CHALLENGE Looking for a theatrical effect, exhibition and interior design company Land Design Studio asked David Atkinson Lighting Design (DALD) to create the lighting scheme for “The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957,” a recent exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). In representing the post-war era of haute couture that the late fashion designer Christian Dior dubbed the “golden age,” DALD had to be extremely cautious when illuminating the exhibits—which included sensitive textiles and photographs—while adhering to the museum's strict conservation guidelines.

SOLUTION Tasked with illuminating this exhibit—which coincides with the 60th anniversary of Dior's post-war era “New Look” that celebrated femininity and featured cinched waists, full skirts, and rounded shoulders—DALD worked closely with the V&A and had contractor CP Electrical install and focus the lighting. One of the V&A's major exhibitions, the couture show took up almost 3,000 square feet of space, and DALD's approach was to illuminate each area based on its displays.

Some of the greatest challenges were not design-related but logistical, explains David Atkinson, creative director of DALD, adding that the main question he asked himself regarding the lighting was “‘How?'” In particular, he admits that meeting the conservation requirements presented a challenge, as he likely would have used more light in certain areas but had to keep within specific boundaries.

The first of two main galleries focuses on the processes, skills, and craftsmanship of haute couture, which is clothing made entirely by hand and to order. A practical approach was used, with the simple uplighting of recessed 35W T5 fluorescents, fitted with red filter sleeves, onto backdrops of solid red panels and stretched scrim gauze. Land Design Studio used large-scale video projections on the gauze and walls, adding depth to the space. Also, externally lighting the showcases from high-level tracks with AR111 lamps fitted with a combination of lenses to spread and diffuse the light “gives a real sense of airiness” and allows for acute lighting angles, Atkinson says.

The second gallery's most striking element is an enclosed case featuring couture ball gowns. It is the largest glass case ever built for an exhibition at the V&A, measuring 30 feet by 30 feet. “That case really plays on the lighting, it's heavily top lit and then we've got this grazing of the blue above the case as well,” Atkinson says. “It gives a real sense of drama—pure theater, really.” A yarn curtain, illuminated by T5 fluorescents with lavender filters, runs from the top of the case to the ceiling and creates a sense of height and scale. The lighting levels of the case, which internally was lit with 35W MR16 lamps angled at 36 degrees, were kept to 50 lux to meet conservation guidelines.

While the majority of the displays focus on designs and memorabilia from this historic post-war fashion era, the final space, housed in a smaller gallery and titled “The Legacy,” features Dior dresses designed by John Galliano, artistic director for the House of Dior since 1997. To highlight the contrast between the two designers, DALD made bold lighting choices. The gallery's white casement ceiling is lit in pink by 65W T5 fluorescent beam shaper fixtures with shutters. The color, achieved by pink filter sleeves fitted to the fluorescents, immediately sets this gallery apart. The dresses are illuminated from a flat angle, creating impressive shadows on the wall behind them. A large timeline graphic spans the wall and is illuminated by AR111 lamps angled at 24 degrees and by wallwash lenses, which help contrast the pink light reflecting off the ceiling.

“The lighting does create a real sense of drama within the spaces from the moment you walk in by the use of dramatic, strong colors,” Atkinson says. “The way the dresses are illuminated is in quite an acute angle, it really accentuates the form of the exhibit and the folds and styling within the garments. The way that the lighting works, it kind of leads you through the exhibition.”

DESIGN TEAM | David Atkinson Lighting Design, London (lighting design); Land Design Studio, London (exhibit design) PROJECT SIZE | Approximately 2,985 square feet PHOTOGRAPHER | Nick Woods, Land Design Studio, London MANUFACTURERS | EncapSulite, ERCO, Light Projects