Note: This article appeared as part of the 2003 Hall of Fame series.
Carroll Cline's career in lighting design spanned 40 years of changing technology, changing tastes and fat and lean times for the building trades. Through these changes, Carroll stuck to his own approach-a unique meld of the minimalist principles he first encountered at the IIT Institute of Design in the '50s and his own zealous brand of functionalism: For Carroll, fixtures were raw materials and there was always a “task,” even if that task was simply “to invite” or “to make apparent a way through.” Carroll's work on a lighting project always began with careful analysis of the drawings and the question, “What are we going to light?” Not, “What effect do we want to create?” or even “What is the architect's intent?” As he and his associates discussed the “what,” Carroll would begin to draw. In the words of his son, Henry, “You could barely have a conversation with him about lighting-or food, or ballet, or traffic even-where he didn't reach for a pencil and a roll of yellow trace.”
His award-winning work on both residential and commercial projects included several lighting “firsts”:
- One of the first uses of MR16s in a residential design at Robert Stern's Cohn house;
- One of the first uses of compact fluorescents in large decorative fixtures, again with Stern, for the St. Paul's School library;
- The first illuminated sign on Madison Avenue (a zoning variance for elegantly thin, rear-illuminating lettering at Pratesi Linens); and, certainly,
- The first lighting scheme, with Edison Price, for a large-scale geodesic dome at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada.
The variety of these “firsts” also suggests the diversity of Carroll's projects and his ability to conceive at both the macro and micro levels: A small street sign was as carefully considered as an illuminated monument that was visible for miles, and a residential staircase was as serious a design problem as a museum lobby.
Carroll worked with many of the great designers and architects of the last quarter century, from Gropius and Moholy-Nagy to I.M. Pei and Bob Stern, as previously mentioned. He was influenced immensely by his early apprenticeship to Edison Price, the innovative fixture designer and manufacturer.
Notoriously mistrustful of “snake oil” and “eyewash,” Carroll regarded all ornament with suspicion. Nevertheless, as his career developed, Carroll broke away from the strict grids of his work on International Style projects. By the time of his death in 2000, he had designed fixtures and schemes that certainly appeared decorative to the uninformed observer. Of course, there was always something else going on as well. In his early work, Carroll was careful to hide the lighting source. As the variety and versatility of source types burgeoned in the '80s and '90s, Carroll found more room to “play.”
Carroll always took a tinkerer's approach to design. He pounced on new fixtures and sources, intent on understanding them before attempting to customize them for a particular job-and customize them he would. He is accused by affectionate co-workers of having once “sawed in half” a particularly mysterious new fixture before anyone else in the office got a chance to see it intact. It was this gift for reinvention that enabled him to persuade notoriously anti-fluorescent architect Robert A.M. Stern to choose compact fluorescents for the Ohrstrom Library at St. Paul's School. Carroll mocked up sample fixtures and gave Stern a choice between one that housed an incandescent lamp and another that contained a compact fluorescent-color corrected by hand with theatrical gels and an opalescent veil (aka drafting vellum).
As one of the pioneers of lighting design, Carroll was active in the IALD, serving as president and elected as a Fellow. For the IES, he served on the Board of Managers. His innovative work was recognized by the lighting community with more than 20 awards.
Though often perceived as a man of few words and sometimes called a “curmudgeon,” Carroll's remarks were often wryly humorous. Once, when asked whether his design for a residence might consume excessive energy, he remarked that “energy conservation in residential use is called a switch.” When something went wrong, more often than not, Carroll would say, “carefully planned and skillfully executed!”-whether or not he had been in on the planning or execution. He was driven by an intensely critical eye and a great sensitivity to beauty in many forms and when something met or exceeded his expectations, his enthusiasm was palpable-his voice seemed to go up an octave when he expressed approval. Again, his words were few but there was no mistaking his meaning.
For the last, and most productive, 20 years of his career, Carroll enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Francesca Bettridge and Stephen Bernstein, both of whom learned the business of lighting design from the ground up in Carroll's studio. Besides his creativity, Stephen noted that what set Carroll apart was his ability to always approach a job with a fresh eye, never relying on a “bag of tricks.” Francesca fondly remembers, “Of the many lessons he taught us, two stood out. When you start a job, the first question to ask is 'What are we lighting'; and the last thing you should ever say on a job, when you walk through the project with the architect is 'Gee, this looks great!'” Bettridge and Bernstein continue to run the firm, which continues to produce award-winning designs and-just as important-talented young designers.