MOORHEAD - The future looks pretty bright for Chris Orth.
The Moorhead craftsman’s Fireline Neon Company has carved out a niche repairing and building neon signs for Fargo-Moorhead area customers.
Along the way, he’s earned glowing praise.
“He helped us with making our beacon of hope, our ice cream cone,” glow once again, said Jessica Malvin, co-owner of Tastee-Freez.
Orth saw how badly damaged the sign was and offered to repair it, she said Tuesday, Sept. 24
Now, it’s “a shining light to get us through our construction and a way for people to see us from far away,” Malvin said. “It’s beautiful work that he does. We’ve gotten quite a few compliments on it.”
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Orth also did a neon re-envisioning of the Rourke Art Museum’s logo, installed on the west side of the museum.
“We love it. We’ve had a long relationship with neon art at the Rourke,” museum Executive Director and Curator Jonathan Rutter said Wednesday, Sept. 25. “We’ve been thrilled with it.”
Rutter said Orth’s neon artwork was so respected that he was asked to join the museum’s board of directors earlier this summer.
“We’re fans of Chris,” Rutter said.
Orth’s work has been cropping up in some popular places in the F-M area the last few years: Junkyard Brewing in Moorhead and Young Blood Coffee in downtown Fargo also claim some of his retro glow.
Perhaps the most striking creation is the recently installed retro-look BernBaum’s sign for the deli on Broadway.
“BernBaum’s is one of the first really big commercial exterior pieces I’ve done. Which I’d like to see a lot more of those. I’m taking steps to make those a lot easier for me in the future as far as getting more space to work,” the 39-year-old said recently.
The 16-foot sign was a tight fit in the first-floor fabrication area of his shop space, which is now taken up with an outdoor sign that advertised NuBar, a former Valley City bar.
“Tastee Freez is great high profile example of kind of an on-site restoration,” Orth said.
The Rourke’s abstract logo is “pretty high profile, high visibility. Junkyard was the first one I did as my company. Young Blood has a nice script inside,” he said. “They’re kind of scattered around.”
The second floor of his work area is where tubing is bent and other work to built or repair signs takes place. The room with its neat shelves of glass tubing and specialized torches is a barfly’s heaven, as light from a half dozen neon signs adds a warm glow to the space.
“Lately, I’ve been getting a number of small repairs,” he said of the bar signs, which can run from $150 to $350 to repair. “I was surprised how much demand there was.”
Larger commercial pieces and window signs may run $650 to $1,200.
Still, compared to other custom signage, Orth says neon holds its own on cost.
“It’s very, very competitive. It’s got that kind of eyeballs per dollar kind of thing. It’s pretty striking,” he said.
A winding road
Orth grew up in Fargo and graduated from North High School.
From there, he started learning how to fabricate neon signs in a program at M State Detroit Lakes, Minn. Though he notes, with a little shake of his head, that the now popular LED lights for commercial signage hit the market two years after he graduated.
He jokes that M State was a good indicator his career wouldn’t follow a linear path.
He had first enrolled to study engineering at North Dakota State University.
“But at the last minute, I ran off to the tech school - the professional equivalent of running off to join the circus. It worked for me. I really needed to find a career path that was a lot more creative and working with my hands. And I’ve managed to do that,” Orth said.
He did a brief apprenticeship in Buffalo, N.Y., doing neon work, before working a couple years in a sign shop in Eau Claire, Wisc. He moved back to the Fargo-Moorhead area and did stained glass restoration, then some building management.
He spent a summer in Alaska before moving to Massachusetts for a couple years, learning to master sheet-metal shaping in an auto fabrication shop that specialized in making panels for Jaguars.
“The metalworking skills that I got there allowed me to get back into the sign industry,” Orth said.
Back in Fargo, he started at Cook Sign Co., which was taken over a few years later (2009) by Indigo Sign. He worked with Indigo until about three years ago, when he switched gears to work as a product manager for a software firm. He also picked up a business certificate at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
He also worked part-time on neon projects as he could. It was four months ago that he decided to start Fireline.
“I look back at where I started and where I ended up, and it really kind of feels like I had this plan all along. The pieces all fit in. It makes sense. It’s not something that I necessarily set out to do from the get-go, but the way things kind of worked out, it’s worked out pretty nicely,” Orth said.
‘A flow to the glass’
Orth is attracted to both the art and craft of neon.
“There’s a flow to the glass, it’s kind of a liquid thing and a rhythm that you get into with it. I’m drawn to that. At the same time, you’re working with metals and things like that. It takes a lot more work to find that level of zen that you get from the glass sometimes,” Orth said.
He’s also immersed himself in the study of light.
“I’m a little bit of a light fanatic, and almost a light snob,” he said. ‘When I work on a piece, I try to blend the different colors, so that when they average out in a space, it doesn’t come out looking like this green glow that taken over the entire room.”
He looks to create a subtle, white/off white glow throughout a room
“If you’ve ever walked into a place that has one neon light that’s green or blue, it’s kind of overwhelming,” Orth said. But in a space “where you’ve got a bunch of different colors, it average out” and becomes more pleasant.
Growing the glow
Orth has hit a tricky plateau. He’s getting more work, but he’s not convinced he can rent a bigger space on his own..
To solve that problem, he’s looking to join with other creative and small business people in a shared space to keep costs down while he ramps up production.
Eventually, he’d like to hire help, and perhaps take on apprentices as he grows Fireline. After all, many of the masters of neon are retired or at the end of their careers, he said.
“There’s only one of me. Hopefully I can find a Chris, Jr.,” he said.
“I don’t want to see the skills die. It can take 10 years before you get really good at doing it. So training somebody in isn’t something you can do in a few months,” Orth said.
“I think that’s part of the reason a lot of the sign companies moved away from neon. They lost the person that knew how to do it. At the same time, they had a new lighting technique (LEDs) that they could train someone how to work with in an afternoon,” Orth said.
Orth said he has good relations with Indigo and other sign firms, if only because he supplies expertise they don’t have for some jobs.
“The sign industry has gone one way, I took it another way. The competition isn’t as fierce as one might expect,” he said, though that could change if he gets more of the larger jobs now being done by established firms.
And that could start happening sooner than later.
Neon is enjoying a resurgence, he said.
“There’s a lot of people asking for it, that are interested in it,” Orth said.
“It’s really a good, long-lasting sign option. It’s absolutely a good, long-lasting time-tested quality product that has a unique feel. It’s just a very high impact,” he said. “When you choose neon, it’s really making a statement. It’s like bringing a little bit of the atmosphere that you have inside your establishment to the outside.”
The medium has a historic, retro feel, that can lend a bit “of a legacy to a new business,” he said. And it works well in spaces that have been designed with recycled materials or industrial-style features.
“The neon is right at home in those kinds of environments, I think the light can just kind of pull everything together,” Orth said.
But the best part of neon work is seeing the finished product, he said.
“With any other signage medium, you’re putting words on a wall, and that’s kind of where they stay. With this, that glow just kind of fills the space. And it really changes the atmosphere of the space quite a bit. I love that,” Orth said.
And he hopes more people fall in love with that look, too.
“People that enjoy neon are also just really interesting people in general. People that appreciate it, I like knowing those kind of people.”
Orth can be reached through the Fireline website at www.firelineneon.com or through the Fireline Neon Company Facebook page.