AS MUCH AS WE MIGHT LIKE to thin of hotels as homelike, the art of lighting them has less in common with split-levels than with theater sets. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the spate of recent boutique hotels, where, bathed in color, and defined in spotlights, visitors have the chance to role-play while they brush their teeth. The design team’s task has accordingly taken on a thespian persuasion. “You’re creating public theater, and stages where people act out their fantasies,” says architect David Rockwell. “Hotels have every physical thing you could possibly need, so what differentiates them is aspirational — who you want to be for the evening.”
At Johnson Schwinghammer (JS) Lighting, the firm that illuminated Rockwell’s scheme for the new W Hotel on Manhattan’s Union Square, the average inventory could as easily be used for a Broadway show: spots to single out props and architectural features, framing projectors with shutters to cast precise blocks of light, gobos (small screens) for deflecting and shaping light, and gels for color. “The theater is the spawn of a lot of lighting fixtures,” says JS Lighting designer John Pfeiffer, “and a lot of great effects.”
Founded in New York in 1985 by Clark Johnson and Bill Schwing hammer, JS Lighting found its way to boutique hotels through work on retail interiors — notably the flagship Barney’s store on Madison Avenue, which opened in 1993 with an innovative multilamp track system. As the boutique hotel boomed, JS Lighting was approached by a succession of design teams to work on projects that have redefined the hospitality industry. Beginning with the Philippe Starck-designed Delano in Miami Beach, the firm went on to light Studio Sofield’s Soho Grand in New York, Rockwell’s Won Lexington Avenue, Starck’s Mondrian in West Hollywood and his Hudson on Manhattan’s West 58th Street, and Rockwell’s Union Square W, which opened on the premises of the old Guardian Life Building at the end of last year.
At the W Union Square, the theater analogy extends to the construction of an actual narrative–perhaps even a plot. Drawing inspiration from the hotel’s proximity to Union Square park, Rockwell imagined a hotel infiltrated by nature, with twisting bamboo over the front entrance and a lobby with topiary interior walls and ambercast glass floral ceiling fixtures. The Renaissance Revival style of the 1911 building, and its location in Manhattan’s former fashion district, provided a second theme, based on the abstracted form of a meretricious Victorian corset. The double-height reception area, with its rising, twisting staircase is marked by illuminated plaster niches that curve upward. “The side walls ripple and the ceiling bulges up,” says Rockwell, merging the languages of architecture and anatomy. The effect is a kind of restrained opulence, inviting fantasies of Merchant Ivory films in which turn-of-the-century flaneurs meet clandestinely in hotel tea rooms.
Forbidden sensuality is also the narrative underlying Philippe Starck’s Hudson hotel, where JS Lighting created a “monastic” level of illumination punctuated by moments of brilliant drama. Starck hit upon the monastery theme when presented with the dark brick structure–formerly a television studio. Corridors and public areas are deliberately murky to accentuate light splashing from the chartreuse neon ceiling above the entrance escalator, glowing in a magical, grottolike courtyard garden, or pouring out of the lounge bar floor.
Starck was at his most mischievous in the Hudson’s tiny guestrooms, where a transparent glass wall separates the shower from the bedroom: only a flimsy curtain prevents the bed’s occupant from enjoying a display of his or her partner showering. “There’s a whole implied sexuality in that,” admits designer John Pfeiffer. “It’s one of my favorite moves.”
Inevitably, not all hotel projects offer the same budgets and creative freedom as the high-profile Starck and W venues. “Sometimes there isn’t a concept,” says Bill Schwinghammer. “We’re just trying to help out and add to what the architect is doing.” At 60 Thompson, the latest hotel in New York’s Soho, for example, JS Lighting created a relatively low-cost scheme to accentuate Aero Studios’s materials palette of leather and stone. The firm came up with custom sconces in the hallways and an energy-efficient system using long lines of fluorescent light–gelled to look warmer and more incandescent–in coves along the floor, walls, and ceiling.
Navigational assistance is one of the finer points of good lighting, providing visitors with direction without the clutter of signs. The late-19th-century Claridge’s hotel in London, which is undergoing a restoration by architect Thierry Despont, challenged the designers to reorganize and repair public areas while contending with a protection order from English Heritage and several layers of previous designs. In the inherently art deco foyer, Despont commissioned a light sculpture by Dale Chihuly to bring the space into the 21st century. Since the sculpture, containing 800 pieces of hand-blown glass, was not internally lit, JS Lighting installed a series of tight spots in coves on either side and above the piece, creating distinctive shadows and the slight impression that the sculpture is in motion. The move also provided a central navigation point. “It gave the hotel more of a heart,” says Schwinghammer. The final touch of any lighting project is when the lighting designers move around the space focusing an d adjusting spots. “There’s an enormous difference in a space before and after it’s focused,” says Pfeiffer. “When I first went into the W Union Square, it looked horrible. When we actually focused the light and started hitting things and gelling it and doing all the little last steps, the place came together.”
As with the dress rehearsal of any performance, this last step makes for a stressful countdown. But as Clark Johnson puts it, such is the lot of the lighting designer. “There’s never a dull moment, I tell you.”