04 Sep Episode #1: Matt Dilling from Lite Brite Neon Studio
Today I’ll be talking to Matt Dilling founder of Lite Brite Neon Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Matt is also known as the “The Neon King of New York,” his fascination with electricity started at the early age of 3 when he asked for a chocolate outlet on his birthday. He worked as an electrician during his teenage years and got introduced to the art & craft of neon at an early age with Craig Craft in Washington DC.
I spoke with Matt about the early years of Lite Brite Neon Studio, how his spends part of his time as a biodynamic beekeeper and the lessons he has learned from his clients in all this years.
Be grounded in creativity. Don’t be afraid to nurture it, spend time with it, find your own way of expressing it, and really rest in it as a force that is important to us and to the world.
Words from Matt:
Visit Lite Brite Neon Studio:
Jennifer Dopazo: So, Matt, I understand that in your spare time you’re a biodynamic bee keeper extraordinaire. Can you tell me about that? What’s up with bees?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, I mean bees are amazing teachers. At Lite Brite we’ve really adopted them as our inspiration. The relationship between humans and bees has co-evolved over time to such a degree that we really rely on bees so much for our food. You know, 2/3 of the food that humans eat comes from the pollination of the honey bee. And they’re also obviously, as most people are aware of, really struggling in the current world situation that we have right now.
So our work with keeping honey bees and using biodynamics and permaculture and approaches that are more holistic is in some ways both an inspirational model for us at Lite Brite to approach what we do as a very holistic and integral process.
But also it’s just fascinating. I mean you look inside a beehive, you become aware of how much interconnected activity is happening at any given time, and how much it’s all related. The inside mirrors the outside. And honey bees are these incredible creatures of light. The worker bees’ gestation period is actually one full solar rotation. And the work that they do–I mean they pollinate flowers, they fly through the air. They have this real incredible relationship to light. And then they do all this work in the darkness of a hive. So there’s a lot there. I could go on.
Jennifer Dopazo: It’s nice to have that kind of like nature part in such an industrial setting and just, you know.
Matt Dilling: Yeah, and the honey bees themselves are a great example of like the way industry relates to the natural world. Like it’s an incredible factory going on inside a beehive. You have comb being built, you have foragers coming [00:02:00] back with pollen and nectar. You have all sorts of nurse bees taking care of the young. And at any given time you’re looking at a consciousness that is made up of anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000, in some cases even 60,000 different little beings all working together. That’s an incredible – just I mean it blows your mind to think about the interconnectedness relating through this industry. And then the way that it appears and transforms the world around us visually through flowers, through taste, through things that we can eat. And then also through the honey that they produce as well.
So there’s–it’s been said, I don’t know if this is exactly true: that humans and honey bees are the only two creatures who take more from the natural world than they need just to survive. And honey bees have co-evolved again with human consciousness to such a degree that they produce surplus honey. They in most cases will produce more honey in a colony than they need to survive.
So in the beehive at any given time there’s incredible industrial production going on. There’s comb being built, there’s young bees being cared for by nurse bees, there’s foragers coming back with pollen and nectar, there’s the processing of the nectar into honey. And then there’s the whole hive mind taking place. So there’s anywhere from 10, 20, 30, even 60,000 different individual creatures all with this unified field of consciousness that’s working together to transform the world around us, visually through flowers, through tastes, through foods that we eat, and also then through the honey that they produce.
And it’s been said–I don’t know whether or not it’s exactly true–that honey bees and humans are the only two creatures in the world that take more from their natural environment than they need just to survive and feed their young.
And so honey bees are really interesting creatures. A real inspiration.
Jennifer Dopazo: Does [00:04:00] that influence your work here at Lite Brite?
Matt Dilling: We’re definitely very influenced by the honey bee. Primarily through its work around field of consciousness and working in a unified field, not just internally in a beehive to support the development and evolution of the colony, but also as that relates to the external world around it. And the honey bee is very much tied through its work in its own colony to the larger work taking place in transforming in the world around us. So yeah, honey bees are a huge inspiration to us at Lite Brite.
