Bending Air and Light into Works of Art
We’re whiffs away from the Gowanus Canal and in the basement of an old can factory. Inside, Lite Brite Neon Studio keeps a trance-inducing tradition alive.
Neon sign-making is a timeless trade. The illuminated markers adorn bars, restaurants, and streets, defining iconic commercial districts with their buzz. These signs remain unfaded fixtures of our modern urban landscapes.
Matt Dilling, the owner of Lite Brite Neon Studio, opened up shop in 1999. Today they are based in Kingston, New York with a showroom in Gowanus, where we visited. At the Studio, we found ourselves submerged in a luminescent rainbow of cowboy hats, hearts, and other neon signs, all of which were made by hand. A former electrician apprentice, Dilling took his love for light and turned it into an electric empire. Behind us, a neon fly sits on the wall.
“Everything is still done the same way it was done 25 years ago when I learned the craft,” May Herskovitz, a long-time Studio employee, says. “There’s no technology that can speed the hands-on process up. It wouldn’t be the same if there was.”
Down the electrified rabbit hole we go.
Neon signs can take anywhere from one week to several months to produce. The team takes digital renderings and prints them out to-scale in order to determine where to bend and blow the glass. From there, they bend the glass on boiling sticks at a casual 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, they fill the glass tubes with a range of chemical properties, which, when paired with an electric current, produces that neon glow.
“A lot of people don’t realize that neon really just creates shades of red and orange,” Herskovitz tells us. “All the other colors you see in those signs are made with properties like krypton and argon and phosphor powder.”
Eat your heart out, CMYK.
Projects range from installations in the middle of the Californian desert to window displays for Bergdorf Goodman. Although many of their requests today come from big-name brands, the team has a lifetime of out-of-the-ordinary jobs to share with us.
“We’ve done it all,” says Herskovitz as she pulls up a video of her team working at the Musée d’Orsay. “We installed these signs above 10,000-year-old Parisian statues… no pressure, right?”
Next up is a 2023 installation at San Francisco International Airport for artist Andrew Bowers. It will use quotes from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California who now has a terminal named after him. The piece is titled “We’ve got to give them hope”—good advice that we could all use right now.
Signs at the Brooklyn showroom come from all over: stores, photo shoots, movie sets.
We don’t need a sign to tell us why the crew at Lite Brite love what they do. It’s all over their walls and faces. For them, this work isn’t all selfie moments; it’s a selfless movement transforming the streets from bland to bedazzled through time-honored tradition.