HBO's plans for a new sign designed by Cooley Monato Studio ran into a wall-literally. But a solution was at hand.

»A string of successes had made HBO's headquarters building on 42nd Street in New York City a tourist destination. But its signage-a plain black-painted glass panel with stand-alone silver lettering-barely announced the company during the day, never mind at night. The network that produces Sex and the City and the Sopranos needed a sign worthy of its award-winning programs and robust enough to counter the city's visual noise.

Lighting design firm Cooley Monato Studio of New York City was working with HBO on another project; during a related meeting, principal Emily Monato happened to see the concept drawings for a new sign. 'They were about solid metal forms, and I suggested that it be more dynamic and abstract, using light,' she says.

Several initial ideas involving light, including stacked video monitors, proved logistically impossible. Monato, however, had something else in mind. Her firm had just developed a 5-inch-by-15-inch ADA-compliant sconce for a design competition: Plexiglas rods stacked side by side (an idea literally inspired by Bic pen casings) created a dramatic refraction of the passing light. Much the way a streak of sun or moonlight on water seems to move as the viewer moves, filtering light from a point source through the Plexiglas rods gave the sconce a similarly interactive quality. Monato imagined this design concept applied on a larger scale. HBO gave Cooley Monato and architecture firm Gensler, which had also become involved with the project, the go-ahead to flesh out the idea further.

To adapt the sconce to the space proportionally-which was necessary to preserve the unique way the light and material interacted-the team needed about 4 feet of depth to the 19-foot height. After breaking through the wall, however, the designers discovered the narrow shaft behind the original sign was a vapor barrier, and thus invasive construction was not an option. Instead of 4 feet, they had only 11 clear inches. Though it seemed the idea would not work, 'there was huge enthusiasm from Gensler and HBO,' says Monato. 'Before we gave it up, we decided to do a mockup.' Gensler began sourcing materials.

The project required a clear, lightweight acrylic (glass would be too heavy for a 19-foot vertical span), and the lack of depth necessitated something flatter than rods. From previous experience, Monato knew that horizontal ribbing would produce a look similar to the rods. The light needed to strike a defined hard edge to create the refracted quality the design required. 'Fortunately or unfortunately, there weren't a lot of materials to try,' recalls Monato. 'Having studied this on a small scale, I knew what optical pro-perties it needed. It was simple, but specific.'

Gensler sourced Lexam thermoclear plastic from GE, a single-sheet polycarbonate glazing. The product met virtually all design requirements except one. It was only available in fixed-width sheets, which meant the sign would be paneled rather than have the continuous, seamless look the designers had hoped for. In the end, however, paneling proved better from a maintenance perspective: the top and bottom sections are removable for easy access to the fixtures.

The light sources include three wallwashers on either side, and seven spotlights in the middle, all using waterproof housings and all fitted with LEDs for the longevity, efficiency and 'infinite color combinations.' (HBO uses different color scenes to announce holidays and premiers.) Four PAR38 60W halogen sources on a dimmer illuminate from the top down. The major adaptation from the original concept was the density of sources needed to compensate for lack of depth. 'The layout is literally all we could fit in there,' says Monato.

After developing an initial version in Gensler's office, it became clear that the concept might work after all. Cooley Monato sold the client by building a full-scale mockup in a large auditorium at HBO's building, complete with silver-paper letters and a portion of the stone wall that would flank the sign.

The completion time for this small project start to finish was a lengthy two years, a product of corporate culture and the thorough materials investigation and mockup necessitated by the spatial obstacles. But the design was extremely cost effective. 'It is a box with plastic in front of it. The most expensive part is the electronics,' says Monato. And now, when fans seek out HBO, it is easier to find. emilie w. sommerhoff