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LEDs + Lighting

Give My Regards

Art and lighting converge to provide a singular Broad St. experience.

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On June 11, Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts received a luminescent addition to its tableau of whimsical artistry when restaurateur Joe Varalli unveiled a collage of 34 glass-mosaic panels infused with internal LED illumination. Covering 290 sq. ft. of transit windows at Varalli’s twin Broad St. restaurants, Upstares at Varalli and Sotto Varalli, the mosaic culminated 16 diligent months that transmuted vision to reality.

Varalli — a lifelong restaurateur who’s studied business administration and culinary arts — opened Upstares, a Northern Italian-style trattoria, in 1989, on the second floor at 231 S. Broad St. Sotto, a seafood eatery, the first of its kind on the Avenue, followed downstairs a decade thereafter.

Striking artwork has been ubiquitous at Varalli’s eateries. Oil paintings from Peter Gregorio, depicting the world’s famous opera houses, have graced Upstares’ walls, while a 34-ft.-tall, iridescent squid comprising recycled glass tiles strikes a pose from a Sotto ceiling soffit.

In late 2001, Varalli chose to push the envelope at both restaurants. Given the proximity of the 146-year-old Philadelphia Academy of Music and the Kimmel Center (see ST , September 2002, page 88), Avenue eventgoers expect to be visually dazzled. He sought to create illuminated artwork within the restaurants’ transom windows that would engage passersby.

In turn, Varalli called upon Philadelphia-based Geronimo Sculpture, a fabrication, sculpture and design studio that had also crafted the ponderous squid. Gregory Emore, Geronimo’s principal, began pitching ideas to Varalli for decorating the windows. Once they chose glass as the medium, Emore collaborated with signmaker and exhibition designer Gibbs Connors and Steve Stormer, a glass-studio operator who helped cultivate the mosaic idea prior to his untimely death last year.

Connors and Emore began creating color effects representative of each restaurant’s personality: earthy greens and golds for Upstares, and a piscine mélange of blues and soft greens for Sotto.

Having decided on multi-colored, glass panels, the team sought even more distinction. Varalli hired Anura Karthik Kar” Vivekananthan, owner of Venus Aural Visual (Philadelphia) — which specializes in creating sound and lighting environments — to devise and install the lighting scheme. Having investigated myriad potential methods, he settled on LEDs.

Vivekananthan’s lightsource research underscored LEDs’ ability to change the tiles’ colors by changing the illumination’s tint. Another challenge was balancing the light so that it could be controlled within the restaurant and not inundate diners with aggressive light, yet still garner attention of Broad Street’s pedestrians and motorists.

To that end, he chose Color Kinetics’ (Boston) iColor® Cove, a color-changing, cove-lighting system designed for applications requiring narrow, directional light distribution. The units comprise rows of RGB LEDs that illuminate at a 110° angle.

Further, its color-mixing system enables independent control of its 6-in. and 1-ft. control strips, which contain 5mm LEDs and a three-pin header hard-wired to a PDS-150e power and data supply for all connected lights. According to Kathy Pattison, Color Kinetics’ VP of marketing, the system is based on Color Kinetics’ Chromacore&3174; system, which melds LEDs with digital controls.

Each 6-in. section emits 25.3 lumens of white light, 3.5 red, 16.1 green and 5.7 blue, operating on 3, 0.9, 1.3 and 1.3W, respectively. Twelve-inch segments convey 52.4, 7.6, 34.3 and 10.4 lumens of white, red, green and blue light, at 6.1, 1.7 and 2.5W. Each segment is encased in a low-profile, vented, molded plastic housing.

By developing fluctuating light intensity, Vivekananthan created illusory effects, such as water flowing through the mosaic. To balance the light of a single iColor Cove strand traversing each panel, Venus Aural Visual installed mirrors at the top and bottom of each panel to balance the lighting. Fiberoptics and other lightsources could have achieved similar brightness, but at a much higher temperature, he said.

“It allows strobes of light to be moved or held stationary as necessary,” Vivekananthan said. “For instance, we probably would prefer not to have blue or green light emit through a pane with a lot of dark blue, because it would look black. With this system, I can eliminate blue or green from the pane’s entire spectrum.”

Effects Vivekananthan created included white-light strobes that blink in succession through the panes, a random color change across the entire window’s length and a 90-second spectacular comprising its full gamut of illusions.

