Monday, May 19, 2014

Luminous Advertising Sketches

One of the great relics of the neon era is a book of design suggestions for neon shops called "Illuminated Advertising Sketches," by Philip DiLemme.  First published in 1935, the book offers an incredible trove of art deco commercial design and midcentury lettering.  


Like the authors of architectural pattern books in the nineteenth century, DiLemme intended to influence and improve the work of his colleagues in the sign business.  The book ran in several editions; it was re-printed under the title "American Streamline" in the 1970s, and has been referenced by just about every latter-day retrospective of the American neon business, including my book New York Neon.

Remarkable as DiLemme's sketchbook is, it remains unclear just how influential it actually was, and little is known of DiLemme himself.  In promotional spots for his book, DiLemme described himself as "one of New York's leading electrical advertising sketch artists."  He does not appear to have run his own sign company, at least not in New York.  He may have worked as a hired gun, and likely belonged to Local 230 of the Sign Pictorial & Display Union, as many neon sign designers in New York did during this period.  But surely sign makers in New York and elsewhere lifted his designs from the pages of his Advertising Sketches, with varying degrees of interpretation.  

The Coliseum Theatre, formerly on 4th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, featured in Signs of the Times Magazine, October 1935 (ST Media Group, used with permission)

Photographic evidence survives of at least one example of DiLemme's work in New York: the neon marquee of the Coliseum Theatre, formerly on Fourth Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  DiLemme's design for the Coliseum marquee shows up in his book in Plate No. 10, drawn to advertise a (probably fictitious) "Harlem Theatre," which may or may not have been actually fabricated.  Signs of the Times magazine tells us that the Coliseum sign was produced by the S&E Electric Sign Co.  It used 1,000 feet of neon tubing and forty transformers. 

(DiLemme, Luminous Advertising Sketches)

The Coliseum marquee is long gone, but another, more prominent theater marquee of identical design survived until somewhat recently at the former Metro (ex-Midtown) Theatre on the Upper West Side, albeit in altered form.  Although there is no documentation to confirm that this was indeed a DiLemme sign, old photos show that the two marquees were clearly based on Plate No. 10.


The Midtown Theatre's original marquee was installed by the United Signs Corp., which also installed the neon marquees at Radio City Music Hall.  The design appears to be DiLemme's. (

Meanwhile, out in Staten Island, one last bit of DiLemme's handwork survives in the unlikeliest of places.  Unlikely, that is, because the fifth borough has precious little in the way of old neon.  But hanging over the old storefront of Mom's Liquors on Richmond Terrace, one finds the only remaining sign left in New York that seems to have come out of DiLemme's sketchbook. The details of the two designs aren't quite a perfect match, but close enough.  Could this have been the work of DiLemme himself?  Or is it just an inspired interpretation?  

Mom's Liquors, 2045 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island. (Photo by Paul Shaw)

(DiLemme, Luminous Advertising Sketches)


 By way of Bowery Boogie: some new neon deposed from Pulino's on Houston St.
 Also by way of BB - everyone's favorite Russ & Daughters sign on Houston St now has a twin down on Orchard.


  1. What an awesome piece! Love that book and love your post!

  2. I realize this is an older post, but I wanted to say "Thank You" for representing my grandfather so well with your post. The post states little is know about Philip Di Lemme; however, my father and I can answer any questions that you have. Feel free to contact me at Thanks again!