Lighting Art in Residential and Museum Settings

BY Jessica N. Johnson

¬Ľ Few design elements have the ability to enhance artwork more than lighting. True for painting, sculpture, textiles, and other media, in the right situation the depth of an artist's line can be measured while color and texture leap toward the eye. Conversely, ill-advised lighting schemes can significantly discount the beauty of the object on display, and in some cases, actually damage the artwork. Two designers involved with residential and museum lighting reveal key issues associated with properly lighting artworks in various media and settings.

The ceiling/roof system at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, developed by Arup Lighting in conjunction with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, blocks out the sun, while providing a uniform, shadowless natural light (top right). For his own Seattle home, architect Clint Pehrson collaborated with lighting firm Studio Lux to develop a palette of fixtures that achieves a customized result. Lenses and filters were added to address the artwork (bottom right).

1. Look at the Artwork; Listen to the Client. For Christopher Thompson, founder and principal of the Seattle-based lighting firm Studio Lux, one of the key steps in the process of lighting artwork in a residential setting is also the most obvious: to physically look at the artwork in question and ask a few critical questions. What are the material palette and dimensions of the piece? Is it displayed horizontally or vertically, indoors or outdoors? Thompson adds a few more considerations: 'Is it under glass, or just a canvas? What is the material of the frame? What is the projection of the frame off the wall? These are important issues in understanding the placement of a fixture in relationship to the display item.' Viewing the artwork for which the lighting is being designed is sometimes impossible because the client has yet to purchase the specific piece. In these instances, Thompson pulls from experience. 'We can look at a wall and determine-given its size and proportion-what the artwork may or may not be, and we will design for our worst case scenario. By doing this, we know that if the artwork happens to be the largest the wall will accommodate, we have it covered.'

Another step in Thompson's process involves communication with the client. 'While clients may not know the technical lingo that we use in our industry,' Thompson adds, 'they do have a very emotional, visceral reaction. Listen to what people like and what they don't like.' Thompson's firm uses perspective drawings and renderings to show the interplay of light in a room, and to ensure that the lighting designer and client are in concert. After this exchange, it is important to work with the architect, builder, or interior designer to define how the particular fixtures will work with the aesthetics and structure of the architecture. It can be a disheartening and often an expensive setback to discover, too late, that a particular fixture was scheduled in the same location as a structural element.

2. Like Every Project, Budget Determines Fixture Choice. The project's budget will largely determine the fixture selection. Thompson describes one key difference between high-end fixtures and low-end fixtures: 'On the high end, there are fixtures that allow you to aim the lamp and then lock down the focus. That means that anyone who relamps the fixture will not disrupt the original aim. On the low end, you are challenged by the process of aiming and focusing each time the fixture is relamped. This is a great source of frustration for lighting designers, because aiming and focusing-while a small percentage of what we do in relation to the overall design process-has the largest visual impact on the success of the overall result.'

3. Fixture Placement Helps Establish Focal Points. The angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence. This rule will determine the placement of the fixture relative to the artwork. Fixture placement and aim provide the appropriate contrast between the artwork and its surrounding environment. 'Generally,' Thompson says, 'we will let the light bleed out past the framed artwork, or at the very least, have it cover the frame so that you don't have an overly contrasting relationship between the artwork and the wall.' Lighting artwork in a residential setting creates a focal point, which adds visual stimulus to the room. It also reflects light off the vertical surfaces, which contributes to the overall ambient light level of the space.

4. Be Mindful of Both Ultraviolet and Infrared Light. One technology that has had a significant impact on art lighting is fiber optics. 'UV light will travel deep into an object before it is absorbed and cause damage,' explains Ruth Ellen Miller, president of NoUVIR, a fiber optic lighting company specializing in art installations. 'We've also found that infrared damages; it changes the humidity level of objects. When you see a painting that is cracked or yellowed, that's IR damage.' The solution is to use balanced visible light that includes all colors so that photons reflect off an object equally. For museums, the use of a fiber optic system, which removes both ultra violet (UV) and infrared (IR) light, allows collections such as gems and minerals, textiles/costumes, and documents to be exhibited far longer than previous curatorial methodologies understood. 'If you remove all of the UV and IR, suddenly you greatly extend the life of the artifact,' says Miller. 'A document will last 40 times longer than it did under halogen or fluorescent lamps because there is no heat.' Additionally, no heat means reduced amounts of dust, and therefore, no need to clean and move an object as frequently. Collection size also does not preclude the use of a fiber optic system, and many private collectors are beginning to employ this technology.

5. In a Museum, Focus on the Collection, Not Individual Objects. While many of the concerns related to lighting a residential artwork are universal, museum settings offer additional considerations. Brian Stacy, a principal lighting designer who leads the New York Arup office, says that, like residential projects, it is important to understand the collection that will be on display. However, it is less important to design for and investigate each individual piece. 'A lot of the projects,' Stacy explains, 'focus more on developing a gallery shell and understanding what is an acceptable maximum light limit.' Often, a variety of media will share a common exhibit space. This requires, according to Stacy, 'a bit more thought into how you layer the light so that it doesn't look bright on one wall and dark on another. We try to keep the contrast ratio between the art and the wall at one to two, or one to three, which is often difficult.'

6. Incorporate, but Control Daylight.
A combination of daylight and electric light is common in many museums today, a change from the designs of previous decades.

This 'black-box' approach relied solely on electric lighting, and centered on the idea that too much light would damage the artwork. Now a complex arrangement of controls and shading devices enables institutions to tap the benefits of sunlight, while providing protection from harmful UV rays. Stacy offers the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas as an example. This collection contains both painting and sculpture and incorporates a roof that is unique in its ability to block out the sun's harmful rays, while providing uniform and shadowless natural light. Consequently, the electrical lighting system's necessity is reduced which, in turn, means reduced building cooling loads and less maintenance.

Jessica N. Johnson is an architect in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her Master of Architecture from North Carolina State University, and will begin a teaching fellowship there in the fall.