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.
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.
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.
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I originally made the drawings in Puerto Villarta during a Christmas vacation.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.
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.
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.
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?