Re-Lighting of Historic Architecture

When it comes to renovating historic architecture, sensitivity to the original architect’s intent for each space and detail is of utmost importance. But it is not often that the original lighting design intent is so sophisticated that it rises to the same level as the architecture. At the Eliel Saarinen-designed Cranbrook Art Museum, this twist provided an amazing glimpse into the mind of an architectural master and challenged SmithGroup to live up to his awesome standard.

Designed in 1942, this historic landmark houses traveling exhibits, student work and Cranbrook’s own priceless collection. As part of an extensive restoration, SmithGroup’s lighting design studio was commissioned to reinstate Saarinen’s original architectural aesthetic, while enhancing the flexibility and functionality required for modern museum standards.

Cranbrook’s meticulous archives documented much of Saarinen’s design intent and construction communications. Although the signature coffers that form one of the primary aesthetic gestures in the space had been unlit for 30 years, with the aid of the archives, they were restored to their original glory.

When Saarinen designed the space, the newest light source of his day was the fluorescent tube. Around this new light source, he deftly crafted a ceiling design that created a luminous plane of ceiling coffers to serve as a modern interpretation of the daylit galleries common for that time. Akin to Saarinen’s innovative creation that integrated the first generation of commercially produced fluorescent lamps, state-of-the-art white LED technology was selected to restore the coffers while maximizing the lighting design to meet stringent modern day museum lighting standards. The use of LEDs enabled fully-dimmable, color-stable, high color rendering lighting without any ultraviolet light, known to damage artwork. However, no LED sources were commercially available that met the design criteria. The SmithGroup team collaborated with industry partners to create a new product that met rigorous design and budget requirements.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Lighting Design SmithGroup
Honoring Saarinen at Cranbrook Art Museum

The team’s design solution also accommodates Cranbrook’s wide range of exhibits, which includes video, sculpture, sensitive tapestries, paintings, and more. Designers developed a completely dimmable design that creatively layers diffuse coffer lighting with halogen accents to achieve a variable spectrum of lighting quality and quantity. Recessed track and custom minimalist heads with integral glare louvers were installed and harmonize with Saarinen’s aesthetic. This dimmable LED coffer system modulates the space and achieves 40% energy savings below the original system.

Designers’ respect for Saarinen’s original design intent was also evident in solutions devised for the accent lighting layer throughout the galleries. To maintain proper aiming angles and flexibility, select historic coffer intersections were carefully modified to integrate adjustable track heads with custom connectors. Magnetic cover plates retain the master’s original aesthetic when heads are not required.  Technology and meticulous integration empowered this Saarinen masterpiece to shine once again.