In 2004, Time Out Magazine dubbed Matt Dilling “The Neon King of New York.” The title has stuck ever since. For Matt, his interest in lighting stems from an innate curiosity for how things work and interconnect. “When I was a kid, I used to play with screwdrivers and take stuff apart. I don’t know what attracted me to it; I’ve just always enjoyed tinkering,” he says, illuminated by the soft glow of the neon lights that surround him.
Lite Brite began in 1998 as an experimental neon studio in Washington D.C. “I pulled the studio together from junk that was being thrown away at MIT. They had really good trash,” he recalls. After moving to New York a year later, Matt quickly fell into producing design-driven projects for A-list clients in fashion and the arts. Eighteen years later, he’s become the go-to for unusual and highly creative neon projects, and has worked with brands such as Apple, DKNY, Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Tiffany’s, Hermès, Nike, and J.Crew.
But Matt is relatively unfazed by the celebrity of his clients. He takes a spiritual approach to business and creativity, and sees them as parts of a greater whole rather than opposing forces. “Having a business is a very spiritual practice. You’re manifesting something into the world.”
Entering the Lite Brite Neon studio is like being let in on a secret. It’s too fantastical to be real, too hyper colored to be familiar, too sensational to be imaginable. The hue of each room shifts depending on where you stand: a soothing magenta, a vibrating orange, a calming purple. There are signs from bygone eras, reels of electrical cording, walls of glass tubing, flaming torches of every size, and the most spectacular collection of neon art you could wish for. It is quite literally like being swallowed by a rainbow.
Once inside, however, the bi-level, multi-room fabrication studio feels more like a manifestation of Matt’s mind than a psychedelic illusion. The interior office is the focused brain, central to conducting business and orderly in its chaos. The encircling space is dedicated to production, and akin to the active imagination. It teems with a quiet creative energy steeped in concentration and limitless in its ability. They work together in unison, two parts of an illuminated whole.
WORDS BY MIA SAKAI | PHOTOS BY BETH KLEINPETER
How did you get started in neon? Was it something you were always interested in?
When I was three years old, my mom asked me what I wanted on my birthday cake. I said, “A plug and an outlet.” I think as a child I was fascinated, on some level, by the veil between the invisible and visible worlds, and what was transpiring behind what was appearing. It’s funny because I have a two year old now, and he, by hook or by crook, has it too. He just loves sticking things in outlets and taking stuff apart. My first job at 12 was working for an electrician. I really enjoyed it. When I was in high school, like 15, 16, I took some classes from an artist named Craig Kraft. He’s one of a dozen or so artists in the world who actually makes his own neon. I asked if I could work in his studio, and that he didn’t have to pay me. Because I had worked for an electrician, I was able to help him more than most people. So I started doing that and after work, he’d let me hang out and do my own stuff. It was a good deal that worked out really well.
How did Lite Brite start? What was the idea for it in the beginning?
I went to the Museum School in Boston and put together a little experimental neon studio. I did a few jobs there as Lite Brite before moving to New York in ’99. Originally, I thought I would make my own artwork, then I realized in some ways it was more fun to make other people’s artwork. We started by doing work for artists and designers. One of our first jobs was doing theatrical lighting for Diane von Fürstenberg’s fashion show. My neighbor at the time was her set designer and asked for my help with the lighting. I had been in New York for two months, but in that New York way, you do one thing and then someone else is asking you to do another thing. That same year we did these five neon rings for Bergdorf Goodman. After 15 years of collaborating with David Hoey on Bergdorf’s windows, we did one of our favorite projects ever: a really awesome, over the top, Xanadu style window for the holidays. It was really great to see the growth from where we started.
What are your core business values?
It’s fundamental for me to acknowledge our interconnection with everything. We’re all a part of it. How we treat the UPS driver, our landlord, our clients — we’re all interconnected, we’re all in it together. You don’t treat your customers or employees as separate, you see the connection. To me, that’s so critical. It’s our ground of being.
Humor and curiosity in a kind of balanced yin and yang. Those who work in fashion or creative industries know that change often comes quicker than you can reply to your client. The color can change, the opinion, the idea. I don’t want to become hardheaded or hardhearted. It’s good to have a lighthearted willingness to go with the changes as they come. It’s not all so serious!
The third thing is a total appreciation for growth, whether that means things dying or passing on. It’s a transient world we live in, and we lose clients, employees, contracts. We’ve never lost any fingers luckily, but things change. The only way growth can happen is for things to change.
You’ve amassed a client base of big name artists, museums, fashion designers, architects, and retail stores. How has that grown and evolved?
New York is great because it’s a mixing bowl. People are always coming and going, and in creative fields, people pollinate. Clients change, clients change jobs, businesses change, things evolve. There’s a fluidity in New York. We got a lot of our start by doing work for companies like Bergdorf’s and Burberry. One of our first jobs for Burberry was under Humberto Leon. He said, “I’m leaving to start this thing called Opening Ceremony.” I was like, “Cool, what’s that?” One of the great things about being in business for a while is that you get to see things flower and transform. We’ve evolved with our clients, we’ve evolved with our passion. We’ve had many synchronicities, or what I would just call karmic threads. I think when you do what you love, support follows because you’re in the tao of things; you’re in the flow of what you’re to be doing.
How do you balance creativity and business?
I don’t see them as separate; creating a company is like making one giant artwork. What could be more creative than doing what’s just coming through you? And what could be more spiritual than having a creative practice, whatever it may be? I definitely approach the business from more of a poet’s standpoint than an accountant’s. But we’re blessed in that we’ve always had enough money for things. We’re not buying an island in the Caribbean, but we’re paying rent, and feeding mouths, and we love what we do. It’s always been important to me to do what I love, and to work with people who love what they do. That’s a really core thing. To me, health issues, or frustration, or just depression that comes from not doing what you love, are symptoms trying to wake you up. They’re saying, “Don’t do that, do this.” That’s where our business ethos come from. We love what we do, and we try to work with clients who love it too.
