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Light through the eyes of Richard Kelly

Have you ever heard of the profession of lighting designer? Whatever your answer, you should at least know about one of the pioneers of modern architectural lighting: Richard Kelly.

Richard Kelly, an American lighting designer (1910-1977), was undoubtedly ahead of his time and at just 25 years old had already developed his own lighting practice, even before enrolling in the Yale School of Architecture, where he graduated in 1944.

Throughout his forty-year professional career, he worked on more than 300 projects with numerous renowned architects, such as Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, and he developed countless different lighting projects, including some of the most iconic of the 20th century, such as the Glass House, the Seagram Building, the General Motors Technical Centre and Kimbell Art Museum.

“A feeling for light and lighting starts with visual imagination, just as a painter’s talent does. Think of the creation of a water colour rendering—First, major highlights are imagined—then, graded washes of different luminosity are added and—then, the detail of minor lightplay makes the idea clear and entertains the eye”

Kelly’s three concepts of light theory

Richard Kelly was able to see beyond light; he was capable of interpreting light, nature and architecture and creating endless different sensations through lighting in different spaces. He used his knowledge of stage lighting to transfer this “magic” to architectural lighting projects, which were always developed according to technical principles.

Richard Kelly’s three concepts that formed the foundation of his work are still used today and applied in numerous lighting projects: “Focal glow, play of brilliants and ambient luminescence”.

“Focal glow is the campfire of all time, the follow spot on the modern stage; it is the pool of light at your favourite reading chair; it is the shaft of light that warms the end of the valley; it is candlelight on the face and a flashlight on a stair…”

The concept of “Focal Glow” is what we commonly refer to as accent lighting, the light that enables us to highlight elements that we see as most important or that play a fundamental role in the visual script of a project.

“Ambient luminescence is the uninterrupted light of a snowy morning in the open country. It is foglight at sea in a small boat, it is twilight haze on a wide river where shore and water and sky are indistinguishable…”

Ambient luminescence is the vertical lighting that floods surfaces. These days, thanks to the numerous solutions with linear lighting (LED strips, for example), we are able to produce many different types of ambient luminescence that vary in terms of design, intensity or colour temperature.

Play of brilliants is Times Square at night. It is the eighteenth century ballroom of crystal chandeliers and many candle flames. It is sunlight on a fountain or a rippling brook. It is a cache of diamonds in an opened cave. It is the rose window of Chartres… Play of brilliants excites the optic nerves, and in turn stimulates the body and spirit, quickens the appetite, awakens curiosity, sharpens the wit. It can be distracting or it can be entertaining”

Play of brilliants is dynamic lighting. With RGB, RGB+W and RGB+CCT lighting, along with control and adjustment systems, we can convey emotions, turn spaces into experiences or transmit information, rhythm and colour.

In 1980, after his death, a decision was made to honour his memory by creating the Richard Kelly Memorial scholarship, now known as the Richard Kelly Grant, for people under the age of 35 studying or working in lighting art and/or science within the USA, Canada or Mexico. The aim of this scholarship is to “recognise and encourage creative thought and activity in the use of light”.