Profile: Kenny Greenberg

This neon wizard combines art and engineering

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What do the NASDAQ stock exchange, the movie Men in Black, TV’s “The Cosby Show,” and luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman all have in common? Neon lighting designs created by Kenny Greenberg.

While LED-based signage and displays have risen to prominence in recent years (see “Fritz Morgan: LEDs Into Gold,” February 2005, IEEE Spectrum), they can’t duplicate neon’s iconic look. So Greenberg, owner of Krypton Neon in New York City, still finds great demand for his neon lighting displays and their associated power, control, and monitoring hardware and software.

Greenberg, who grew up in New York City and New Jersey, began to mix engineering and art early. He recalls building “a small interactive fun house in a neighbor’s garage” as a child. In high school (where—full disclosure—he and I were friends), an attempt with another friend to re-create Stanley Miller’s experiment in creating primordial amino acids from scratch led to his first experience in glass blowing. This came to a halt when “one of the chemistry teachers caught us, snatched all the expensive glass apparatus out of our hands, and lectured us on each one’s cost,” Greenberg says.

After getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University in perceptual psychology and education and spending five years developing and administering therapeutic creative arts programs for the Jewish Child Care Association of New York, Greenberg switched gears in 1980.

“I wanted to go back into the arts, specifically the emerging world of art as science and science as art,” says Greenberg. “Like anyone who lived in New York City, I had seen plenty of neon signs, but it had never occurred to me that somebody had to make them. When I learned of places offering courses in making neon, you could say that a lightbulb went on over my head.”

After his coursework was completed, “one of my teachers found me my first paying neon project, and soon friends were finding more, like doing signs for local restaurants,” he says. “This led over time to neon sets and pieces for Broadway shows, movies, TV shows, and larger commercial installations and projects for art museums and other public places.”

For Greenberg, the business has involved more than simply bending glass tubes, filling them with gas, and attaching power supplies. It’s also led him to design control circuitry and write software.

“When I started working with neon, the controls for the animated signs used mechanical flashers and rotating cams,” he says. “That led to my designing a solid-state transformer and working with circuitry to create my own flashing and sequencing systems that were more reliable. Eventually, the rest of the industry did this too.”

Today, Greenberg uses desktop and notebook computers to remotely monitor and control many of his installations, and he has been exploring mobile devices and apps. “I do a lot with the direct interface between PC and DMX512,” he says. (DMX512 is a standard that's popular for controlling stage lights and other effects.) He has also created downloadable software for neon creators, such as a neon load calculator and color chart.

For anyone interested in working with neon, Greenberg suggests taking a class. (He himself occasionally offers one- and two-day workshops.) “I recommend you get a copy of the book Neon Techniques by Samuel Miller and Wayne Strattman,” he adds. Currently, there are no specific neon-industry certifications, Greenberg points out, so he recommends joining the neon-l mailing list to keep up with what employers are looking for.

What’s next for Greenberg? More theater shows, working with international artists—and work for the upcoming movie The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

About the Author

Daniel P. Dern is an independent technology writer whose last article for IEEE Spectrum was about the rise of electronic comic books. He can be reached at dern@pair.com. His website is http://www.dern.com, and his technology blog is Trying Technology.

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