From Leo to Leo. Plain and simple. The father has transmitted the son his passion and his skills in the almost unknown 'métier' of manufacturing one of the most fashionable objects today: neon tubes. Formerly reserved to bad reputation places, today it is called “light architecture” and it glows in the most hipster spaces of most great cities. In Barcelona, Leo’s works light up the urban landscape, from Teatre Lliure to Casa Bonay hotel, and even Arts Santa Mónica.
What do you do, exactly?
I’m a neon man at Luminosos Villoro, a family workshop opened by my father in 1970 to manufacture neon tubes for business premises sign boards. Back then this activity did not have the artistic dimension it has today. During the last few years neon boomed in art, architecture and interior design and this forced the appearance of “cooler” names. For example, some days ago someone said to me “You are a lighter”. I was so surprised that I took some time to understand the meaning.
Are there many people who know how to work with neon?
In Spain we are not many – maybe a dozen people. This is not something that can be manufactured at an industrial scale: it is a craft and every piece is unique. You must blow glass and model it with your hands. It is a rather hard and precise work, and with the exception of some countries where it is a Fine Arts subject, it is not taught anywhere.
How did you learn it?
I grew up in my father’s workshop, and when I turned 18 I started to closely observe my father’s gestures and doings. One day he let me give it a try, and things developed from there. As happens with all handicrafts, you have to give it time, patience and, in this particular case, a lot of shattered glass. Until one day, suddenly, you succeed with the first curvature…
You have been working for two decades now – how has your work changed?
Nowadays it is well recognised and has attained the category of art. Previously I was just another worker, with a somewhat strange profession, and my clients were shops, restaurants and pick-up joints who requested the typical pink-coloured letters. Now they are telling me that I am an artist and I get orders from museums, architects and interior designers… Neon is an artistic piece but at the same time it continues to be a functional element – that facet has not been lost. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I like to think that the city is an open-air museum full of light creations that add beauty, colour and fun to the environment.
You must have shaped many kilometres of neon...
When I walk the streets, all the time I see pieces made at our workshop: letters, abstract shapes, 3D, drawings… Since neon is extremely long-lived, if treated with care, I even recognise some of my father’s creations, objects he made when he was younger. Knowing that our neon signs exist all around the world is flattering – business premises, art galleries, exhibitions and even private homes…
And also in many emblematic spots of Barcelona...
We have hung our pieces at Teatre Lliure. Arts Santa Mònica, Casa Bonay hotel, historical shops as the late Vinçon, symbolic buildings outlined by means of the installation of a cold cathode system (a technique that permits to highlight the architectonic features of the buildings)… Somehow, we have participated in the city’s light architecture.
Your home is surely full of neon signs.
Is this a profession or a vocation?
“The shoemaker's son always goes barefoot”. At home there is only one of my neon signs, and only since a comparatively short time. If it was up to me it would be bursting with them. It is a fascinating handicraft and I value the complexity of its manufacture.
Both. I earn my living with what I love to do. When I travel, the streets full of neon signs thrill me even more, and if possible I try to speak with the local neonmen because each of them has his own style and you can be inspired by what is done abroad. One of my most valued objects, from the emotional viewpoint, is a neon sign that reads “no vacancy” given to me by a neonman in the course of a trip along Route 66 in the USA. In my own city, Barcelona, I am acquainted with almost all its neon signs. In fact, when I make an appointment with somebody it is not at a crossroads or at a given building, but under such-and-such neon sign.