A view of the Hyatt Herald Square lobby
Peter Kubilus A view of the Hyatt Herald Square lobby

Since humans began building shelters, we have struggled with how to light our surroundings. There have been two options: bring in natural light or create a simulacrum of the sun—first using fire and then electrical lighting. But for the renovation of a hotel lobby in Manhattan’s Herald Square, PHT Lighting Design took a third approach. For an interior space devoid of windows or skylights, the designers deftly created the illusion of daylight with little more than simple glass block and a tunable white LED source.

Lobby floor plan
Courtesy PHT Lighting Design Lobby floor plan

The space in question, the reception desk and lounge area of the Hyatt Herald Square, at West 31st Street, (it had a soft opening in September 2014 and its grand opening in March 2015) which had been severed from the daylight-filled entrance by an 18-foot-wide elevator core that occupied the middle of the lobby’s 32-foot-wide floor plate. Darkening it further were 10-foot ceilings at the entrance and two enclosed staircases on either side. From the moment she saw the space, Peiheng Tsai, who founded PHT Lighting Design in 2006, knew that lighting would play a leading role in stitching the two halves of the lobby back together.

Working alongside the client and the interior designers, Paul Vega and Vennie Lau of New Jersey–based VLDG, Tsai conceptualized a custom clerestory light box that would wrap around the perimeter of the lounge and give hotel guests the impression that the space was illuminated by way of natural light. “The whole idea was to, somehow, create the illusion that there are windows,” says Tsai. “It was a very dark space in the back.” Using glass block would also tie into the interior design, which sought to elicit the area’s industrial history, a hub of both publishing (the neighborhood is named for the now-defunct New York Herald) and apparel and fashion.

Courtesy PHT Lighting Design

Built out of 4-inch-thick industrial glass block and uplit with dynamic white LEDs, the clerestory system, which is replicated behind the bar, is a convincing imitation, glowing with a cool ambient light that visitors no doubt subconsciously assume is somehow penetrating the 20-story building. Controlled by a dimming system, the LEDs transition from a cool 5000K during the day to a neutral 3500K around dusk and then to a warm 2700K at night. Thanks to an astronomical clock, the lighting also is synced to the seasonal changes in the times of sunrise and sunset.

The bar area
Peter Kubilus The bar area

Tsai had never designed a lighting solution quite like this before, nor had she used tunable white LEDs, which were still fairly new when the project commenced. “We knew it was probably going to work, but we had no idea what it was going to look like,” she says. Tsai and her team created a full-scale mock-up at their office just a few blocks away from the hotel in neighboring Chelsea. They tested several light sources and settled on a dynamic white 50W 4-inch-wide LED wall grazing fixture controlled with a DMX interface. Although the selected LEDs have a color temperature range of 2700K to 6500K, Tsai programmed it to max out at 5000K. She knew that 6500K would be too cool for a hospitality setting. “When that clerestory gets too cool it actually feels very odd,” she says, in part because the rest of the lobby’s lighting is closer to 3000K.

Back hall corridor
Peter Kubilus Back hall corridor

Throughout the space, lighting enhances the warm, midcentury vibe envisioned by the interior designers. The elevator core is wrapped in shimmering gold fabric wallcovering and enlivened by vertical laminated wood fins. Concealed behind the wood is 2700K LED tape, which reflects off the shimmering surface and makes the wall itself seem luminous. “This whole wall feels like it’s glowing,” Tsai says.

Elsewhere, subtle decorative pendants illuminate intimate reading areas (where guests can peruse vintage newspapers), while a collection of criss-crossing wooden pendants evoke the feel of a warehouse loft and enhance the height of the ceilings (which step up from 10 feet at the entrance to more than 14 feet in the lounge). For a collection of stylized wooden clocks along the back corridor wall and set to the times of major fashion capitals (New York, Paris, London, and Milan), Tsai used narrow LED MR16 spotlights to create a theatrical effect.

The clock wall corridor
Peter Kubilus The clock wall corridor

But the most challenging aspect of the project, Tsai says, was the clerestory “daylight” system. Her team hadn’t worked with tunable white LED sources previously, and just days before the hotel was to open, it wasn’t working. “Nobody knew why,” she says. Finally, Tsai, the electrical contractor, and representatives from the manufacturers met on site to diagnose the problem. They discovered the lighting system hadn’t been wired correctly. It took two or three hours to get it right—“It was very confusing,” Tsai says—but on opening day, when guests walked into the newly renovated Hyatt Herald Square, they found a space no longer divided into such discrete halves, with natural light from outside flooding the espresso bar near the entrance—and seeming to do the same from the a set of “windows” in the back. •

Dining area off of the lobby
Peter Kubilus Dining area off of the lobby

Project: Hyatt Herald Square Lobby, New York • Interiors: VLDG, Edgewater, N.J. • Architect of Record: Nobutaka Ashihara Architect, New York • Engineer: Edwards & Zuck, New York • Lighting Designer: PHT Lighting Design, New York • Project Size: 3,417 square feet (first floor front of house) • Project Costs: Withheld • Lighting Costs: $30 per square foot (lobby scope of work) • Code Compliance: ASHRAE 90.1-2007 (with additional decorative lighting and retail allowance) • Watts per Square Foot: 0.85

Contrast Lighting: Ceiling-recessed small-aperture (narrow-beam) downlight with MR16 LED lamp • Flos: Piani decorative lamp at guest desk • Future Perfect: Decorative glass pendants at bar—special-edition Clamp Pendant by Lindsey Adelman • Ligne Roset: Decorative pendant at lounge • Philips Color Kinetics: iW Fuse Powercore dynamic-white LED wall grazer with a dynamic range 2700K to 6500K with iPlayer3 DMX interface (4-foot fixture, each 50W) behind clerestory and back bar glass blocks • Soraa: 9.8W 2700K MR16 LED lamps for ceiling-recessed downlights • Stickbulb: 3000K LED wooden decorative stick pendant at lounge and Torch table lamp at reception desk • WAC Lighting: InvisiLED Pro 2—4W-per-linear-foot 2700K tape light—for ceiling covelight, behind wood planks, and bar liquor shelf