Mix It Up: Lighting

On a sunny winter afternoon, the lobby of 200 Fifth Avenue is glowing brightly, thanks to dozens of light sources trained on its white terrazzo floors and limestone walls. David W. Levinson, the owner of L&L Holding Company, “wanted it to blow away all the other lobbies in New York,” says Clark Johnson, the lighting […]

On a sunny winter afternoon, the lobby of 200 Fifth Avenue is glowing brightly, thanks to dozens of light sources trained on its white terrazzo floors and limestone walls. David W. Levinson, the owner of L&L Holding Company, “wanted it to blow away all the other lobbies in New York,” says Clark Johnson, the lighting designer for the building’s public spaces (as well as for the Grey offices upstairs). L&L, which is in the business of attracting tenants, insisted that no one looking into the lobby should see a “dead space.” That means that the lights can’t be turned off when it’s bright outside—they have to be turned up.

Fortunately, new technology—and the creativity of Johnson’s team—made it possible to satisfy the client while keeping power usage low. For the largest fixtures, Johnson used HID (high-intensity discharge) bulbs, which provide more light than incandescents or halogens of the same wattage. For accents, he went with LEDs, designing a series of hanging fixtures for the triple-height space at the back of the lobby. The single-watt LEDs add a lot of sparkle without much wattage, and because they descend through an atrium visible from Grey’s reception area, they create connections between the lobby and the offices upstairs.

There, the kind of work environment Grey wanted—a series of memorable and clearly differentiated spaces, with a minimum of interior walls—couldn’t have happened without Johnson’s ingenious mix of fixtures: incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, HID, LED. Sometimes the fixtures are markers—Moooi’s Dear Ingo chandelier, composed of 16 swing-arm drafting lamps, dominates one conference room; a pendant that resembles a bouquet of flashlights, from Established & Sons, looms over another. Elsewhere, lighting is used to turn materials chosen by Studios Architecture (such as honeycomb acrylic), or graphics created by Pentagram’s Paula Scher, into beacons and signage devices.

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Indeed, given all the places where fixtures are used to highlight, dramatize, and differentiate, it’s easy to forget that Johnson’s main goal was to provide adequate lighting for Grey’s employees. Here he was guided not just by 25 years of experience but by ASHRAE 90.1, the energy conservation standards developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, in conjunction with the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. The code, which was adopted as law by New York state in 2008, permits a maximum “lighting-power density” of one watt per square foot of office space. (The limits range from 0.3 watts per square foot for fire-station sleeping quarters to 2.2 watts per square foot for hospital operating rooms.) As a result, “You’re constantly recalculating,” Johnson says. “If you add light in one place, you have to cut back in another.”

Those constraints weren’t in place when Johnson collaborated with Studios in 2005 on the New York headquarters of Bloomberg. In that project, brightness, with its connotations of power and dynamism, was both a means and an end. This time the client wanted to signal resourcefulness and restraint. Along with the wattage-density limits, the corporate culture resulted in more subdued interiors—a kind of Soho loft to Bloomberg’s indoor Coney Island. For the large, open-plan offices, Johnson started with simple fluorescent fixtures, which he placed diagonally across the ceiling, as if to encourage out-of-the-box thinking at the desks below. Some of the fixtures also contain up-lights, which wash the white-painted ceiling, but many of them were eliminated to keep the wattage density at one per square foot.

Johnson took pains to illuminate walls at the building’s core. “Seeing bright surfaces, even if they’re at a distance, makes you feel like you’re part of a bright space,” he says. He also made generous use of LEDs, with most of them contained in ceiling fixtures made to his specifications by Amerlux. The fixtures provide twinkly effects that belie their mere nine watts of power, while referencing the lobby’s own sparklers.

As if to ensure that nobody felt lost amid the open-plan offices, Johnson gave every employee a dimmable LED desk lamp (a mere 8.8 watts at maximum power). “There’s nothing better than having a pool of light in front of you, for intimacy,” Johnson says. Somewhat to his surprise, employees hardly ever turn them on. (They’re more likely to be looking at computer screens than paper.) But they do use them as sculptures, bending them into shapes that announce their presence—X, Y, or Z marks the spot.

There were other ways in which Johnson had to respond to current realities. In 2008, he says, after three years when his firm had been busier than ever, money stopped coming in. Forced to downsize, Johnson “sold” some of his jobs to Kugler Ning, a competing firm, which took on several of his employees, including Terry Nelson, who had been the project designer on the Grey and 200 Fifth Avenue projects, and Patrick Tiago. The clients got continuity, key employees kept working, and Johnson was able to stay out of debt.

His recent projects include the Ace Hotel, where he created a lighting scheme that the designers Roman and Williams fleshed out with a collection of vintage fixtures; and the new Mondrian Hotel in Soho, whose designer, Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, credits Johnson with “using LED and fiber optics to create the feeling of ‘enchanted.’”

Though he sees himself as an artist, not a technician, Johnson spends much of his time going over calculations with his staff. In the future, he says, “I predict more ‘wattage-density police’ checking up on projects, verifying levels.” But at the same time, “There will be more efficient delivery systems, which will make it possible to comply with the limits in ever more creative ways.” Of the required trade-offs, he adds, “You just have to choose your moments.”

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