Jennifer Dopazo: I read in an article that you’re known as the Neon King of New York. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit.
Matt Dilling: That’s a really funny thing. I don’t know, I would say that if anything we’re definitely inspired by the noble gases and the noble qualities of neon lighting. So I don’t know about a hierarchical situation, and it has a lot of various interpretations, but yeah, I’d say–you know, our goal in working with light and working producing neon objects, neon art, neon designs for people, is to a degree really working with the luminous noble qualities of our existence. And we hope to promote more of that, for everyone.
Jennifer Dopazo: At 3 years old, you mentioned in an interview that you were fascinated by electricity. And you asked for a chocolate outlet cake for your birthday. How did your parents feel about this?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, you know, I don’t really recall how they felt when I was 3 years old. But I guess–
Jennifer Dopazo: Are there any stories about it?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, the story that I know is that my mom had approached me and said, you know, what would you like on your birthday cake? And I said, a chocolate outlet and a chocolate plug. I was very fascinated by electricity from a young age, and drew a lot of my inspiration as a child from the way that energy and electricity were available to me in [00:06:00] the natural world. And the most common way it was available to a 3 year old was like outlets, you know. They’re everywhere. And all this magical stuff happens when you connect to them, when you plug into it. I mean just the whole world transforms, whether it’s a toaster or a television or–I mean electricity is so powerful in its potential. And that is inherently just a field of inspiration.
Jennifer Dopazo: At the time you became involved in the neon world, you had been working with an electrician, and then learning from artist, Craig Kraft. How did you go about working with him in his studio? How did this all happen?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, I took a few neon workshops with Craig Kraft when I was in high school. And I sort of–I don’t even remember how–I think I said I would work for free, or I just begged to get to come in. And I started by doing anything that anyone who starts at a place would do. I took out the garbage, I swept up, and I after work would spend time in the torches bending and working on neon.
And through my previous experience doing commercial electrical work I was actually able to provide a bit of a service, because I knew how to wire things, I knew some basic code. And so I think my services were a little more useful in that context than they might have been elsewhere. So they kept me around for a few years, and I was able to pick up and learn a tremendous amount from being in that environment.
Jennifer Dopazo: You mentioned in an interview, and I quote: “Through my time in art school I pulled the Neon Studio together with a significant amount of parts from the trash at MIT, and help from variety neon friends and artists.” What motivated you to do this?
Matt Dilling: God, you know, I was really motivated at the time when I was in art school. I didn’t have access to a neon studio, and I wanted to continue to work in neon. And what I did have access to at that time was the trash at MIT. It was a slightly different time than now, we didn’t have quite the security and security risks I guess. So they had a whole pile of trash all the time of old lab equipment that I’m sure companies donated and they no longer needed–vacuum pumps, Pyrex parts. And I was able to really cobble it together.
And really the primary motivation was to get to carry on the work that I did, and to help others do that work, to be introduced to it. At the time–as it is today, probably even more so than then, it was very hard to find a studio that would let you come in as an artist or not as a commercial client, and work or learn or make things. So that really what motivated my action in creating the Neon Studio initially.
Jennifer Dopazo: And your friends were already working with neon, or interested in it, or it was just–basically they followed you? How did that happen?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, I knew of a few studios. Namely a gentleman by the name of Tom Biebel in Atlantic City who helped me build my first manifold, and friends who were willing to go out and try really wacky this: what happens when we wire all this stuff together, can we like–you know. So at the time it was really–it’s art school, you know. You go out and you do weird and crazy things because you’re young and you don’t know any better. And maybe it’ll be amazing or maybe it’ll blow up, but you’re going to try it, right.
Jennifer Dopazo: Definitely. I love that. So, I found a great quote from you online. It says, “Neon lighting represents our nature as fragile, fleeting creatures. It’s often a [00:10:00] difficult, fragile and challenging medium, and as infinite beings having ineffable experiences.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Matt Dilling: Yeah. I mean that definitely reflects more my world view. But I would again just say it’s a bit–to use Aldous Huxley’s, it’s a perennialist view. Which is that it’s not really that challenging if you pause to realize how interconnected we all are. And at the same time, we’re all here as separate beings having this experience in sort of this world of duality. There’s quite a paradox there. There’s our identity as–as Alan Watts would say, as a skin-encapsulated ego. And then there’s our identity that’s greater than that. I mean, you know, how did you get in that body? Where did you come from?
