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How the Tiny Spoon Keeps the Art of Neon Alive

Perry Pfister is Portland's neon mastermind.

By Claire Colby September 21, 2016 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Bar logos. “OPEN” signs. Bright green marijuana dispensary crosses. Neon, luminous signifier of big-city life, is hotter than ever. With a one-man operation called the Tiny Spoon, a New Orleans transplant has become Portland’s neon mastermind.

As Perry Pfister works from his NE Glisan Street studio, each project starts with a concept and a paper sketch. Then, Pfister bends super-heated, four-foot glass tubes into the shapes he wants. Next, he fuses electrodes to the ends, adding a drop of mercury. After cleaning this array, he connects the glass tubing to a pump that evacuates air and injects naturally red neon gas and naturally purple argon gas. As the argon mixes with the mercury, it turns a pale blue. Other designers use colored tubes lined with fluorescent powders to create different colors, but Pfister prefers to stick to clear tubes, which cost $0.75, compared to their $25 colored counterparts.

Pfister uses graffiti as his inspiration, a medium he says rarely blatantly spells anything out but makes an unmissable statement anyway. “The whole purpose of it is to say something really loud and proud,” Pfister says. “Put it in front of a lot of people and let them react to it.” 

Pfister finishes each unit with blackout paint to hide the electrodes before mounting the piece. In a heady period of success that includes work for Expatriate, Tender Loving Empire, and Sweedeedee, Pfister is just enjoying the ride.

“You bleed, you get burnt,” Pfister says. “But it’s been really validating. This is something that I can do for the rest of my life.”

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