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Visitors to The Neon Museum often take notice of the striking mosaic behind the reception desk. Few, if any, know the story of the extraordinary man who designed it, Ben Mayer, an artist and accomplished amateur astronomer. 

The colorfully tiled art piece in The Neon Museum Visitors’ Center displays just one of the multi-talented Mayer’s many skills.  Born in Germany and educated in England, he spoke five languages.  In 1949, Mayer immigrated to Los Angeles, where he became a successful designer, astronomer, photographer, inventor and author.

la concha lobby with mosaic on wall from classic las vegas

La Concha lobby, 1960s, Classic Las Vegas

Mayer founded Ben Mayer Design, Inc., which produced work for theaters and casinos, as well as government and commercial buildings. Among the firm’s projects were murals for the Norwalk, California Library, police station and Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Norwalk Library Mosaic by Ben Mayer

Norwalk Library Mosaic on view since 1969, HistoryLosAngeles

To Protect and to Serve mosaic 1977 by Ben Mayer, Los Angeles Central Police Station

To Protect and to Serve mosaic 1977 by Ben Mayer, Los Angeles Central Police Station, You-Are-Here.com

Mayer’s collaboration with architect Paul Revere Williams included not only the La Concha Motel lobby but Bank of America branches in Long Beach and Van Nuys, California.

Ben Mayer and Millard Sheets Studio for Paul Revere Williams, Bank of America, Van Nuys, 1965.

Ben Mayer and Millard Sheets Studio for Paul Revere Williams, Bank of America, Van Nuys on view since 1965, Adam Arenson

According to historian Dorothy Wright, Mayer also designed the original logo for La Concha. The logo appeared on matchbookspostcards and even the carpet in the lobby.

Interior of La Concha Motel lobby

His financial success as an artist allowed Mayer to pursue his true passion. He placed his son in charge of the design firm and dedicated the rest of his life to astronomy.

Mayer’s career as an “amateur” astronomer would be the envy of many professionals.  For Mayer, being an amateur was not a handicap: 

“To me, the word amateur, which stems from the word amore, from the word love, is a delightful word and I think no place is it better used than astronomy, where the amateur since the beginning of time has done truly meaningful and useful work because he or she observes with no prejudice because he has no brownie points to rack up. He doesn’t have to give a paper on Monday. He is a lover—he does it for love.”  

Ben Mayer at his observatory with his Celestron 14

Ben Mayer at his observatory with his Celestron 14, Polaris Observatory Association

While attempting to record a meteor shower in 1975, he accidentally took the first series of photographs to capture a nova (an exploding star) from beginning to end.  He accomplished this feat using homemade equipment which he later patented and then donated to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.  He was also the first person to produce a complete set of color photographs of a collection of an astronomical phenomenon called the Messier galactic objects.

Ben Mayer Gallery of Messier Objects, Polaris Observatory Association

Ben Mayer Gallery of Messier Objects, Polaris Observatory Association

Mayer’s ingenuity led to many inventions that made astronomy accessible to a wider audience.  Starting with only a coat hanger and plastic wrap, he developed hand-held aids for stargazing.

Mayer was also a prodigious author.  He wrote numerous articles and four books on astronomy, including “The Cambridge Astronomy Guide” with William Liller.

For his contributions to the field, Mayer received the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Achievement Award in 1982 and an asteroid is named in his honor. Mayer died in Los Angeles in 2000. 

Ben Mayer image from Envel Design

Ben Mayer, Envel Design

Ben Mayer reminds us that spectacular displays of light can take many forms.  In his words: “Go out some night…to a dark-sky location and look at the heavens. It’s like a sky filled with diamonds spread out on a velvet black cloth—and anybody can play in this sandbox filled with diamonds.”

la concha shell transparent bkgnd

Additional links: 

Astronomical Photography by Ben Mayer

Problicom Sky Survey, Ben Mayer’s amateur astronomical organization

Ben Mayer Design, Inc. and its subsidiaries and affiliates  

Marquee for the National Theater in New York’s Times Square

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