The archive of lighting designer Richard Kelly (1910–1977), like so many midcentury Modernists' paperwork, barely survived as raw material for any monograph. Although his Manhattan office contents were initially auctioned off near the end of his career, his family bought the materials back, and the documents ended up in storage units that were damaged by fire and flood, before spending years in a researcher's basement. Finally, in 2007, Kelly's family donated the surviving papers to Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library and its Manuscripts and Archives Collection. Kelly's connection to Yale is straightforward: He attended the Department of Architecture of Yale's School of Fine Arts and graduated in 1944.
While the Kelly archives had been used previously by members of the lighting community—for thesis research, article preparation, and the creation of a traveling exhibit—it was by no means exhaustive. Enter Dietrich Neumann, the Royce Family Professor for the History of Modern Architecture and Urban Studies at Brown University, who, for the occasion of Kelly's 100th birthday (Sept. 22, 2010) dove deeper into the archive materials to organize a symposium, an exhibit, and a companion text—all titled The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture ($60; Yale University Press, Jan. 2011). (The Yale University School of Architecture played host to the exhibit from August to October and the two-day symposium in October.) Not only does the book document the 2010 exhibit, it chronicles a rare example of a career that straddled architecture and light, and explains what it was like to experience Kelly's concept of “nocturnal modernity.”
Those experiences are largely no longer possible in real life, according to Neumann, one of the monograph's seven authors. (The forward is written by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture; subsequent chapters are written by University of Delaware historian Sandy Isenstadt, sustainability expert D. Michelle Addington, architectural historian Margaret Maile Petty, architect and founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture Phyllis Lambert, and lighting designer Matthew Tanteri.) “Many if not most of Kelly's lighting installations have been lost,” Neumann writes in the introduction. “They might suddenly vanish at the whim of a homeowner or building superintendent.”
All of the authors' descriptions echo Kelly's vivid and voluminous writings about his own work and his ambitions for the industry. In lectures and essays, he used metaphors comparing lighting effects to the “full cyclorama of the open theatre” and “a snowy morning in the open country.”
Kelly collaborated with his era's starchitects, including Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Richard Neutra, and Philip Johnson. He set aglow landmarks such as the Dulles and JFK airports, Lincoln Center, the Seagram Building, Johnson's Glass House, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Kimbell Art Museum. He made good buildings look better at night, with uplights on their exterior swoops and bands of illuminated ceilings forming gossamer grids within.
Kelly was already smitten with lighting effects while still a teenager in Zanesville, Ohio. While studying at Columbia University in the late 1920s, he would sneak into Broadway shows during intermissions to study the sets, mingling with the reentering crowds. He dropped out of school for a few years to run a lighting design firm, working on New York nightclub rooms and exhibit spaces including galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 1939 World's Fair. He eventually finished architecture studies at Yale in 1944, mentored by California Modernist William Wurster.
By the 1950s, Kelly was already famous for giving clients flexibility. His cylindrical and hemispherical ceiling lamps could be slid around and raised and lowered on tracks and pulleys. He experimented with new materials, such as Koolshade diffusing fabric and Dynel nylon reflective curtains, and installed “multiple banks of dimmer controls and panels of three, four, or more toggle switches,” Isenstadt writes in an insightful chapter about how Kelly lit glass-walled houses and their grounds.
At Kelly's own Fifth Avenue apartment, he hid 47 spotlights behind wooden screens and pierced the curtains with hundreds of lamps. For a client's sprawling L-shaped house designed by Edward Durell Stone in northern Connecticut, Kelly's photoelectric outdoor sensors brought up the interior lighting at twilight, and 40W pink and blue lamps alternated around the living room. For a skylight-covered courtyard garden at a Philip Johnson house in Minnesota, Kelly's five types of ceiling fixtures let the owners “asymmetrically mix warm and cool tints, visually emphasize particular plants, and generally create a subtle, free-form pattern to gently veil the rigid grid above,” Isenstadt writes.
In conjunction with the publication The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture was an exhibit and symposium of the same title. The exhibit (above) was on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery from Aug. 23 to Oct. 2 and drew from Kelly's archive of papers, photographs, and architectural drawings, which are housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Collection. (Both photos: William Sacco, Yale Photo + Design)
All of the authors' descriptions echo Kelly's vivid and voluminous writings about his own work and his ambitions for the industry. In lectures and essays, he used metaphors comparing lighting effects to “the full cyclorama of the open theatre” and “a snowy morning in the open country.” He thought about light in terms of focal glow (highlight), ambient luminescence (graded washes), and play of brilliants (sharp detail), and in turn created a modern vocabulary for architectural lighting design. But he was an erratic businessman, ignoring deadlines and budgets and sending out inscrutable bills. By the time he died of a heart attack on a train coming home from Fire Island in 1977, he was barely working. He kept meticulous diaries, with “touching notes of frequent calls to his answering service in hope of a message,” Neumann writes.
The making of this book required Herculean efforts. Neumann's team along with Yale researchers sifted through about 765 individual project files, 117 boxes, and 145 rolls of drawings. (The material is now searchable at digitalcollections.library.yale.edu.) The book is a first step in documenting Kelly's work and a reminder that there is still much more to be written. Numerous topics are mentioned throughout the text that deserve further study, such as Kelly's collaborations with textile designer Marie Nichols on billowing ceiling and window coverings, Kelly's explorations of new lighting technologies, and his contributions to the art and technique of daylighting strategies long before there were advanced computer simulation programs.
It would also be fascinating to figure out how many traces of his work survive. There must be some milky ceilings and polychrome lamps out there, or at least owners who have upgraded the machinery but perpetuated his signature shimmering changeability.
Eve Kahn is the Antiques columnist for The New York Times and has contributed over the years to numerous magazines including House Beautiful, Art & Auction, and Travel + Leisure.