Light It Up With KEMP London

TOAST chats to Steve Earle of leading bespoke neon specialists KEMP London about the growing popularity of neon

No we’re not talking about Christmas lights, we’re talking about the biggest lighting trend of the decade – neon. TOAST takes a look at this sensational style of signage and artistic installation with Steve Earle – MD of leading bespoke neon specialists KEMP London.

Nothing quite beats an eye-catching neon light radiating serious style and panache at any party or event. Neon lighting adds instant flair, a focal point and some serious wow factor too, and whilst you might think that this type of lighting is a relatively modern invention, leading neon specialists KEMP London is in fact London’s oldest signmaking company.

Kemp London - or C.Kemp signs as we were known back in the 19th century - was actually established back in 1868 by Charles Kemp, a master sign writer who looked after the sign writing requirements of many of the major institutions within the square mile of the City of London” explains KEMP London’s MD Steve Earle.

“We ventured into the world of neon manufacture back in the early 1930’s making some of London’s earliest neon signs. The amazing thing is the technology used in the manufacture of neon has changed little since it’s invention back in 1910”

Neon experienced huge popularity in the 80’s with bright, colouful designs illuminating cocktail bars, restaurants and other commercial venues across the world. Over the past decade it’s safe to say that it’s made a considerably cool comeback – not just commercially, but neon glow has doused some of the coolest venues, galleries and private events we’ve seen in recent years.

“The popularity of neon has gone full circle from a lull in the early 2000’s when LED technology was just starting to take off and neon was being specified less and less by architects and designers, a lot of the neon glass shops in that period began to disappear” explains Steve.

“Then we hit this period from 2005 when all of a sudden neon began making major inroads into the world of art with the likes of Tracey Emin and Lauren Baker producing neon statement pieces, and that helped send the popularity of neon sky high once again”

Best In You KEMP London

Bon Voyage KEMP London

Steve himself started out in the in the sign industry back in 1986 as an apprentice poster writer, later moving on to screen printing and stencil cutting before discovering his niche in the world of neon design and illuminated signs. The last century and a half have seen KEMP evolve from traditional sign making origins to becoming a leading creative studio; their reputation and the quality of their work has meant they are now the go-to for the very best neon in town. Their client list reads like a who’s who and boasts names such as Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Nike, Nokia, and Britpop band Blur, to name just a few. Projects range from neon signs and illuminated art for prestigious private events and cutting edge product launches to creating incredible bespoke creations for film and TV, sets for photo shoots, music videos and bespoke neon lighting for concerts too.

“For me the most memorable neons we created were for an advertising campaign for the iconic Fiat 500, we made in excess of 75 neons for Fiat which were rolled out in a series of TV adverts and on billboards across the UK!” enthuses Steve.

Mens Health KEMP

Hello Sunshine Fiat

KEMP London Flag

“In 2012 we were also commissioned by the London Olympics Arts and Culture authority to produce some large scale art pieces in collaboration with the artist Steven Raw. These pieces can still be seen in the Queen Elizabeth park today” he adds proudly.

“But my favourite has to be the huge ‘Poppyland’ neon we made for the recent film ‘Kingsmen, The Golden Circle’ directed by Matthew Vaughn

Steve and his team are currently working on another big feature film which, according to Steve, requires ‘a mind boggling amount of neon signs’ for a set depicting downtown Tokyo, but due to confidentiality clauses he can’t tell me any more than that, no matter what bribes I offer. Having said all that – it’s not just big budget movies and super swish music vids that get the KEMP treatment – Steve and his team can also expertly create a personal piece for your home or something special for a big event you might be planning - turning whatever vision you might have into glowing neon reality. They also have a selection of pre-made neons to choose from, too.

“Without a doubt there is nothing as impressive as an illuminated neon piece to bring impact to an event. We recently manufactured some 6’ angel wings and a halo that guests were able to stand in front of for photos” Steve enthuses.  

“Quite often with private commissions a client may bring in a sheet of A4 paper with perhaps just a few lines of text written by their children for example – we can then translate that into a glass drawing that we can then bend the glass from” he explains.

“You never know what is going to come through the door - whether it’s being asked to produce a neon to display at the top of the Shard or collaborating with artists to bring their artistic vision into neon reality - the variety of work never ceases to amaze me. There is never a dull moment in this trade!”

And to keep things suitably interesting, KEMP are currently in the process of manufacturing more faux neon props – a new product that emits the same light intensity as neon but has the advantage of being far more robust. And speaking of props – that is yet another string to KEMP’s bow; they have a vast collection of neon signage, props, unique salvage and vintage pieces available for hire. The range of neon signs is staggering, from flamingos and flying pigs to giant crosses, guitars, snowflakes and so much more. Their quirky, unique props range from retro barber chairs and patterned coffins to vintage lockers, anatomy models and more. It’s basically a one-stop shop for adding instant wow factor to any venue or event.

“Our 1960’s Cadillac bumper car is an amazing prop that always bring a smile to everyone’s faces, and we also have a fully restored Waltzer, which is great for sitting in with friends” explains Steve.

“The sourcing of the props is not just a job - for me it’s all about the hunt and finding these really unique items no matter what condition they may be in, and then working out how we can restore or re-purpose them, bringing them back to life”

KEMP Unilever Tomorrow Glows

MM Store Kemp London


KEMP London’s catalogue of amazing props and neons can be found online and also in their treasure trove-esque Dalston prop gallery in East London, but as Steve is so obviously passionate about the business I can’t help but wonder if any of his amazing props finds bypass the business and end up making their way into his home….

“Unfortunately my wife does quite often describe me as a hoarder” he laughs.

“I suppose this may have something to do with my obsession with collecting vintage neons, fairground horses and enamel signs!”

Sounds like the coolest house in town to me. Next year KEMP London celebrates a whopping 150 years of business, and long may they shine.

Kemp London I Still Reach For You

KEMP London Neon

KEMP London Park Royal Neon


If you’d like to work with KEMP London you can find more information on their page in TOAST’s Little Black Book

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