Realms of Fantasee


At the Lawrence Institute of Technology, a respected engineering college in suburban Detroit, one of the course offerings is simply entitled "Architectural Lighting Design." The instructor, who has also taught at the University of Detroit and the city's Center for Creative Studies, has been the guest speaker at various professional architectural and lighting conferences across the nation and has worked around the world. What his students may not know is that Stefan Graf, IALD--the winner of 29 professional architectural lighting awards--is completely self-taught in his trade, and long ago helped to create the first movable stage light.

Graf, along with his business partner and wife Cindy Hudson, heads the nationally renowned design firm Illuminart and the full-service theatrical lighting/rental firm Fantasee Lighting of Ypsilanti, MI. Interestingly, he began his career working for Grand Funk Railroad in 1969 as a sound technician. Two years later he started doing lighting for the band, and hasn't looked back. His clients then included the James Gang, Wishbone Ash, and War.

At the time Graf wasn't primarily known as a designer, although he was doing freelance design work. "Our claim to fame in those days was developing new technology," he says. Graf was involved in the development of the first color changer for a PAR can, the Rainbo 6, a revolutionary product in the early 70s. Then came the Cyklops.

"The Cyklops was a remote-control stage spot put on a truss or Genie tower behind the performer," Graf reminisces. "The operator sat on the side of the stage with a joystick and pushed buttons to control the color changing and everything else." Today the only four Cyklops units in the world sit in the attic of Fantasee Lighting, garnering offers from various lighting impresarios. "They did inspire Vari-Lite and High End Systems," Graf says with a smile, noting that suddenly his old instruments have become sought-after collector items, rather like vintage guitars.

In 1976, Fantasee Lighting was born. Early on, the firm was involved in concert touring and industrials, as well as disco installations. After a number of projects were completed, Hudson says, "Suddenly we started getting calls from architects and developers who would never call a stage lighting company." The pair did some research, and became fully involved in architectural lighting in 1978.

Their architectural business grew, yet there was a small downside--the image, more specifically the logo, of Fantasee Lighting. "Our logo at the time featured a bare-chested, hoop-earringed, testosterone-laden cyclops whose forehead sprouted a horn, with one eye beaming a beacon of light," Hudson explains with a grin. Naturally, this wasn't a selling point for the more conservative architectural market. So Graf and Hudson began Illuminart, their architectural design firm, in the early 80s. "It simply grew out of an image problem," Graf admits.

If the transition between flashy theatrical stage shows and architectural lighting seems a bit extreme, well, it is. "They are two different genres," Graf says. "Concert lighting is fast, colorful, and exciting. There's a lot of movement and it's very temporary. Architectural lighting is quiet and discreet, yet it creates atmosphere and is the silent design partner. The visual and color dynamics are permanent."

Has Graf's architectural work helped his overall skills as a designer? "Yes--the advantage to learning architectural lighting for a theatrical lighting person is that because it is so permanent, you have to take all the guesswork out of your design," he begins. "You become more disciplined to be precise in your lighting calculations, and in your design work in general, which segues into industrial lighting and exhibit lighting." Which has given Graf and Hudson (who handles the lion's share of the administrative work, along with her design input) the opportunity to work on a myriad of interesting and sometimes outrageous projects.

One of Graf's most visually stunning projects is the Regent Court office complex in Dearborn, MI. The building is accented by a huge sculpture of numerous ribbons that seem to glide across the night landscape like amber waves of . . . steel. According to Graf, "the lighting transforms the space after dark, while the lights on the landscape sculpture make it look like it's moving at night." The Regent Court project was awarded three Edwin F. Guth Memorial Awards of Merit by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) in 1994.

That was the same time that Graf and Illuminart began working on their most impressive project to date: The Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, MI. This project, which encompasses about 2.4 million sq. ft. (216,000 sq. m), had two distinct parts--the atriums and public spaces, and the Styling Dome, a large, multifunctional domed space that is primarily a product evaluation area. Says Robert Carington, then the vice president of CRSS Architects, which designed the project, Graf was brought in because Chrysler was unhappy with the work of the original lighting designers from New York. "The variety of Graf's background is very helpful," Carington says. "He brings another dimension to architectural lighting, and the Detroit area is fortunate to have talent like his here."

