Today, luminous surfaces are an often-seen design move. But in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in the United States, the concept and implementation was rarely seen. But all of that changed with the luminous ceiling at the Seagram Building in New York.
The ceiling was a collaboration between the Seagram’s design team—architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, and lighting designer Richard Kelly—with lighting manufacturer Lightolier and that company’s lead designer Noel Florence. In The First 100 Years: A History of Lightolier (Lightolier, 2004), Daniel Blitzer recounts his father, William Blitzer, and Florence explaining that the desired panel size was larger than anyone knew how to produce at the time. Florence had developed a vacuum-formed diffuser in a frame to show to the Seagram team. They liked it, awarded Lightolier the job and requested a larger on-site mock-up. But that demonstration revealed surface buckles. Not wanting to lose the job, Florence revisited his design and figured out a way to stretch rigid vinyl by heating it to eliminate the irregularities.
The luminous ceiling became one of the signature features of the building, and cemented Lightolier’s place in architectural circles as a leading manufacturer of architectural luminaires. Its also symbolic of the designer/manufacturer collaboration, which has been so critical to the practice of lighting design.