Once you met Abe Feder, you could never forget him. His brash and burly exterior manner was juxtaposed with an "interior" marked by the keenest of minds and the gentlest of spirits. Geniuses should be unforgettable. And Abe Feder, FIES, FIALD, was a genius of light.
In his hometown of Milwaukee, WI, the 14-year-old Feder watched, awestruck, the stage performance of Thurston the Magician. It wasn't the magic tricks that enraptured him. It was the lighting that became the"'magic" for Feder.
He studied theater craft and lighting at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, but left at the end of the second year because there was nothing more for him to learn. Instead, he worked as a lighting designer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and then was drawn to the center of the theater world, New York City.
Feder's creative lighting designs for the 1930s' Federal Theater Project productions are as legendary as the stories he used to tell about working with the project's directors, Orson Welles and John Houseman. In the production of Dr. Faustus, Feder made actors magically appear and disappear using light and darkness and cylinders of black velvet. The Cradle Will Rock, The Skin of Our Teeth, I'd Rather Be Right, and Macbeth were a few of the productions that allowed Feder to gain prominence experimenting with theatrical lighting techniques.
Keep in mind that, at that time, the abundance of lamps and fixtures commonplace today did not exist. Here was a brilliant man in the right place at the right time. Feder came on the scene when the lighting profession was in its infancy and lighting equipment was primitive. His innate inventiveness and curiosity, ever-present throughout his career, led to the development of a wealth of new lamps, fixtures and lighting techniques that eventually became industry standards.
During World War II, while an Air Force Sergeant, he designed the lighting for [the] Winged Victory [statue at Rockefeller Center]. When the theatrical production caught the attention of moviemakers, Feder had the opportunity to go west and break into film lighting. Hollywood's loss was New York's gain. Film lighting was too "flat" for Feder. He wanted to render designs in all their three-dimensional glory.
The 1950s and '60s were boom times for Broadway and Feder was at the heart of it, designing lighting for hits like Inherit the Wind, The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady, Camelot and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
In search of greater challenges, Feder turned to illuminating architecture and became the first independent theatrical and architectural lighting designer. His firm, Lighting By Feder, designed the systems for some of the country's most prestigious projects. Feder counts among his credits lighting designs for the United Nations, the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, the terminal plaza of Kennedy International Airport, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and Rockefeller Center in New York City.
When the lighting design profession began to mature and organize, it was fitting that the honor of being the first president of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) should fall to Feder. In 1996, Feder was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in New York City-long overdue.
Throughout his extensive career, Feder never lost what he called "the sense of wonderment" about light. To most people, light is an intangible that allows them to see without it being "seen." Feder had said, however, that to him, light was tangible; that was the way he "saw it." And lighting design was aptly summed up by him as "the art of revealment."
"Light isn't bricks, it isn't steel," Feder wrote. "There's an effusiveness in the light material. And I've been privy to that, as I've seen it evolve over a period of 50 years. The breakthroughs into the secrets of light are just beginning and that's an ingredient in designing lighting, for exteriors and interiors, that can't be ignored."
Feder always looked forward. He would have been honored to be a part of this Hall of Fame. His legacy, however, lies within each lighting designer today who shares his sense of wonderment about light and who strives to push the medium forward to the day when, as Feder had hoped, lighting will "break out of the bulb."