So, neon is this incredible allegory to this paradoxical existence we have, where these tubes can be created out of a very fragile and temporary medium of glass, which even in the best circumstances is somewhat limited in its lifespan. And yet what we’re able to see through neon tubing is actually the process that’s taking place all around us at any given time, which is this eternal energy known as light. And it’s being transformed in this case from electricity, and we’ve harnessed it either from the sun or maybe through dinosaurs which were nurtured by the sun. So we’re really seeing the sun itself being illuminated through a gas that is produced by sun. Suns emit neon gas as they’re doing their whole astrophysical dance.
So while it is absolutely a step beyond sort of this [00:12:00] materialistic view of us being separate beings, it’s really pretty fundamentally our ground of being that we’re interconnected, that the separation of you and I is more illusionary than truth. And at least in my perspective, neon helps eliminate this.
And a wonderful inspiration for me is a piece by a dutch artist, where he tied all these cinder blocks suspended among–over top of all these fragile objects. So it was like a pile of light bulbs and a birthday cake, and they had a cinder block over it.
And you know, it relates to both to what we could just say is our impermanent nature, right. It’s so beautiful because it’s so transient and fleeting. And it’s joyful and sad. All of these things that we produce, all of these pieces, their life span is unknown, so in many ways they’re impermanent. And yet the light itself is absolutely transcendent.
Jennifer Dopazo: I love that. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your clients, working here?
Matt Dilling: I don’t know that I could sum up the lessons that I’ve learned from my clients into one biggest one. I frequently talk about that story of the 6 blind men and the elephant, and they’re all arguing over what is an elephant. Is it like a shower, is it like a dustpan, is it like an umbrella.
And in many ways all of our clients really help transform–I think if I had to reduce it to one thing, the biggest lesson I continue to learn and have learned from my clients is to keep opening my mind. You know, we are not always so aware of our own edges of [00:14:00] consciousness until people come and push on them.
And sometimes it’s our awareness of our own capacity or our own: well I can’t do that, or I don’t know how to do that. Well it turns out maybe you do. And the best way that I’ve found to learn that is by the teachers who come to us in the form of our clients, and they help change our view on the medium, change our view on our technique, change our view on the world around us.
So I would absolutely say that some of our best teachers have been our clients, and continue to be our teachers. And it’s been incredible to see how interconnected and interrelated their work is. Many of the artists we work with draw inspiration from fashion. Many of the fashion clients we work with draw their inspiration from the art. And we see this whole dance go on and on, where inspiration is drawn from one source, transformed, created, repackaged, recreated, and it goes on and on and on. And it’s an infinite source of creativity that transforms and manifests constantly in this dance of visual displays, in this dance of artist production, and in this dance of vernacular and language that’s constantly shifting in the world around us.
Jennifer Dopazo: You work with clients of different shapes and sizes? Was this planned? Which one of these groups of people were the first ones that you really wanted to work with?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, our company has grown very organically. We did a lot of artists’ fabrication because that was very exciting to us. And visual displays were also very exciting to us. So our first job in New York was doing lighting for a woman named Diane von Furstenberg who’s a fashion director.
And it led to other projects in that range.
But primarily we like [00:16:00] working with people who we feel inspired by. And that has been a number of visual artists, it’s been a number of people who work in different fields of the visual arts.
So that includes David Howey who’s the Visual Director of Bergdorf Goodman, we’ve been working with him for 15 years on wonderful projects.
Glen Ligon, who’s an artist whose studio happens to be in our building. And was walking by one day and decided to peek in. And I believe that was like in 2005. Since then he’s actually had a neon retrospective of his neon works. It’s phenomenal work.
