INTERVIEW: Lighting designer Joel Fitzpatrick on his desire to permanently illuminate Manhattan

June 8, 2018

Aurora at 277 Fifth Avenue, courtesy of Victor Group and Lendlease

Joel Fitzpatrick is a master of many trades. He has a diverse background in theater, fashion, interior design, and dance but the one common element through everything he does is light. Fitzpatrick started as a sculptor but yearned for more collaboration and found that through lighting. In his most recent work, a dynamic, multicolored light show called “Aurora” for Rafael Viñoly’s 277 Fifth Avenue, his career has come full circle.

After feeling the cosmos pulsate with the northern lights, there was no turning back. Now Fitzpatrick dreams of building an outdoor light show to permanently shine on the Manhattan skyline. 6sqft recently talked to Fitzpatrick, who shines a light on how his past informed his present and what to expect from him in the future. 

The northern lights in Alaska, via Wiki Commons

How did your light show Aurora for 277 Fifth come about and what was your inspiration?

It was a dream come true to light up the Manhattan skyline. A friend brought me to the attention of the developer and they commissioned me to do it. I have always been a sculpture and lighting designer. I did some architecture and interiors, and I love to transform things, like volume and space, with light. Aurora was the perfect synergy. It really felt full circle with this all came together.

Have you seen the real aurora borealis?

I went to art school Bennington, Vermont. In the four years I was there, for one week I was lucky enough to see the incredible northern lights. It was so amazing that I went and woke everyone up on campus. I emptied the dormitories and said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen! Everyone has to wake up!” We basically threw a party to see this incredible light show. Have you ever seen it?

Sadly, no.

The photos are always magnificent but there is something about seeing it in real life. You feel the cosmos pulsating. There is something other worldly about it. And to me, it feels mystical. It’s about volume, about the universe, about the altitude. You can see outer space. You see all of these things. That was the inspiration this building, when you are 50 stories up, overlooking Manhattan, you really feel the altitude and volume of this architecture. You see how special this tower is.

277 Fifth Avenue as seen from Madison Square Park, via 277 Fifth

Do you think the fact that the building isn’t finished helped the project?

It definitely was a great opportunity. But what really got us to this project was that the towers have this amazing outdoor space. We did many tests to see if we could do this. The outdoor spaces at 277 Fifth have these incredible, double height loggia. I’ve been in a lot of towers and this is the first one with the outdoor volume that makes you feel like you’re flying in the city. It celebrates the altitude. The lighting tests were all inspired by the outside space that is there.

We were working with that incredible canvas of architecture and loggias of the building to start with. We had this opportunity before windows went in to do this Aurora piece at the top. We are hoping to do another 3D light sculpture art piece in all the loggias next.

Has this project inspired you?

I feel completely inspired. It is a convergence of everything my world. I feel that New York is having a moment where we are celebrating light like they do in Paris. The buildings and architecture of the Manhattan skyline are becoming more colorful. We are seeing this as an architectural feature. It’s becoming a thing that people are craving. We can see hints across Manhattan. Paris has been celebrating light for over 20 years. New York is all of a sudden having a moment, with light, architecture and beautiful towers really taking advantage of the skyline. People are craving those experiences. They want to see and experience things as they transform.

Joel’s lighting design at Governors Island’s Full Moon Festival

Malcolm Gladwell mentioned you and your work at Hush Puppies in the opening of “The Tipping Point.” Did that tip your career?

There have been many times in my career where I know what is next or I have a vision and I really go for it. Malcolm calls that the “tipping point.” I say it’s a gut feeling, sometimes you have to do it, it’s a passion. I was involved with lighting during my whole career but it was when I was working in fashion, when the blue LED came out that all of a sudden we were able to make the full-color spectrum of light with LEDs. I had a booming fashion career with the Nolita store, Aether. It was the first commercial space that was fully color lit so when I first did it, it was me and the space shuttle. There was something magical about the blue LED to make the full-color spectrum and it started something big.

Joel’s lighting design for Moschino’s 2017 MADE LA show

How do you describe your success in so many different areas?

I love climbing all of these walls. I love creating and making and I tend to jump ahead of treads. If I see something that I know I have to get involved with, I will pile in with all I’ve got. I have regrets. At that time I was at Aether, I was so busy and I regret that Jeffrey Deitch tried to offer me an art show I was too busy to focus on it.

I always want to learn. I always need a new challenge. I am passionate about what I do and I can always bring that. I love the challenge of making things come to life. I don’t see a difference between lightning or sculpture or architecture or clothing design or fabrication. I have the ability to be technical and creative. When you are passionate and you want to learn something, you don’t fear the unknown, you crave the unknown.

How did you originally get into lighting?

Originally, I worked with sculpture, carving marble and a glowing alabaster but it was so much alone time in the studio, I wanted to collaborate with people. I started working in modern dance and some theater. I started doing light for the love of light but I also wanted the collaborative process. Collaboration and teaching keep your intellectuality and your creative full. There is something about these collaborations that push you and make you communicate and yet also allows you to have that alone time to make art and be in the studio. That is what pushed me into my love of light. Throughout my career, I have always had a love of light. Many people come to me and offer projects and I try to take the interesting ones.


If you could do anything now on the heels of this project, what would it be?

I would do a permanent installation in the Manhattan skyline. I would love to make something that melts into the New York skyline. Something that is really artful that people can sit and watch and fall into the beauty of it, lie meditating on a candle, it is so beautiful that you melt into.

Did you happen to see “Manhattanhenge” last week?

I love the Manhattanhenge. I missed it this time but I used to love it pre-Instagram. I love that kind of light stuff. The ultimate lighting designer is the sun.

A sunset at Shela Beach on Lamu island in Kenya, via Stanislav Lvovsky/Flickr

Where is the most beautiful light you have seen anywhere in the world?

Shelter Island has the most epic sunsets, especially at the end of summer. I tend to be out on the water and get to enjoy and fall into the unbelievable sunsets. Lamu in Kenya is pretty amazing too. For a while, I called myself Mr. Sunset on Instagram because there is no better light show.

That week I got to experience the northern lights, almost 30 years ago, still lives with me and resonates with me to this day. It was my thesis project at Bennington and now I’m trying to plan a trip to Iceland and Greenland to see it there. I feel like this is the beginning of a big creative outdoor light sculpture in New York.


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