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Changing lights
September 07, 2014

Changing lights

There have been three great pieces recently on the “Color Fuses” mural Milton Glaser designed for the Minton-Capehart Federal Building in 1975. On Design Observer, Alexandra Lange reckoned its relation to the severity of the building’s brutalist architecture; Greg Allen mused about its political overtones; and Richard McCoy, over on the Art21 blog, started it all with his account of the intricate restoration of the mural to its original plan. McCoy describes the project:

…originally it was designed with a complex lighting system that was supposed to gradually illuminate the bands of color in a kind of programmed wave sequence during evening hours. The light-dimming system fell out of operation shortly after it was installed, and later was replaced with fixed illumination. Adding to the technical difficulties of this system, in 1975 the primary lighting source was incandescent light bulbs, which produce a yellowish light that can affect the way color is perceived, particularly when dimmed at low wattage.

A photo of a wall and staircase. The wall and staircase has a gradual vertical transition across it with different variation of colors such as orange, pink, red, and light pink.

View of the west wall of Milton Glaser’s mural “Color Fuses” (1975) after restoration. Image by Mark Williams, Imagenation, LLC. Property of the U.S. GSA.

The restoration team painstakingly recreated the 35 overlapping shades of the mural as it was painted and used an LED light system to achieve Glaser’s intended lighting effects. Caroline Sachay, who headed up the restoration, says “It is a unique work within Mr. Glaser’s portfolio and the result of a highly successful collaboration between artist and architect.” I agree with Alexandra Lange that it’s an unusually successful combination of art and architecture, on the other hand it was not always entirely unique within Glaser’s oeuvre.

A rough sketch of a light source. The light bulb is at the bottom of this contraption and on top is 6 disks that gradually goes from yellow to purple.

An early sketch for the lighting concept for the Aurora restaurant. From Glaser’s monograph Art Is Work (2000).

He often favored tricky lighting effects in his environmental design: for Joe Baum’s Aurora restaurant, which Glaser designed in 1985, the restauranteur wanted to grade from a “diffused, white light” at lunchtime to a “pinkish glow” at happy hour deepening into a more romantic tone in time for dinner. Glaser developed sconces with separate white, red, and blue dimmers.

A photo of the ceiling in a restaurant. There are a clutter of dome-like lights hanging. The lights are bright white.

A photograph showing two different moods of the Aurora.

The light played off watercolors that Glaser leaned dramatically against the walls. In Art is Work, Glaser writes, “since they were involved with the idea of the changing light they seemed thematically right for Aurora.” And the origin story is typically seductive:

I originally made the drawings in Puerto Villarta during a Christmas vacation. We were booked into the last available resort—it was a ghastly experience! I became ill shortly upon arrival and was confined to my room with nothing to do but read and look out the window. Fortunately the view across the bay was breathtaking. Something about the weather system created a constantly changing display of light and color.

But even more elaborate was the system he designed for the 1997 revision of Baum’s Windows On The World (more on the WTC restaurant). Glaser describes the process:

It was inspired by the idea of a theatrical scrim, which, depending on the lighting, could reveal its surface or the scene through and behind it. I assumed that a beaded curtain would function similarly and would also create a sense of sparkle and drama.

A photo the wall that is partially covered by a curtain of beads. The wall that is covered by the curtain can't be really seen but one can make out the red clouds and purple sky. The bead curtain shows a blue sky with light yellow clouds.

Installation of the curtain, from Art is Work.

Three sketches for a wall mural concept. The first sketch is a light purple-yellow sky that is decorated with soft thin magenta clouds with bright purple shadows. The second sketch is made up of vertical lines that form a blue sky with light blue think soft clouds with yellow highlights on the clouds. The third sketch is the two past sketches combined. Together the sky is blue and yellow with purple clouds .

Top to bottom: sketch of painted red clouds (back wall), sketch of blue clouds made of beads, combination of beads over back wall. From Art is Work.

Glaser designed a red and pink motif for the wall behind and had the Eaves Brooks Costume Company (who, Glaser notes, were also responsible for elephants’ trappings for the Barnum & Bailey Circus) produce a nine by thirty-eight foot curtain made of 263,000 beads in yellows and blues.

 A rough sketch of a light purple curtain with folds. The curtain has several designs of a blue glass vase with two yellow and pink flowers.

Milton Glaser Collection. Series 1: Original Art. Sketch for etched glass drapery, precursor to the produced curtain.

A close up of a rough sketch of a light purple curtain with folds. The curtain has several designs of a tiny blue glass vase with two yellow and pink flowers.


We have one sketch involved in the project, which appears to be a precursor to this plan, in which drapery is studded with etched glass vases holding flowers.

A photo of the process of putting together the beaded curtain. A line of strings that all start off being filled with blue beads then goes to light yellow beads and a part of an outline of a clouds begins to form down on the strings.

Detail of the construction of the produced curtain, from Art is Work.

A photo the wall that covered by a curtain of beads. The wall can't be really seen but one can make out the red clouds and purple sky. The bead curtain shows a blue sky with light yellow clouds.

Partial installation of the Windows on the World beaded curtain.

In order to produce the shifting light effect, Glaser instructed for one set of lights to be installed between the curtain and the wall and another to be in front of the curtain. With the scrim effect, he envisioned that “the two cloud images would constantly replace one another with endless color variations before the viewer’s eyes.” But as is so often the case in the complex environmental design projects, small setbacks crippled the overall effect:

That was the plan. After the mural was installed, I was informed that, in an effort to reduce costs, a set of lights had been eliminated, completely negating the idea behind the project. After several years, the entry was redone and the mural taken down without it ever being seen in its intended form. It sits in boxes waiting to be installed somewhere under more favorable circumstances. You win some, you lose some.

Supposing those boxes weren’t kept at the World Trade Center, is it possible the curtain still exists?