Howard Brandston, Who Made His Mark With Light, Dies at 87
Howard Brandston, a prominent lighting designer who illuminated landmarks in New York and around the world, and who used light to inspirit people depressed by waning winter daylight, to prevent infections, and even to keep penguins in a zoo from looking seedy, died on Feb. 24 in Lenox, Mass. He was 87.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his wife, Melanie Brandston, said.
Among the more visible lighting projects attributed to Mr. Brandston and his collaborators at what is now Brandston Partnership Inc., a global firm with offices in New York City and Asia, are the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in 1986; the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; exhibition halls at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan; and the master lighting plan design for what became the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey.
“Light is everything,” Mr. Brandston once proclaimed. “Light is life. It is art, it is science, it is whatever you wish to make it.”
But, as the company explains on its website, any project was bound to fail unless the client could answer a deceptively simple question that had less to do with the algorithms of visible electromagnetic radiation than with the eye of the beholder.
“Rather than starting with light levels, illuminance requirements, energy codes or the like,” Mr. Brandston advised, “ask yourself: ‘What do you wish to see?’”
After studying theatrical illumination at Brooklyn College and graduating in 1957, Mr. Brandston was hired by Stanley McCandless, a designer who also taught at the Yale School of Drama, and who became Mr. Brandston’s architectural lighting mentor.
In 2008, Mr. Brandston remembered a conversation with Mr. McCandless during which he contrasted his years of freewheeling, largely avocational theatrical work with the more hidebound bureaucracy surrounding professional architectural and engineering design.
“You know, I’m not used to all these rules,” Mr. Brandston said. “So I have to make up a rule for myself. Stanley asked, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Rules are a substitute for thinking, and I wasn’t going to stop thinking.’”
Howard Marvyn Brandston was born on Oct. 1, 1935, in Toronto. His mother, Ida (Steinberg) Brandston, was a bookkeeper. His father, Nathan, was a partner in a textile firm and later sold used cars. The family moved to the United States when Howard was 9.
He had immersed himself in acting and theatrical productions ever since appearing in a school play in kindergarten. But it was at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island where design succeeded tennis stardom as a professional goal, thanks to an art teacher, Leon Freund.
“Each day, he would say, ‘In front of you is a blank piece of paper — that’s the opportunity for a work of art. Let’s see what you can do,’” Mr. Brandston recalled. “From then on, every project I would do, Leon was standing over my shoulder saying, ‘All right, Howard, let’s see what you can do.’”
After graduating from college and working for Mr. McCandless and the designer Seymour Evans, Mr. Brandston started his own firm in Manhattan in 1965. Among his first major collaborations was the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, followed by the American Pavilion at the World Expo three years later in Osaka, Japan.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Brandston is survived by four children from two previous marriages, which ended in divorce, Perry, Raj and Sarah Brandston and Lori Brandston Greene; his brother, Andrew; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Until moving to a retirement community in Lenox a few years ago, he had lived in a farmhouse in Claverack, N.Y., in Columbia County.
A founding member of the International Association of Lighting Designers, Mr. Brandston taught at the Cooper Union in Manhattan and had his own design studio at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He was the author of “Learning to See: A Matter of Light” (2008).
Mr. Brandston worked with artists to better display their works, and with health care professionals to develop ultraviolet light sources to limit the spread of disease.
As for those penguins, he designed theater-type globe lights that projected a natural blue polar glow above their habitat at the Central Park Zoo to simulate their natural summer molting season, letting them replace last year’s feathers with a full fresh coat.
In designing the globes, he applied techniques he had explored in dealing with seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression associated with shorter periods of seasonal daylight.
Mr. Brandston was a fervent defender of the incandescent bulb in the face of government mandates to switch to more efficient fluorescents and light-emitting diodes. He told The New York Times in 2009 that the benefits of the newer light sources should be measured by “not lumens per watt, not how much light per watt is produced, but how much of that produced light is actually put to purposeful use.”
To safeguard his own prerogative, regardless of government mandates, Mr. Brandston had stockpiled about a hundred incandescent bulbs at his farmhouse in upstate New York — more than enough, as it turned out, to last a lifetime.