What’s been critical in growing Lite Brite?
I think so much of having a creative practice is being willing to dance with it. Or like a chess game, you move these pieces and see what comes back. Most people don’t evaluate business based on if it’s feeding the soul. Most people want to know what your PnL looks like, or how many Instagram followers you have. There’s not a lot of questioning if you take immense joy in what you do. It’s not all smiley faces and emojis, but that’s how I’ve tried to let the business grow me, and not me grow it. The biggest mistakes I’ve made were when I went off course, either because I was hardheaded, or fearful, or not tuned in. Staying awake to those things is a huge priority. The willingness to acknowledge that, stick with it, and ask for help when it’s needed. When you’re running a business, you never know. It could all go south at any time, by no fault of your own. I don’t know any small business person who isn’t always wondering when the other shoe is going to fall. If it’s your livelihood and you care, you’re stressed out because you care.
You have a series of neon chandelier lights based on your own designs. What’s the story behind those?
I originally made one because we needed a light in our office. I didn’t have design or business savvy at all, I just needed a light. I drew a sketch on a napkin, made it, and we hung it in our office. At the time, in 2003, one of our clients was a stylist. She saw it and said, “There’s this store in my neighborhood that just opened called The Future Perfect. You should sell that to them.” I didn’t think anyone would want it, but I was introduced to the owner, David Alhadeff, and then it was in his store. After that, some funny things happened. One day I Googled it and this young woman named Grace Bonney — who started Design*Sponge — had written about it, saying she thought it was cool. The next thing I knew, lots of people thought it was great. We did a Bergdorf’s window with a bunch of the chandeliers and our name in the window. We got several huge interior design commissions out of that. That chandelier wasn’t a mistake, but we made it because we had a need, and then it evolved into this practice we did.
LITE BRITE’S CUSTOM NEON PROCESS
Neon is such a specialized craft. How do you find employees? Do they come to you with experience, or is it something you teach along the way?
It runs the gamut. We definitely have people who come right out of art school, and others who’ve worked for years at another sign company. I don’t like making comparative statements because perspective is so subjective, but people generally come to us if they’re more interested in art and an artistic work environment, especially one that is based on a spiritual approach to making and producing. These days we’re finding people through Instagram. People see the work we do and want to come work with us. Social media is great for that stuff. In the past, it was a lot of word of mouth. Because we’re so specialized, people interested in neon find us, and vice versa. People come and go, but that’s a hard part of any business. Really, what we focus on is creating an environment that is based on people wanting to be here. It’s about the job nurturing people as much as the people nurture the job.
A large part of your business comes from custom work. How do you determine pricing?
Everything we do is handmade, so we estimate price based on what we think is an accurate representation of what it costs us to produce it. I often wish, from a business perspective, that we didn’t do such creative work because it’s very hard to estimate. I wouldn’t say it’s an area in which I excel. We run the business much more from heart than from a profit standpoint. But we do have a formula based on our expenses. We know what it takes in order to stay here, have a 401K plan for our employees, and pay people a living wage in New York, which is really hard. We do our best and evaluate after the fact. Oftentimes, that can give you a really good picture going forward, like this is where we were accurate, or where we were really inaccurate. Hopefully, over time, you get better. We’re in a specialized field and we’re definitely not the cheapest shop, but it’s ok. We’re also very busy, and haven’t had a shortage of work. So that’s a bit of a barometer for me.
It seems neon signage is slowly being replaced by LEDs and TV screens. Where do you see the neon industry going?
I can’t tell you the amount of people who think it’s a dying industry, or that this medium is dying. The people who say that the most are the neon makers themselves. It lacks a creative approach to change. It’s not dying, it’s transforming. It may not be as large as it once was, and it may not be the medium of choice in Times Square, and there may not be as many strip clubs with neon signs, but to say it’s dying is to have a finite perspective on a trajectory that’s completely illusionary. We don’t know where the medium’s going. We don’t know where the world’s going. Yet we do know that we manifest reality through our thoughts and our actions. The Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, said, “My actions are my only true belongings.” We have volitional control over our actions in business and our personal lives. So much of it is just a willingness to stay with it. What’s our company going to look like in 10 years? I don’t know. It’s not because I don’t have a vision for it, but I don’t know because I have the willingness to let the vision be informed by the situation.
Any last advice for someone who wants to have a craft focused business?
You have to have faith if you’re a creative person, whether you’re spiritual or not. Every business operates on a certain amount of willingness to take a step without knowing where it’s going. A practice that gives you clarity is helpful, whether it’s time in nature, meditation, or psychedelics — there’s many routes — just something that can give you insight into your own illusions. It’s about allowing yourself to be aware that the part of you that desires to do this, is also the universal consciousness desiring to have it done. The more you connect with that, the more it will open up. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, and or that it’s clear, or that it won’t suck at times. But if you’re connected with your heart, and what you do, you can get through it. The greatest gift is understanding that as much as you want to make it, the universe wants it made by you. And take the “you” of the equation. Get out of your own way. In my life, the greatest stumbling block has been myself, so often it’s about having help through supportive people along the way.
London, England: Penguin-Arkana/Lao Tse Press, 2000.
Murphy, James D. Business Is Combat: A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Winning in Modern Business Warfare. HarperCollins e-Books, 2010.
More on Lite Brite Neon
Dopazo, Jennifer. “Matt Dilling Is The Neon King of New York.” www.thefabricantway.com. January, 2015.
Snider, Madison. “Interesting People: Matt Dilling.” www.thisisthewash.com. October 21, 2013.
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