A dying art; neon bending with Dani Bonnet

“Vicious wolves, pink panthers and cowboy kitties.”

Neon lights played a vital part in Hong Kong’s skyrises, New York’s streets and LA’s nightlife. Crowned as nocturnal architecture, the demand for neon in the 1950s skyrocketed due to the gas filled tubes blasting colour and attracting people to restaurants, bars or clubs in a similar way to a bug and a light. However, the once thriving industry has dimmed to a dull glow in the past few decades. With the shift of digital advertisement and cheaper alternatives, neon’s sole purpose became rivalled and although the trade held potential, competitors started to outranked neon’s alluring glow.

Cue Danielle Bonnet. A neon apprentice in LA whipping up vicious wolves, pink panthers and cowboy kitties. With mentor, Juan Ortega occasionally helping on larger projects, Dani works solo creating commissioned masterpieces. As neon makes its well-due comeback and its original services of advertisement shifts to marvelling in neon creativity, Dani and I talk about what led her to pursue neon bending.

Okay, before neon, I’m curious, what came first. The photography or cosmetics?

I always wanted to go to college for art. I asked my mum and she said —“If you want me to pay for it, you have to do biochemistry”. It was a pretty good deal that I couldn’t refuse so I studied biochemistry. During my summers, I would get an internship in a cosmetic lab, formulating cosmetic products was interesting. It’s just like baking or cooking, believe it or not. 

It seems like a very complex procedure though?

Instead of sugar, you work with chemicals haha. 

Wild.

Yeah, so I ended knowing all this cosmetic chemistry knowledge and I decided to make my own line of cosmetics starting with lip balms.

I feel like there would be a lot of freedom having your own cosmetics line. So when do your lip balms products start?

Oh man, it must’ve been around 2015, maybe new 2016. I don’t think I really approached it with best business structure. For me, I just wanted to make it, it was like art. It was really hard to maintain and I kinda have stopped a bit but it have a comeback, who knows.

Did you try to keep your ingredients natural?

The lip balms I formulated were 100% natural. That was my goal, excluding the colouring. There’s no way you’re able to get a bright red without chemicals. It’s really funny how ingredients for the cosmetics industry are constantly changing so often as someone will post a blog saying something is really bad for you and no offence to those people but most of them no data to back themselves with, it’s just a feeling they have haha. 

It’s almost like a trend. They revolve a statement around one fact and stick with only that. 

They are. It was interesting formulating shampoo or lotions because all of a sudden something would be bad in the public so you would have to really quickly change the formula completely. Even though it wasn’t so bad haha. Some ingredients are pretty bad and there is data to back it but a lot of the times, it’s like pseudoscience which is pretty interesting. 

When I was young, I use to have this book called Grossology. I remember it saying shampoo or I think it was lipsticks included crushed insect wings. Is that true?

In lipstick, it gives a shine to it. A natural shimmer haha. I think some people still use it. 

I guess it’s better to source materials from the world, might as well try and keep it as natural as you can. 

Yeah, you know, why not a bug.

So after the cosmetics, what was next?

I always wanted to take weird pictures and photoshop as a I was little. It’s actually pretty interesting how I got my dream camera, I had graduated college and was looking for jobs everywhere. I just said ‘fuck it’ and applied for all jobs and see what happens. I pulled one up and this job said — “athletic position, can you ride a bike, can you walk, can you run?”. Luckily, I could do all those things haha it was my calling. I get a call at 7am and they ended up hiring me straight away. They gave me a plane ticket to San Fransisco for later that day and a place to stay. Yeah, so it moved really fast and I talked to my mum saying I got a job and I couldn’t even really say what job it was, all I knew is that it was an athletic position. I go and get picked up from the airport in this really nice car and I’m like — ‘okay okay, this is good.”. They take me too the Apple HQ. For a month, I ran 5 km everyday all around San Fransisco doing product testing for Apple. After the month, I went home with a lot of money and I decided to buy my dream camera, a Canon 5D Mark III. Financially dumb but a great move.

Why this specific camera?

It takes exceptional low light photos, that’s actually how I got into taking photos of neon signs everywhere. I fell in love with how they showed up in photos and I guess that’s when I decided to make my own neon, starting a whole other adventure. 

How did you learn to create neon?

I have a mentor, it’s almost impossible to learn the bending by yourself. For the bending part, he helps me or if I don’t have enough time or skill, I’ll source jobs to him that I know I can’t do entirely. Most of it, I am completely by myself though. People message me on Instagram and together, we figure out what they want, if I can do it and pricing.

Is it a bit of an old world process?

Every single neon sign besides some beer sign moulds in China are handmade. The process for it is so laborious it’s almost crazy. It takes so many hours to make each and every piece, blowing the glass is only one step. First, you have to design it, I’m pretty picky so it takes me a while. You translate the design to glass and make all the glass pieces and then fill it up with gas and seal it off. You have to block out all the parts you don’t want to show with paint. Then, you have drill like a million holes haha it’s fun though and finally wire it all up to form a perfect circuit at the proper amount of volts. Hopefully, you plug it in and turns on straight away. 

Has it not turned on when you plugged it in?

With the complicated ones, all the time. I just did this wolf, it was very detailed and I thought I had enough transformers. I had to wire black and white electrical cords on five transformers all together so there was like a big wad of wires and I when I turned it on, nothing happened haha. In neon, every single line is so much work so you have to really think about it before you do anything. 

I’ve looked at your portfolio on your website and you tend to lean towards bright, luxurious lifestyle but it also has this darker depth to it. It could just be the classic contrast of neon and the dark but I feel like designs you choose almost compliments neon dark and light tone. 

The ones on my website, atleast the majority of them are my art and ideas that I wanted to make. It’s interesting how you described it because I never really think of it collectively. It’s more like I have an idea that I think is quite clever or might look really good and then designing to see if I can execute that and translate it into neon. 

 They all kind of flow together.

Oh, well that’s good to hear. I actually kind of worry about that sometimes, I don’t really know if I have a unique style yet and I’m trying to figure out if I can achieve that. But then, I might be thinking too much. 

I think most artists are always pushing their style and their limitations. What’s been a favourite challenge to date?

Probably the pink panther. For me, that was really pushing myself and saying “I wanna make something really big and crazy” but is also my own to see if I can do it. I did that about a year ago and now I feel like every single project is like at the same skill level haha. 

What is the process of a commission piece?

First thing is I need to make sure the person is committed to buying a neon sign, so I’ll tell them a rough price range. All the time, people want neon but found out how much they are and think it’s too expensive. I think a lot of people don’t realise how extensive it all is and how many hours it takes. Even the transformers are extensive, it’s crazy. You can’t get neon for cheap, no matter what you do. 

Do you think a lot of people get confused with neon and LED?

LED is my worst and biggest enemy. 

https://www.danibart.com/

Cover and inset by Dani Bonnet

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