And then there’s a number of more eccentric and esoteric and smaller projects that would be for people you’ve never heard of or you’ve never even seen but their projects are very dear to us. So we’re very much motivated by people who are inspired, people who are pushing the medium in creative ways, and people who are interested in the transcendental realm of light art and of luminous creations, and people who are helping transform the world in a way that is in the wavelength of the expression that we’re sort of emitting our energy in as well.
Jennifer Dopazo: So the project that they come with will be part of that inspiration and part of accepting them somehow as–
Matt Dilling: Absolutely. I like to see our clients as like gifts to us to help further along our own development of the work we do. And sometimes those are like kind of hidden, and you really have to broaden your lens to get what it is that’s in there. But more often than not, we’re very driven then by: well how can we make this, realize this project for this person, how can we take the sketches we’re being given or the bent clothes hangers [00:18:00] or the sketch on a napkin and create a show-stopping display out of it? So it’s a really exciting, exciting realm of what is this person going to give us that we have to work from.
Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. I want to talk about the line of lamps and chandeliers that you’ve created in your studio. These handcrafted lights are made to produce a warm, happy light that beats away the blues and banishes Seasonal Affective Disorder. What was the motivation behind these pieces, what made you want to create them?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, so our first fixture that we created in 2003 was a neon chandelier. And it was because we needed light in our office. We worked with neon, it was like what we had laying around. I just did this like sketch of a generic chandelier shape. It’s something I really love about neon is that it doesn’t take a lot of representation in order to convey the ineffable, that which you can’t convey through language. So this sketch of this chandelier was just very generic. There wasn’t a lot of flair to it.
Then we made it in 3D and hung it in the office. And somebody told me, hey there’s this new store–it was called the Future Perfect, it’s still around–you should sell your lamps in it.
I got in touch with David, who started that. And they started carrying them. And it was sort of one of those things you stumble into. We didn’t have a grand vision, it wasn’t like all planned out with–it just sort of happened organically.
And the same’s really been true as we’ve evolved over time. We’ve added and changed more fixtures. We’ve done fixtures with more tube inside the fixtures to give off more light for spaces that need more [00:20:00] light. We’ve played with the scale of them. And we’ve really worked a lot with various colors.
Because neon is this wonderful, very energy-efficient form of light. And if we view its sort of carbon footprint in terms of how long the life of the neon tubes are, you’ve got tubes that last 50, 60 years, you’re actually seeing a very efficient form of light. It’s somewhat cloaked in this like seedy, neon, wow, you know, it’s like it’s either offering me religion or sex or food, you know. So most people think of neon in this context. So it has this wonderful shadow quality to it.
There’s a Jungian named Robert Johnson who says it’s very curious people often resist their more noble qualities of their shadow. It’s more disturbing to find out you have this incredible noble nature than to discover that you’re a bum, you know. And neon’s the same way. People sort of have historically dismissed it as being the realm of old Times Square, or many of these things that you see–like there’s actually a lot of places that have banned neon because they want to identify as not being something that would have neon in it. Columbus Circle, when they rebuilt it they said, if you’re going to be a tenant here you cannot put neon in your windows. So people have a very strong reaction to it.
But, we also see people like James Turrell, who’s a Quaker and a artist who’s done a lot of work about the transcendence of light. Or Robert Irwin, another artist. People who work with light in terms of not necessarily the vernacular and the sort of cultural baggage people prescribe to it.
And quite frankly, I love both. I love that neon is about sex and food and the sacred and the profane, that it’s about the divine nature of our existence and it’s also about our desire for things, our attraction to things and the ineffitable quality of the world around us. So it’s very playful to me.
I feel like it’s like–in many traditions there’s a trickster. In many Islamic traditions there’s Mullah Nasrudin, as this guy who always rides his donkey backwards, and he’s always like helping people awaken to the limits of their perception. There’s a great Nasrudin story where he’s down at the lake–you know, these are stories from a while back, so–and his neighbor comes over and says, “Well, what are you doing, Nasrudin?” He says, “I’m putting yogurt into this lake so that the whole lake will turn into yogurt.” And his neighbor says, “Are you an idiot? That’s impossible.” And Nasrudin says, “I’m not an idiot, I know it’s impossible. But what if it works?”