For the Chrysler Technology Center, Graf cut the number of fixtures in half, which satisfied the project's budgetary considerations. "We had to do everything in a fairly short period of time. It was a matter of reducing installation and operating costs, and improving the visual environment." In the Styling Dome, Graf created an indirect lighting system that uplit the ceiling, which could operate as a sky simulator, and custom-designed a moving light system that put 85 moving fixtures into the ceiling. At that time, "these fixtures didn't even exist," Graf says. High End Systems won the bid on the project, and, says the LD, "this research and development spawned the Cyberlight(R)." The Chrysler Technology Center also propelled Graf and Illuminart into the annals of architectural lighting history: Graf is the only person to be awarded two separate International Illumination Design Awards of Distinction from the IESNA, as well as a General Electric Award of Merit and a GE Award of Excellence, for this project.

Another area of the business where Graf has made his mark is in the auto show circuit. Says Hudson, "We've been doing auto show work since the early 80s," before clients wanted to use any sort of additional lighting at all. Since then, the market for automotive exhibit lighting has skyrocketed. Says Graf, "It's entertainment, it's a retail environment, it's got to be visually stimulating, attractive, and comfortable. It's a summary of everything we do."

On the more fanciful side, Graf and Illuminart have also done the lighting for a number of Walt Disney retail stores. In 1995, Graf designed the lighting for the prototypical shopping mall Disney Store, and today there are approximately 150 across the US. The Disney projects (including many custom retail shops nationwide) interest Graf because "they're architectural but also theatrical. They're the fun stuff."

Some of Illuminart's other "fun stuff" includes occasionally working with individuals who can't always give feedback, even though they live under Illuminart's lighting throughout the winter. Has Illuminart been working in some sort of third-world prison? Hardly. The group that lives day in and day out with its lighting is the chimpanzees in the venerable Detroit Zoo.

Before Graf and Illuminart got involved, the chimpanzee exhibit (which goes indoors during the winter) used simple lighting that was either on 100%, or was completely dark. The more zoo officials thought about it, the more they found their current lighting system lacking. So they called in Graf, who designed a system that simulated dawn and sunset. "We designed lighting that bounced off the ceiling on a timed control system. Over an hour-long period, it got brighter until it felt like daylight," Graf explains, smiling. "I think the chimps benefited from it, but I'm not sure, since I've never talked to them."

Illuminart projects can be found in Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. But none of this prepared them for the unusual call they got one afternoon in 1993. Hudson talked to someone who claimed that a Saudi Arabian prince was interested in hiring Illuminart to do the lighting design for a new royal family palace. "When they called I thought it was a joke," Hudson says with a smile. When she heard the rest of the story, she still wasn't so sure.

Graf's architectural and residential projects have been featured in numerous books. Residential Interiors, by Wanda Jankowski, highlights Illuminart's interior and exterior lighting design of a residence in West Bloomfield, MI, which won an Award of Merit from the IESNA. When the unnamed prince was in London, he picked up Jankowski's book in Harrods and skimmed through it, alighting on Graf's project. He then called his architect in Houston and told him to hire Illuminart. "Of all the ways to get a client to request your services, that was the most unusual," Graf says.

For sheer outrageousness, nothing can top last September's "Power of Houston City Festival." Consulting for LD Systems of Houston, Illuminart did all of the architectural lighting design concepts for this civic pride festival that included special lighting for three sides of more than 20 downtown buildings. The festivities included pyro, lasers, and a booming audio track that lasted for about 20 minutes. "It was a huge undertaking, just massive," Graf states. "It took weeks and hundreds and hundreds of people to get it worked out." The project is scheduled to air as a Discovery Channel special.

Has anything changed for Graf, who has worked in the industry for well over 20 years? "The two major changes are technology, which is accelerating, and a much greater public awareness of the benefits of good lighting." Hudson sees the past and the future a bit differently. "The presentation of the design idea to the client has changed," she states. "When we first started, we just showed our clients a blueprint. Today they want it in 3D, with sketches--the presentation is more complex and the consumer wants to see everything." But, on the positive side, she adds, "our longtime clients trust our judgment," which makes the initial presentations less complex.

Fantasee is looking toward the 21st century. "We're developing talent," Graf explains, noting the diversity of the design team, which has designers from theatre, concert production, film/video, architecture, special effects, electronics, and interior design backgrounds. Most of its projects are team designs, with Graf overseeing them as design director. "Everyone leaves their ego at the door, which makes for a much better project overall." Team designs are one of the company's strengths in a competitive marketplace.

As the year progresses, Fantasee will continue its extensive auto show work across the country, and light several clients at the National Auto Dealers Association convention in New Orleans. Illuminart will be working on the Inn at Bay Harbor in Harbor Springs, MI, as well as the Pier Five Hotel in Baltimore. The domains of Fantasee and Illuminart keep expanding.

Sharon Stancavage is a concert and theatrical lighting technician working in Detroit and the surrounding area.