Neon lights are a sirens’ call, brightly advertising the likes of strip clubs, used cars and everything in between; Todd Sanders was captivated by the signs themselves as a boy growing up in Hunstville, Texas. Later, he began his creative career as a graphic designer and helped pay his way through college hand-painting signs (also experiencing a renaissance of sorts), but 20 years ago, a fateful trip to Austin, that iconoclastic hub of weird, gave him the nudge he needed to pursue his lifelong dream of mastering the noble gas.
"I apprenticed at [custom sign makers] Ion Art, but my real education came from finding the old masters of the '40s and '50s who were still around," Sanders tells Co.Design. He became an avid collector of Sign of the Times, tracking down almost every copy of the trade journal dating back to its debut in the 1920s; he also learned by closely studying physical artifacts, "reverse engineering" midcentury relics to suss out their unique construction and how they aged. "I pored over them, gleaning old tips and techniques that had been lost to time. I sort of felt like an urban archaeologist."
Now Sanders owns Roadhouse Relics, his own gallery. In an age when computers can streamline the creative process significantly, he remains staunchly analog in his approach. "Everything is done by hand, from scratch," he says. "Exactly the way they were in the 1940s." Each creation follows a pretty standard process, honed with decades of experience. First, a concept is sketched on grid vellum—"a lot of grid vellum"—and the motif is made into a transparency which is projected full-size onto a wall. Next comes the patterns: master, print, neon, metal, and mounting. In the end, sheet steel is spot-welded together and enhanced with touches of sign painters’ paint. Authentic neon hardware—made the same way it has been for some 70 years—holds the finished product together, and vinegars, scuffing pads, and a matte finish clear coat are applied to weather each piece.
Neon’s storied history runs the gamut from opulent theaters to divey joints, but the medium’s heritage and retro charm manages to capture the romance of the past with a nod toward the future. "It’s a celebration of what is great about us. The 1950s were a great era—tail fins, Route 66 and the post-war spirit—but we’ve made many strides since. Americana isn’t a dated term; it’s a modern concept."
Sanders has made many of his own modern classics now over the years, but none so memorable as the one with a very important question: Sarah will you marry me? "That one was a proposal to my girlfriend—now my wife," he says. "We met when she moved to Austin from Canada, and on her second day in town she came into my gallery and bought a neon TATTOOS art piece. I liked her so much I threw in the artist for free!"