Varalli likens the mosaic to pointillism, a 19th-century artistic technique comprising small dots on a surface that, when seen from a distance, blend to provide the appearance of shifting colors and intensified luminescence.

Art of glass

Geronimo initially experimented with clear, colored glass, but Vivekananthan noted that it didn’t retain illumination, so images didn’t maintain their impact. He credits Stormer with hatching the idea of using semi-opaque glass, which would absorb some light, yet still emit enough to amplify the effect.

Emore contacted Ken Mott, managing partner of Visionary Fusion Studios/The Glass Works Inc. (Philadelphia), which melded more than 3,000 pieces of opaque cut glass into the panels. They purchased sheets of opalescent, solid-colored, fusible glass from Portland, OR-based Bullseye Manufacturing, one of a handful of fusible-glass manufacturers in the United States. Ted Sawyer, Bullseye’s director of research and technical development, notes that variables affect the glass-firing process.

“A kiln’s heating pattern is crucial,” he said. “Whether a kiln top- or side-fires will make a difference, as will its air-circulation pattern and the proximity of the glass to the heating element.”

According to the company, Bullseye produces the glass through a rolling process, which involves transporting a ladle filled with molten glass onto a water-cooled casting table. The glass is then rolled out, similarly to flattening a sheet of clay with a slab roller.

Challenges precluded developing a method for firing the glass within The Glass Works’ kiln. According to Emore, sheets of shelf paper prevented glass from fusing to the kiln’s bed.

Further, the firing method alters the texture. They endured some experiments, such as painting the panels or using crushed glass to create a texture, before they developed an effective method. This required a kiln wash, or a release agent that facilitated panel removal.

The Glass Works fused the panels together at 1,485°F for 15 minutes. The kiln needed 6 to 8 hours to reach the firing temperature, and the panels cooled for 10 hours before handling.

As with Emore, fused glass incurred a learning curve for Connors. Initially, he tried painting the panels with Bullseye’s special formulation, but after firing, Connors realized it required much thicker coverage that was incompatible with his designs.

After his initial attempt, he developed a new approach, a grid system comprising “opposite and analogous colors.” At close range, he said the lighting displays have a “pleasant, pulsating effect” whose subtlety escapes casual viewers. Connors noted that it’s best viewed from approximately 200 feet away.

Emore and Connors resolved the challenge of conveying a seemingly limitless color palette onto glass panels that address roughly 30 colors by devising a computer layout. They hired graphic artist Emory Krall, who scanned and individually numbered the Bullseye colors, and layered them onscreen using Adobe Illustrator®. Once they’d printed the number square, they used a T-square to individually place each piece of glass onto carrier sheets to send to the kiln.

Beneath the carrier sheets, the panels comprise a bottom and top clear layer — which Connors notes added substance and a smoother finish that reduce the possibility of warping.

Vivekananthan received inspiration for devising the lightshow from a surprising source.

“I was in Brazil on a hot day, looking at this fountain that had a mushroom-shaped top,” Vivekananthan explained. “I saw the sunlight reflect from the water onto the top, and it gave the appearance of movement. I thought to myself, ‘That’s nothing but the manipulation of light by shadow and a moving object. I can recreate that.’ This project is a prime example.”

Vivekananthan has become an LED devotee; he’s merged illuminated color-mixing systems with his company’s audio capabilities to create interactive nightclub dance floors.

Vivekananthan installed a DMX 512 controller to manage the system. Every group of 20 iCove fixtures is controlled by a power source with an Ethernet-controlled, IC circuit. Each power supply feeds into the DMX’s iPlayer 2 — a system that can record and replay up to eight different lightshows — which connects to a PC via a USB connection. Color Kinetics’ proprietary ColorPlay® software operates the system, which allows color-management customization. Varalli’s system also entails a controller keypad, which allows program changes with the push of a button.

Situated in the ceiling, the system’s shoebox-sized power adapter is UL-rated for up to 120V, and reduces voltage to a level sufficient to power the mosaic. Vivekananthan notes that the systems typically use 11 to 13V. He’s enthusiastic about the system’s possibilities to enhance the Varalli experience.

“The spectrum of natural light changes with the seasons; you see more blue in summer, more red and orange in autumn,” he said. “I think this system has a similar effect. It’s amazing how changing light can alter the mood of an environment.”

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