Among the artisans and artists that populate Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood is a studio where they bend glass and electrify gas, creating glowing works that are on display at some of the most prominent institutions in New York City.
The Lite Brite Neon Studio was started by Matt Dilling in his dorm room in Boston, and opened at the Old American Can Factory near the Gowanus Canal in 2001. Following in the footsteps of no less a luminary than Nikola Tesla, who bent gas-filled glass tubes to spell the names of scientists at the 1893 World’s Fair, Dilling and a team of craftspeople create neon works for everyone from individual artists to large corporations.
Lite Brite signs are on display at places like Bergdorf Goodman’s, Tiffany & Co., and MoMa. The studio has worked with artists like Glenn Ligon and Keith Sonnier. In addition to creating new pieces, Lite Brite helps institutions preserve and restore their own older, often historic neon signs, which last 15 years on average, but have been known to glow longer.
The craftspeople at Lite Brite carefully bend heated glass by hand into whatever shape the project requires, then fill it with various combination of gasses, depending on the desired color—neon for orange, argon and mercury for blue, etc. Sometimes the glass itself is tinted. There are 50 distinct colors officially on offer, but the possibilities of what can be created by combining different gasses with different tints are endless. The final step is affixing a transformer to the piece. When the gas is electrified, the signature glow of the neon sign is made.
More than a workspace, the studio also serves as a kind of gallery, with neon rainbows and words displayed on the walls. Passers by on the street may notice “I Only Want You to Love Me” written in yellow neon in Lite Brite’s basement window. Dilling’s own first neon creation, a glowing squiggle he made in high school, is on display in the studio. He considers working with neon to be like writing or drawing with light.