Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; constructed 1969–72; north galleries; Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974), architect
Robert LaPrelle, © 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; constructed 1969–72; north galleries; Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974), architect

Focal Glow. Ambient Luminescence. Play of Brilliants. Those three tenets from Richard Kelly (1910–1977) remain the core theoretical statement on lighting design. No other practitioner has ever articulated lighting design concepts in such a way. He formally presented these ideas in a lecture titled “Lighting as an Integral Part of Architecture” to a joint meeting of the American Institute of Architects, the Society of Industrial Designers, and the Society of Illuminating Engineers on April 23, 1952, in Cleveland. The lecture was later published in the College Art Journal (Vol. 12, No. 1) in 1952.

Kelly understood light’s ability to shape space and create a sense of visual awareness that could evoke a range of human emotions. Through his collaborations with architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, and Eero Saarinen, Kelly established a modern architectural lighting vocabulary that addressed the material palette of Modernism—glass, steel, and concrete—and the particular challenges these “modern” materials presented, most notably with reflection.


Kelly’s sketch for the skylight design at the Kimbell Art Museum.
Courtesy Addison Kelly and Yale University Kelly’s sketch for the skylight design at the Kimbell Art Museum.

Kelly’s approach to lighting design centered on three principal techniques—highlighting objects, washing surfaces, and creating sharp detail. He used the terms “focal glow,” “ambient luminescence,” and “play of brilliants” to illustrate these ideas. These three techniques were always present in his work, although a specific project’s criteria might require one of the elements to be more pronounced than another. He was also an early proponent of daylighting and believed natural light to be the primary type of light that defines a space, and that electric lighting should serve a supplementary role. This layered approach to lighting created solutions that balanced both interior and exterior lighting.

Kelly trained at the Yale University School of Architecture. As an architect, lighting designer, and educator, he transformed the emerging practice of lighting design into a respected profession. With more than 300 projects to his credit, Kelly accomplished a prolific amount of work in his 40-year career.

Explore all 30 Moments in Lighting from our 30th Anniversary Issue here.