October 3, 2010
You’d think that as a student of lighting design that I live and work in the best possible lighting conditions every day, and that I don’t mind working for long periods of time because of my perfectly illuminated surroundings. That’s what I thought would happen too. Moving to New York, I thought to myself: no longer will I have to spend hours upon hours in a dark theatre for weeks at a time! I will finally be able to enjoy the sunlight and fresh air! Well, you can see where this is going.
I will say that I have made every effort to light my home environment as well as I possibly can, and I’m actually quite happy with it. The design studio I work in is also, for the most part, well lit. A problem arises, though, when those are the only two environments I see during the week, and I see no more daylight than the stagehands working on Broadway.
Needless to say, whenever I get a chance to get out of the design studio and explore the city, I jump at the chance!
On Friday night I got that chance, when the Illuminating Engineering Society of New York (IESNY) offered Parsons lighting students the chance to attend a tour of the American wing of the Met given by the lighting designer, Eileen Pierce of Renfro Design Group, in exchange for a bit of volunteer work checking people in at the event. Meet new people in the lighting industry and visit one of the top museums in the city? Yes, please!
Of course I did an excellent job doing so, although a few of my classmates and I thought that our sign needed to attract a bit more attention, so we quickly provided it with additional illumination. Next time we’re making a better sign, and you’d better believe it’ll light up like an airport runway!
Anyway, after I was relieved of my signpost duties the group of about forty of us divided into two, with half going to the bar first while the other half took the tour with Eileen. As luck would have it, I ended up at the bar first.
After a few laughs and some good conversation with some new (and some familiar) faces, and with everyone loosened up a bit, we finished our drinks and met with Eileen in the American Wing Courtyard.
For those that have never been, the American Wing Courtyard is an enormous six-story tall open indoor gallery space housing some of the larger sculptures, a few stained glass windows, and the complete facade of a Neo-Classical bank building. It’s an impressive space to say the least, and it was fascinating to hear Eileen speak about the challenges of lighting it.
One of the features she spoke of was how she accomplished lighting the new cafe space on the ground floor, which was created by the addition of an intermediary level of the gallery between the ground floor and the second (now third) level. Apparently, during the construction phase of that new level, workers hung a white sheet above the cafe to simulate the height of the new space for museum staffers. One day, while Eileen was visiting the site, the setting sun hit the sheet in such a way that it brilliantly lit up the cafe space below, and the idea stuck (or struck)! Now the ceiling of the cafe is illuminated with color-changing LEDs that match the colors of the sunlight throughout the day until sunset. Amazing how that works, isn’t it?
Another design challenge Eileen spoke of was how to light the many statues situated in the middle of the courtyard, with only five stories of air between them and the glazed ceiling. The solution for this challenge was actually quite interesting, as it involved a combination of architectural and theatrical gear. The fixtures most up to the task of the long throw turned out to be Very Narrow Spot (VNSP, for those in the theatre lingo) PAR64 fixtures, which aren’t all that uncommon in architectural settings. The real challenge was figuring out a place to hang them that was elevated enough to provide the appropriate lighting angles, but still accessible enough for the Met staff to relamp and refocus them. The solution came in the form of a truss system that can be lowered to the ground on electric winches so the staff can change lamps. How do they refocus the lights once they have returned to their lofty perch? Well, each fixture is mounted on an Apollo Right Arm, a DMX-controlled yoke (and common theatrical lighting accessory) that essentially turns each lamp into a moving light, controlled by an ETC theatrical lighting console. It was a simple solution for a very complex problem using primarily theatrical gear. I guess it’s not so bad to know something about theatre in this business after all! I’ll have to drop off my business card at the Met the next time I visit …
After the tour was over we had a chance to explore the galleries on our own, to see more of Eileen’s design firsthand. Personally, I could spend days there just wandering through everything, which I hope to do at some point in the future. Unfortunately we had to move quickly before the museum closed for the night. Here’s one fun room that I managed to discover a few minutes before closing: the open storage rooms!
If I had to pick one thing, I would say the most exciting part about the night was just getting to meet new people with similar interests and goals, sharing some drinks, fine art, architecture, and lighting. It was fascinating to listen and participate in the discussion that unfolded during the tour as well, because I could tell, from the form of their questions, that every other person in the room, regardless of their experience level or place of work, was just as passionate about lighting as I am — and that’s a very good sign. I’m very much looking forward to more events like this in the future; more chances to explore the city, to meet new people, and to learn what about lighting inspires them. I can reassure you, that’s never a boring conversation.