And there is such wisdom there, right. We’ve created these contexts, these perimeter boxes around language, or around our identity, or around the identity of a medium like neon: this is what it means. But we also know that that’s not true. Part of us knows that that’s not true.
Jennifer Dopazo: When looking at your work, I can’t help myself to think about typography. How involved are you in the typeface choices for any product that a client comes with, if they don’t have a clear idea of what they want, or if they do come with an idea and you have some sort of opinion about it? What is your role in this kind of decision making and brainstorming somehow?
Matt Dilling: Yeah. We do a lot with typography, and we often do give feedback. I mean there’s a large number of cases where that’s not the case, and we’re either working with a set, we’re given a typography, we’re given a parameter. But in the cases where we’re not we [00:24:00] often–particularly with artists, work with people about: what are you wanting to convey, what’s inherent to the work you’re doing?
An artist we work with a lot named Glen Ligon does a lot that’s related to written text. The first work we made for him was taken from the writer Gertrude Stein, and it was this quote that said “The warm, broad glow of the Negro sunshine.” So its context was the written language, the written page. It had a historical tie to a certain time. And we showed him a number of typefaces, including American Typewriter, which is this classic typewriter font. And it really in that case resonated with him.
A more recent project we’ve been working on, we did with another artist, where they want something actually in Nikola Tesla’s handwriting. And they sort of pieced together these letters from Tesla’s written pages.
And we’ve done work for a wonderful artist who’s also my partner–got to say that in full discretion–named Erika deVries, where they’re in chi’s handwriting and people’s handwriting, because that translates then the energy that was put through the handwriting.
And Rudolf Steiner, the mystic and founder of the Anthrophosphy movement, used to talk about how we can really change ourselves by changing our handwriting. He also would say that the work of the soul is done through the hands, or expression through the hands.
So typography inherently carries with it a whole language of visual expression, even in the serifs and the boldness and the italicize. And whether it’s tied to our historical premise of our understanding, or to just a baseline emotional response to fonts, to letter forms, they are so nuanced and they’re rich. And when you put neon into the formation of them you can create whole, you know, whole realms of responses, just by ‘Why is that in that, I hate that typeface’ or ‘Oh my God I love that, I really want to eat that ice cream.’
So we love working with fonts. And we love working with the way that neon relates to typography, the way that translating something into a tube then transforms a letter.
Jennifer Dopazo: I read on your website that Lite Brite Neon Studio serves both as a resource for artists and designers, as well as a think tank problem-solving studio. Do you mind sharing with us a bit about that side of the studio?
Matt Dilling: Yeah, absolutely. When I started in neon it was very hard to find a studio, as I said earlier, that would let artists come in and do work. And we were very interested in growing the medium and its uses from our clients. So a lot of shops will not take on projects that they don’t have a background or a history in or understand. And oftentimes if someone comes to a studio with a powerful that’s not easily obtainable in a historical neon context, a studio will turn them away.
A founding principle of our studio was we wanted people to come with projects that would help challenge us, that we could problem solve and we could come up with creative solutions for. A great example of that being these tubes that we produce–originally for Burberry and then for Glen Ligon, where the fronts are sprayed out black, and they create this black front, back-lit neon tube.
And we’ve created a lot of projects over the years for people where our initial response when someone came in was like, ‘Oh my God, we have no idea how we’re going to do that.’ And rather than that being a reason for us to be like ‘go away’ we’re like ‘great, bring it on. We’re looking forward to how we can render this for you in neon.[00:28:00]’ How can we take the idea of Mount Rushmore in neon and turn it into a actual display? Or how can we further our own understanding of the medium? So one of our founding principles is really to help work with people in terms of developing new ideas, now approaches with the medium, and transforming various ideas that may not directly relate to what’s been done into something new.
Jennifer Dopazo: So there’s a side of collaborative, and just like co-creation process.
Matt Dilling: Absolutely.
Jennifer Dopazo: You’re completely open to like work with.
Matt Dilling: Yeah. And again, it’s we take a lot of inspiration from the bees. There’s such a collaborative dance between the bees and the flowers and pollination and cross-pollination. And we love that about working with artists, with fashion directors, with film directors. It’s a wonderful cross-pollinating culture.
