The first time Matt Dilling noticed neon lighting was in Pottersville, a honky-tonk future vision of the village portrayed in the film “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“They show what happens when the hero wasn’t born,” said Dilling. “It’s all blinking neon signs. It’s not good.”
Fortunately, his early fascination with electricity eventually led him to see neon as an art form and to launch the internationally recognized Lite Brite Neon company in Brooklyn and Kingston.
His parents encouraged his interest from an young age.
Left: Erika DeVries, Infinite Capacity, 2010; right: Kate Spade, 2012
“When I was three years old, my mom asked me what I wanted on my birthday cake and I wanted an outlet and a plug. It was a chocolate plug.”
In high school, Dilling apprenticed with an electrician, then began working with a neon artist named Craig Kraft. He became fascinated by the neon creation process, in which electricity excites electrons away from neon gas atoms to release photons or light.
“It’s really the only way of creating light completely from the ground up. With neon you literally take inert elements that are non-reactive and then create visually stunning displays. It’s a really exciting medium.”
After attending some art school, Dilling began fabricating neon pieces and, in 1999, moved to Brooklyn, where he founded Lite Brite Neon and still has a showroom today. The business was so successful that he soon needed a bigger space. In 2013, he moved to Kingston, and opened the manufacturing part of his business in 2017. Not only did Kingston satisfy the need for more space, but it provided him the chance to hire the right employees, something which proved to be a challenge in Brooklyn.
“Most of the people we hire come from art school or are makers and those people aren’t in the city as much anymore because they can’t afford to live there. Brooklyn has changed tremendously. In 1999, there was lots of potential and you could still afford to rent there.”
Agnes Denes, The Human Arument IV – Light Matrix, 1987-2010
The company’s 15,000-square-foot building in Kingston, which also houses the coffee shop Outdated Lite, creates everything from nostalgic bar signs that would suit Pottersville to existential works of art that hang in museums around the world.
The Brooklyn-based showroom remains open and caters largely to television and film production companies who rent from their large stock of ready signs.
“We do a lot of scenic work for the film industry. We have a whole category of rental inventory, because that’s usually very last-minute. They want to pick up something tonight for a film tomorrow. If you watch Law and Order, you’ve seen our signs. They rented a bunch of stuff when they shot the Jim Jarmusch film up here this summer.”
Dilling has created neon pieces that range from the mundane to the fantastic. One of the largest might be I Am, a piece inspired by Vedic philosophy and installed in the California desert for the artist Tavara Strachan. The size of two football fields, it’s blasted into the desert floor and powered by a generator. The company also created a rainbow light fixture for clothing designer Stella McCartney, as well as a series of neon signs for the W Hotel in Washington, D.C. Dilling has done several collaborations with David Hoey, the window designer behind the iconic, ornate Bergdorf Goodman window displays.
Lite Brite Neon also does restoration work and recently revived a piece by the artist Chryssa that will be shown at Dia:Beacon.
AV AF, Arms Viable and Fast, 2013
One of Dilling’s favorite creations is by artist Erika DeVries, his partner, who he met when she asked him to design a piece that says, “Our infinite capacity to love.” DeVries and Dilling also created the piece “Somewhere” that is shown in an alleyway on Kingston’s Crown Street. Other Kingston creations include signs for eateries Lis, Village Coffee and Goods, Kovo, and Outdated Lite, as well as for Zaborski’s Emporium antique shop (the “Kingston” sign is Dilling’s work).
In the Kingston factory, work ranges in scale from the design and shaping of tubes to building and painting frames as backing, plus creating the shipping enclosures that preserve these delicate works of art as they are shipped to Shanghai, Australia, Los Angeles, and Paris.
The factory is also home to Cygnet’s Way, a community space that Dilling and DeVries created to host events ranging from lunchtime yoga classes to neon workshops.
On his website, Dilling says neon can reveal mystical truths. The quote was inspired by a statement by artist Bruce Nauman, who is now showing at MOMA.
“It’s taken from a 1968 piece of his, where he says the true artists helps the world by revealing mystic truths. It was a tongue-in-cheek piece when he was making it. For me this whole process is taking the invisible and making it visible. We’re working with inert elements that surround us all the time and by transforming them so that they relate energetically, they become luminous. It’s not New Age metaphysics, it’s actually just physics. The process really does take darkness and create light from it.”