Illuminating art with safe, efficient light
The Cranbrook educational campus is one of the world's leading centers of education, science, and art. The majority of the site was designed by architect Eliel Saarinen, best known for his art nouveau buildings in the early 20th century.
Cranbrook Art Museum, the last building on the campus that Saarinen designed, had aging infrastructure and lacked modern environmental control, with humidity and lighting systems, causing conditions that could possibly compromise strict conservation requirements for sensitive artwork. This was also putting the museum at risk of losing its accreditation by the American Association of Museums.
It was time to bring the museum up to modern standards. Cranbrook called on SmithGroupJJR to lead a project which included the restoration of the original museum space as well as the construction of a new collections wing. Jeff Gerwing, a principal at SmithGroupJJR, was charged with the restoration of the original Museum lighting.
When Saarinen designed the museum lighting, he created a series of beautifully crafted coffers that covered various portions of the ceilings in each gallery. He illuminated these coffers with the most modern technology of his day—the first fluorescent lamps. Saarinen also placed customized adjustable accent lighting throughout the galleries. In the 1980s the ballasts of the fluorescent lamps started smoking and had to be turned off. This left the gallery dark, except for the newly installed track lighting, for over 25 years. Gerwing was determined to bring Saarinen's original lighting design back to life.
The space required a fully controllable and dimmable lighting system that would also meet museum standards. If updated fluorescent technology was used, Gerwing was worried about seeing a color shift when the fixtures were dimmed and cause discoloration of the artwork. Instead, Gerwing suggested that the coffers be retrofitted using the most modern lighting technology of today—white LED lighting. LED lighting can be easily controlled and does not color shift when dimmed. It also does not emit infrared or UV energy, both which can degrade fabric, paints, and dyes. At the time, there were no LED lighting systems on the market that had the output, distribution, and color quality that the project required. Gerwing reached out to Color Kinetics who fast-tracked production of their new eW Cove MX Powecore high-output linear LED luminaires that would meet Gerwing's specifications. Gerwing retrofit the coffers with these new LED luminaires and also integrated a newly designed custom accent lighting system.
"The museum can now achieve anything on the spectrum from accent to diffuse lighting," commented Gerwing. "Depending on the nature of the art being displayed, the museum can provide more accent, reveal texture, or use only the coffer lighting to create a diffuse, even wash on the artwork. In this way, the LED lighting not only relights the coffers as an architectural element, but it also serves as a diffuse layer of art lighting."