Photos by Kelly Leahy
Ah, Las Vegas—love it or hate it, no one ever left the place unimpressed by the spectacle of The Strip’s neon fantasies. The first legendary casinos were built in the late 1940s by unlikely partnerships of Mormon banks and organized crime, laundering money to create the American Mecca of gambling. Googie architecture trends of the time took hold in futuristic styles featuring hand-drawn type treatments on a huge scale, among many other abstract design details. What is it about the Stardust’s angular letterforms of irregular thickness that make us think of rocket ships and robots? Or the Sahara’s rounded, top-heavy characters resting on two camels that evoke an exotic Moroccan casbah? What would Claude Garamond, master 16th century typographer, think of these fonts?
The Stardust resort and casino featured what was one of the most ambitious, high-wattage, gaudy, and original neon signage ever created for its time, and I vaguely remember seeing it in its glory, probably in the late 70s. My bad snapshots are long gone, but I was recently delighted to learn that many of the iconic signs from The Strip were saved after the decaying casinos were demolished. Thanks to The Neon Museum a neon sign boneyard in Las Vegas, one can book a tour a month in advance to pay homage to these junctures of design exuberance and kitsch. I haven’t been to the boneyard but it’s now on my list of destinations. What an overload of design inspiration it will be, although most of my clients are not “this type.”
I understand the boneyard is not limited to typographical signage but includes animals and figures made from curved tubes and gas that once flashed brilliant colors in the dark. After that 70’s visit, we flew out at night and I looked down at a cluster of bright shimmering jewel lights isolated in an ocean of black desert, thinking I’d never return. I did—once for business and once to see a dying friend, but now it will be to visit my friend Kelly and the boneyard.
What fun it must have been to make up these fonts on paper when it was whimsical and new. But I’m not sure I need that Stardust font badly enough to spend hours looking for it on Google Fonts—it will be so much more spectacular in gigantic 3-d physical form.