Jennifer Dopazo: You don’t only work with neon lighting, you also offer vinyl plotting, CNC cutting, wood, metal, plastics and different materials. How did this happen? How did you just move from neon to these other materials?
Matt Dilling: So our company really grew organically. And as we had a need for a plotter because we couldn’t do all the templates by hand, we got a plotter. And because the studio’s always been based and employed by artists we’re so excited by these things that whenever we get a new tool we love to see what we can do with that, you know, what kind of great things can we come up with and create. And neon is by far our roots and our primary form of expression and inspiration, but we’ve absolutely loved what we’ve been able to explore both in support of neon, through CNC routing, through vinyl plotting, through laser cutting, through all sorts of materials coming together. And we’ve also been able to then transform. We cut templates with the CNC router, that we bend neon around, we use the vinyl plotter to [00:30:00] plot our neon templates.
There is a very, again like permaculture is the best analogy I can think of, but these various resources all are interconnected and relate to and intertwine in their support for each other. So over time as we’ve grown organically there have been various new shoots and new additions that have come into our sort of organism to help us in support of the creative work that we do.
Jennifer Dopazo: So, what’s your favorite project anecdote from an artist’s point of view?
Matt Dilling: Gosh. I think my favorite project anecdote was I was in a meeting one time with a visual director of a fashion company. And they wanted to do black neon. And at the time I had said, “We can’t do black neon, it’s against the laws of physics. Black is the abscence of light, neon is inherently light.” And she looked at me and said, “I don’t care about the laws of physics, our color scheme is like over 100 years old, you have to do this.” And it was such a great response. My, you know, witty comeback was, “If you don’t care about the laws of physics, we’ll just go back through time and change your color scheme.” But of course what we ended up doing was spraying those tubes black, and it led to a great innovation. And that’s really, you know, when we hit our edge, like I don’t know how to do that, or it’s not possible, often there’s a opening that’s about to take place, if we can stay with it. So that was a real lesson there, to stick with it and to find the opening, you know, that may not relate to Newtonian, Cartesian worldview, but may relate to like a creative, interpretative process.
Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. So how will you make history today?
Matt Dilling: I have no idea. It’s a really good question. And I would say from–the only thing that I have come to learn in the time I’ve been creating things is that history’s very retrospect. And the best thing you can do is [00:32:00] do what’s inspiring you in your daily practice. And you don’t know when it’s going–the butterfly wings that change the world, right–we don’t know what actions we do today that are going to transform our world. So by being present for what we have on hand, we’re taking care of the future. And that’s really our motivation, or sort of what we go back to.
Jennifer Dopazo: Thank you, Matt. This has been amazing, and truly inspirational. So I just have a final question, for any curious mind that is listening to you today. It’s about you giving advice, 3 things that you can just give to anyone to basically build this–what I’d like to call creative courage, which is just what would you like to suggest them to do, or what would be your like 3 advices for them?
Matt Dilling: Yeah. I mean the first and foremost is that it’s–creativity is inherently a very strong practice. And we all have various ways of tapping into it. And whether you grew up in the East or in the West or in the States or wherever, there’s not as much support for it as I believe could be manifested in the world. So the first thing I’d say is be grounded in creativity. Don’t be afraid to nurture it, spend time with it, find your own way of expressing it, and really rest in it as a force that is important to us and to the world.
And the second thing I would say is to follow your inspiration, to stay with what resonates with you as truth, to explore, and to go beyond the boundaries that other people have set place historically. They’re usually the places people got to, it wasn’t the end of the road, it just is where they left it.
And then the third and most [00:34:00] important thing is to make it a practice and to just stick with it. Not with the expectation for any kind of outcome. And in my own life, in my own practice I’ve learned that so much comes organically through the process. And if you watch the natural world you can see how important that is. Rather than being focused on any kind of results, being awake for the transformation that takes place every day is pretty great.
Jennifer Dopazo: Wonderful.
Matt Dilling: Thank you.
Jennifer Dopazo: Love it. Thank you.