Artkraft Strauss Collection

Artkraft Strauss

The objects in this collection evoke a brief moment, barely a century long, when Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World,” was defined by neon, that glorious and now almost extinct medium that for many years was the supersign’s soul.

Neon spectaculars, examples of which you will find in this auction, represent a golden age of handmade industrial artistry, lost now to digitalization and prefab vinyl displays, but of ever-growing interest, due not only to their rarity, but to their intrinsic character and beauty.

Neon’s mysterious power lies in its vibrating molecules of rare gases: non-physical, neon possesses hologram-like quality; each fragment of a neon sign seems to contain the image or spirit of the whole.

For many years, spectaculars delineated New York’s visual life, exhorting people to buy things and also telling them about themselves as Americans in a triumphal age. The signs work as both art and communication because they make an immediate real-time connection that is profound, intimate and exciting.

These objects also hold a special resonance for me. The company that made them, Artkraft Strauss, created nearly all of Times Square’s spectacular signs throughout the twentieth century, and has been under my family’s ownership and management for more than one hundred years.

An Artkraft Strauss neon sign. (p4A item # D9945117)

Starting in 1897 as Strauss Signs, a small, gaslight-era sign-painting and gold-leafing shop, the company was developed by my grandfather Jacob Starr, a metalworker, electrician and inventor who among other things constructed the first New Year’s Eve ball in 1907. The company’s success over the years is due to its ability to capture the public eye in a unique and unforgettable way.

Artkraft Strauss flourished in the incandescent-light age of the early twentieth century, saw the Square’s full flowering during the high-neon period of the fifties, and continued to light it past its rebirth in the early nineties after years of dilapidation. During that time the company was responsible for the Square’s (in fact, the world’s) greatest spectaculars – large-scale displays that combined eye-popping animation and other special effects with brilliant illumination. These included the Camel sign that puffed “real” smoke rings; the Budweiser Flying Eagle; the Kleenex display with “leaping” Little Lulu; and, perhaps most dazzling of all, the 90′s Coke bottle that tipped its own cap while emptying and filling itself one thousand times a day.

As public-space artifacts, the signs belonged to everybody. Now a selection of them, and related materials, will enter what I’m sure will be a charmed private life.

This reference note was written by Tama Starr, president of Artkraff Strauss, and originally appeared in the Freeman’s auction catalogue.

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