At the epicenter of Manhattan, Times Square is still turned on. Though the area around 42nd Street has been mostly cleaned up since its days of adult movie theaters and racy, flickering signs, the neighborhood still shines bright with neon and gives off a glow that’s both nostalgically risqué and genuinely romantic.
The glow continues at the W New York – Times Square Living Room Bar, where a new neon installation pays homage to the legacy of old Times Square. Taking inspiration from the district’s vintage flashing signs, adult movie theaters, and iconic New Year’s Eve ball, W Hotels partnered with Brooklyn design studio Lite Brite Neon to create an ode to neon in a modern and progressive way.
“It’s a story of the past, present, and future of Time Square,” says Josh Held, the design contractor on W New York – Times Square’s redesign. “For me, the beauty of Times Square is the show that is happening all around you every minute of every day. It’s the people and the lights and the buildings.”
“The old Times Square is very much ingrained in our minds, so we wanted to update that in a W way.”
And there’s no better way to see where the creativity begins than inside the studio. Wayne Heller, lead designer of Lite Brite Neon, gave us an inside look, showing off the the range of projects for corporate clients and artists, delving into the hands-on process of making the W New York – Times Square bar lights, and exploring the fascinating past and bright future of the art of neon.
IN THE LITE BRITE STUDIO
How did Lite Brite Neon begin?
Wayne Heller (of Lite Brite Neon): Matt Dilling started Lite Brite out of his dorm room in Boston when he was at art school. He moved over to the Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn in 2001 and the studio has been growing and fluctuating ever since. I came on nine years ago. Really, we are just artists pretending to be a sign shop. We try to give the same artistic thought to even the more commercial projects. Some of those projects actually end up being the most art-minded.
Everyone who works here borrows from someone else. You might have a corporate client that sees what an artist does and wants that but it also goes the other way. The artists use these influences in their own practices. It’s about the cross over, and that’s where the zeitgeist is culturally at right now. Neon is right there with it.
Lite Brite has a wide range of projects, from art installations to window displays to signs for corporate clients. How involved are you in the design of these neons?
WH: A lot of the work I do here is as a translator. Clients or artists bring me their ideas and we figure out how to make it happen. We work with a lot of artists to help make their work, like Glenn Ligon, Keith Sonnier or Assume Vivid Astro Focus. Sometimes they come with a finished CAD drawing or just a napkin sketch. Keith in particular is wonderful to work with. He’s one of those guys who comes in with a charcoal drawing or a bent copper pipe and is like, “Make this into neon!”
Since there are these parameters to neon–that it’s glass and breakable and fragile–it’s great when artists get it in their hands. As limiting as it is, people really try to find new ways to do cool things within the constructs. I try to welcome it when someone comes in with something crazy. It pushes us.
What is the general process behind making the neon structures?
WH: The process hasn’t really changed. Everything has to be bent by hand and there isn’t really a machine that can help do it. It’s a pretty traditional art form. It begins with a design which we make into a plot, and then Sergio bends the glass into the form. After those are done the tubes get pumped full of the gasses. Typically if you see blue, it’s argon and mercury. That bright orange color is neon in its excited state. The rest of the colors are usually one of those two gasses mixed with a color of a phosphorescent tube. The coating gives the color to the gas.
The tubes are then mounted and rigged up to a transformer, which depends on the size of the piece. A neon will last about 15 years, but usually something breaks it before then, like weather or someone throws a rock at it or something. But there are stories of the neon lasting a really long time. Like this place in L.A. called Clifton’s Cafeteria that had a neon tube that must have been illuminating a sign and at some point in the 40s they walled over it and forgot to unplug it. They were doing renovations a few years ago and found it. It had been on for 70 years!
What were some influences behind the neon design at the W New York – Times Square bar?
WH: We were really referencing the old neon work of Artkraft Strauss. They invented the New Year’s Eve ball, they made those giant neon signs around Brooklyn like the Domino Sugar sign and the Pepsi Cola sign, and all the famous 42nd Street stuff like the smoking Camel Cigarette guy. They would make it over in their shop on 45th Street, which is gone now. Douglas Leigh was this pitch-man ad-guy who would come up with the concepts and rope Artkraft into making these crazy things, these massive animated 200 foot neons. They were a pioneer in the form.
We talked a lot about old Times Square versus the new Time Square and tried to make something that was integrated in form and content. I think the old Times Square is very much ingrained in our minds, so we wanted to update that in a W way.
Do you have an insider tip of what to enjoy in Times Square area?
WH: Rudy’s! It’s a dive bar on 9th Avenue and 44th Street. They’ve got free hotdogs and a great neon sign.