. “It was a very good decision. We have so much fun!”
As co-ordinator, Lucie is the first point of contact for clients, discussing the specifics of each job with them before defining the terms of the contract.
“There’s a lot to figure out at that stage,” says Collard, “such as where the neon will be installed and how it will be supported. Lucie gets all of those questions answered before we start production.”
Gabrielle, meanwhile, serves as sales director, which involves promoting the business through social media—including Facebook and Instagram—and responding to new client inquiries that also arrive via the Internet.
“She’s the social media expert,” says Collard. “We also have an artistic director, Stephane Gimbert, and a lead designer, Five Eight. I handle production and then work with our installer, Marcel Tremblay.”
Collard works with old burners, much as neon shops used in the 1920s.
“Nothing has really changed in the fabrication of neon tube lighting,” he says. “We have the same old vacuum pump, too.”
An artistic resurgence
Most of Neon Family’s work is custom interior neon signage for restaurants, where customers enjoy taking selfies with the distinctive lettering.
“I started in a very different phase of neon’s evolution,” says Collard. “A lot of Montreal’s older signs had been left to deteriorate and basically served as toilets for pigeons, but then neon came back in style in the 1970s with disco and the ’80s with Miami Vice. Today, it’s back again, but in a more artistic way. With these smaller projects, we can put more time into them, so their design looks good even up close.”
Their clients also include office buildings, design firms and media production houses.
“Exposed neon lettering is part of their decor and branding,” Collard explains. “We do some channel letters too, but those mostly use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) now.”
There is less call for outdoor neon signage, due in part to heavier restrictions imposed by local regulations and bylaws, but also to Montreal’s bitterly cold winters.
“Mercury in glass tubes doesn’t like the cold,” says Collard. “In the ’50s, there were maintenance trucks on the road all the time to keep the neon signs going, but that’s not the case today. Outside, LEDs are getting all of the work.”
Continuing a legacy
As mentioned, Collard also continues to educate the next generation of neon glass tube benders.
“I’ve been training a few guys to work with us,” he explains. “It’s a slow process. This isn’t high-tech, it’s from the Industrial Age. They’re not autonomous just yet, but when they are, we’ll be able to take on more projects. I’m getting old and can’t do everything anymore!”
Taking an active approach to training is especially important in a niche field. There aren’t many other neon shops still operating in Montreal.
“I’m also not too aware of opportunities in the broader sign industry, because our focus is so specific,” he says. “Fortunately, in our market, people are aware of my experience and that has brought credibility to Neon Family. You might say we’re known for our savoir-faire!”
For more information, visit www.neonfamily.com.
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