Interview with Lite Brite Neon
Lite Brite Neon (www.litebriteneon.com) was founded in Brooklyn in 1999 when Matt Dilling set up shop to start producing custom neon lighting. Since its humble beginnings in Williamsburg, Lite Brite has helped create special lighting projects, installations, and couture displays for clients like Stella McCartney and Calvin Klein, and artists such as Keith Sonnier, Joseph Kosuth, and Julia Scher. The creations of Lite Brite have hung out at the Whitney Museum, the Dia Center for the Arts, and the Lever House. Some of the permanent work can be viewed at Rockefeller Center and the Coney Island Museum. This interview with Dilling and Lite Brite employee Cedar Mannan was conducted in March 2005 by Robert N. Casper and Leah Beeferman.
When did you start working with electricity, and with neon?
For as long as I remember, I've been fascinated with electricity—I asked for a birthday cake with a spark plug and outlet on top when I was three. In high school I got a job with an electrician who was a family friend. It was commercial work—the most interesting thing was bending conduit pipe to run wires through. At the time, my sister's art history teacher was taking a neon workshop with Craig Kraft—an artist who does a lot of body casting with neon. I thought that seemed really cool, so I took a workshop with him as well; afterwards, I worked with him and his wife at their neon shop during summers, and did a work-study program with them. I ended up going to art school and really not liking it—I spent most of my time digging through the trash at MIT.
What did you find there?
Pretty much the whole vacuum system—several vacuum pumps, variable transformers (or variacs), assorted glass manifold parts, lab glass, etc. Lots of oscilloscopes too. As a side note, MIT used to have a mailing list called firstname.lastname@example.org that I was able to subscribe to by making up an MIT-like e-mail address (I think it was Mit_Spaceprogram@hotmail.com or something like that). The list was amazing, with postings like "Space rover outside of space robots program free to the first taker, building 5xablm lower level." I also took glassblowing, design, and video classes at MIT—I said I was an exchange student, and brought in bogus Xeroxes on letterhead I snagged from the trash at my school. But that's another story all together.
When you went to art school, did you think you were going to be a "traditional" artist?.
No, it was always my intention to do neon. Working with neon is working with light, and I think everyone loves working with light. You're work¨ing with electricity, with fire, with hardware; you're really involved in a tactile process. I don't understand people who weld, because you have to wear all this gear. I like gear, but putting on gloves every time you make something seems like a complex process. And photography—I don't like working in the dark.
How does neon work?
We start with glass tubing from seven millimeters up to about twenty-five millimeters in size, and we heat them up with torches and bend them to whatever artwork or text we've been given. Then we seal two metal electrodes onto each end of that, with another piece of tubulation coming out to hook up and evacuate the contents of the tube. By heating up the tube with a high voltage current, we're able to excite any other particles in there and get them to release from the glass. We evacuate them with our vacuum pump, then we backfill the space with a little bit of inert gas. We heat that up and seal it off, then hook the electrodes up to a transformer, and it lights up as a tube.
The great thing about neon is it's all custom-made. Also, we have a wider variety of potential ways to use the light source, and more colors, more changes in diameter, than any other type of lighting available right now. People have their own references with neon—to architectural ele¨ments like cove lighting, or places like Times Square, or to a specific time period. When we put up the rainbow in Stella McCartney's store in the Meatpacking District, the sales person said, "You know Stella's really into this whole '80s aesthetic right now. It's pretty cool. I like the rainbow." And then we went out on the street and people were stopping and looking at the window. And they're like, "I just love how Stella's so into the '70s." Later on we talked to someone who said, "Oh, you made that giant rainbow? That's so West Village gay." And we said, "Okay—sure."
As long as it's a positive response!
t;Yeah, but you have to be careful in that regard, too. For instance, I won't tell clients the names for colors of neon, because people have strong responses. If you tell them the color they just picked out is lemon-yellow, they might say, "Oh no. I don't want lemon-yellow." It's the Benjamin Moore complex, where you end up asking yourself, "Do I really want my room painted charcoal or am I going to get depressed? I would much rather have it periwinkle." I think that's why people get into Pantone—you can refer to any color by a number, and it's so anonymous. And there's this whole interest in creating your own language with color and light. Apparently Calvin Klein has a Pantone chip of how much cream he wants in his coffee that he gives to people.
To read the rest of this interview, please click here to read the rest of JUBILAT 10