Fred Charles The FAO Schwarz flagship store on Fifth Avenue.

Tomorrow, July 15,
the iconic New York City toy store FAO Schwarz is set to close, a casualty of the New York real estate market and escalating rents. The store’s flagship location on Fifth Avenue has provided many a child and adult a magical experience wandering through the aisles of games and stuffed animals. The store, more than just a retail destination, is forever part of our cultural makeup, immortalized via such memorable cinematic moments as the scene from the 1988 film Big when Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia dance on the giant piano keyboard and play “Chopsticks.”

Beyond the store’s cultural significance is a design and lighting import as well. In 2005, the store was renovated in a collaborative effort by New York-based design firm the Rockwell Group and lighting design firm Focus Lighting. The new interior was one of the first lighting strategies to use all LEDs, at the time a nascent lighting technology. The new design featured a ceiling of approximately 80,000 LEDs highlighting the store’s main atrium space, which measured 140-feet-long by 60-feet-wide. 

To create the immersive experience that the client desired, an elaborate process of mock-ups and testing led to the design layout in which each LED, supported by a ceiling truss, was individually addressable to create dynamic light shows across the ceiling plane. Focus Lighting also designed a custom rigging system so that LEDs could be installed. All in all the lighting design encompasses four miles of LED string for a total of 8,000 pixels, each of which has 3 color nodes.

Fred Charles The ceiling houses 80,000 LEDs.

Fred Charles A view of the main atrium space and the LED ceiling.
Fred Charles The life-size piano keyboard made famous in the film "Big."

Each LED node was hung off of a ceiling truss, which supported not only the LED fixture head but the 186 power supplies (62 master power supplies and 124 slave power supplies) as well. Fixture spacing and LED color and brightness was considered not just in terms of how the installation would look from within the store but from the exterior as well. The store’s existing glass façade was evaluated and the design team determined that the panels should be replaced with non-reflective glass so that even on a bright sunny day the ceiling plane in all its dynamic color-changing glory could be seen from Fifth Avenue.

Additional lighting was integrated into three full-scale “urban treehouses,” structures in which kids could climb up into and around. Track-mounted 150W metal halide luminaires were selected for their ability to mimic the appearance of sunlight filtering through trees and creating shadow patterns on the floor as if in a forest. 

When asked how he felt about seeing a project he had worked on close, lighting designer Paul Gregory said, “Many of us left theater because of the limited time frame of projects. Architectural lighting gives you a chance to have work of more permanence. So yes, it is sad to see this close; it’s a great space and it was a fun job to work on.”

Fred Charles Inside the "urban treehouses."