One of Abe Feder's most significant projects was the lighting of the lobby murals at Rockefeller Center in New York. Fixtures were painted to blend into the walls and to illuminate the 1930s artwork, “New Frontiers,” by José María Sert and Frank Brangwyn.
Lee W. Nelson One of Abe Feder's most significant projects was the lighting of the lobby murals at Rockefeller Center in New York. Fixtures were painted to blend into the walls and to illuminate the 1930s artwork, “New Frontiers,” by José María Sert and Frank Brangwyn.
This article originally appeared in a special section titled Progress & Technology in the Apr/May 1994 issue.
This article originally appeared in a special section titled Progress & Technology in the Apr/May 1994 issue.

Commentary by William B. Warfel IES, IALD

At the moment, the economics of the country is at a low point and few new buildings are being constructed. Some parts of the country are overbuilt and existing structures are standing empty. The architectural world is in disarray. For thousands of architectural designers, there is no work.

Many large architecture firms—solid ones that had 300 or 400 employees—still have work, but have shrunk to a staff of 100. Architects and designers are functioning in retrofitting departments stores, hotels, and offices in existing buildings. However, the adventures of new buildings, new directions in architecture, may not be forthcoming in the near future.

The concept of artistry in lighting design appears consistently in magazines, but the reality of it is: You have to have a client.

When I was in Wichita, Kan., last year [1993], speaking before graduate theatrical lighting designers at the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) Conference, I was flabbergasted that colleges were turning out so many in the field. The question that came to mind was: Where are they going to work?

The “purity” of the teaching factor at the college level that turns out architects and designers can result in the teaching of wishful dreams, in abstract designs. Some of these teachers have never had to sell anything, they have never had to practice the profession and function in the reality of the workforce. Yet the students need to learn the basics and to have the training. However, the schools teach the nonobjectivity—the pureness of art. The real question is: How do you get clients and keep them?

When these graduates work for someone else for a time, that's easy, but when they start to feel strong enough to try it on their own, that's more difficult. They face hard realities in judgment. How much is the fee? Will it cover your overhead and still allow you a profit? Because you must address the continuous mechanics of running a business.

Then they begin to think realistically as well as artistically, “This is what I'd like to design—but this is in the realm of the possible.”

The irony of it is, who says the clients are profound enough to pick the great creative minds to design their project? Sometimes they are not. It's always catch as catch can. Talent alone is not a guarantee.

WARFEL'S THOUGHTS: If you are a reader who knew Abe Feder, you can only smile while reading his piece from 1994. If you never had a chance to meet him, you missed out on a real treat, because Abe was an original, and above all things, he championed the cause of “reality,” just as he says in the title.

What did he mean by that? One reality in 1994 was an economy in shambles, with major architectural firms reduced to a shadow of their former selves, with design graduates finding no place to work and with buildings not being built. He could have written this last week! He never missed a chance to beat his favorite drums, and before he gets to his own philosophy, Abe devotes considerable time to a favorite reality crusade: the abstract (as he calls it) nature of training in architecture (and theater, one assumes). Artistry in design is all well and good, but lighting design is a business, and the reality is that to survive in it one needs to be a real-world business person. All of us who design for a living might well agree with him, at least with the fact that a design practice is a business. In tough times, this is one reality we all have to grasp.

Abe saves some of his best language for his discussion of the reality of light sources, including a characterization of the “light bulb” as an “ogre,” looming behind us and crippling our best efforts to “reveal.” By 1994, we had some compact fluorescent and high-intensity discharge lamps, and the threat of a ban on at least some incandescent lamps (remember the R40?) was in the air. Abe was suggesting that we might be designing lighting that would be impossible to maintain in the not-too-distant future because the lamp at the heart of the system might vanish. Very real today in the age of the ban on incandescent lamps. One wonders what Abe might have done with the LED.

By the time he wrote this article, Abe had had a long and very fruitful career in both theater and architectural lighting, remarkable because he saw no need to stop practicing either one in order to focus on the other. This is clear when he describes his lighting philosophy as “revealment.” He writes that the mission of lighting is to reveal the original intent of the designer: “be it an architect, a playwright, a sculptor or retailer.” Lighting design for Abe in 1994, as it still is for many of us in 2011, means getting past flights of fancy and dealing with the task at hand with real-world tools. Revealing with light is equally valid on stage or along the street. That was true then and it is still true today.

William B. Warfel has been an architectural and entertainment lighting designer and equipment developer since 1962, continuing today as William B. Warfel Lighting and Theater Design with his work for the Yale Opera. He has consulted on more than 60 theater projects internationally, and taught and lectured widely.


And who is the ogre in the lighting world that stands behind one's back always ready to impose demands on creative designs? It is the light bulb, with its maintenance, its life span, and its color. But if you're breaking ground and inventing new lamps for new applications, the light bulb becomes an omnipresent factor. If your jobs aren't large enough, one day the manufacturer may become an “invisible” bulb company—go out of business—[and] then you're out of luck, because you've used those particular bulbs and that's a very big reality.

One of the confusions in lighting today involves the question of responsibility. Designers may create something that's wonderful and that works—yet six months later, does the same designer take responsibility for that wonderful design continuing to function?

In my early career, the jobs were very few, and the client's expectations extended beyond the installation phase. I could get called up by the client six months after a project had been completed, and be taken to task if the design faltered because of the equipment I had specified. Today, a designer might say, “But it's not my fault.”

However, it is your fault, because a bulb is not a piece of steel. It's not a door, it's not a chair—it's expendable and it's limited, and did you allow them a substitute for what you had planned? That's a reality. The creation of the design is not enough. You have to deal with the reality of its life expectancy. It's something the inexperienced don't know.

It also happens that clients will say, “Well, that's a beautiful lighting design, but what can we fall back on—I don't want to spend that much.” And you have no choice but to cut—they are the clients and it's their money. So the idea of measuring up to design perfection is nonsense. Sometimes you are cursed by realities and there's nothing you can do about it. So when projects are completed, they may have a certain mundane quality and one wonders, “Why did they do something like that?” The reality is: Who said “no” and who got tired?

Essentially, my philosophy of light is revealment, and lighting design is the art of that revealment. The tools to light exist. Whatever is to be illuminated is there. I think it is the job of the lighting designer to reveal with light the design intent of the original creator, whether it be an architect, a playwright, a sculptor, or retailer. Some lighting designers have given lighting design a major omnipotence in itself and they are wrong. There is enough in the lighting field and all that's involved to maintain stewardship over creative design without trying to make it something it's not.

So at this point we're back to the light source that makes it possible. And the gods are kind. We're living in an era where light is the one of the few sciences for which we don't know all the answers. Look at what's happened with computers. We're underwater, we're in the air. Man has conquered these factors, but has yet to conquer light. The unknown still remains to be found out decades into the future.

Abe Feder, FIES, FIALD, (1910–1997) was the first independent lighting designer in both theater and architecture. His firm, Lighting By Feder, was located in New York City, and his Broadway credits included My Fair Lady and Camelot. He was responsible for many lamp and fixture developments that are now standards, and he was the first president of the International Association of Lighting Designers.