In designing the new global headquarters for ETC, company CEO Fred Foster created a factory setting like no other. The $21 million, 250,000 sq. ft., fan-shaped building in Middleton, WI, (on the outskirts of Madison) embodies both Foster's democratic concepts about corporate culture and his theatrical design sense. The building centers around “Town Square,” where faux facades based on the 1940s paintings of Edward Hopper look like sections of Manhattan that just stepped out of a theme park, or an old-fashioned movie set, bringing a sense of illusion and light into the workplace environment. ETC celebrated the opening of the building with fanfare on Friday, June 11, with several hundred employees, dealers, and industry friends in attendance.
“Fred wanted to create a central space where people could meet,” says lighting designer Duane Schuler, who grew up in Madison and has known Foster since they met through Gilbert Helmsley at the University of Wisconsin. Schuler lit Town Square, designed by Foster in collaboration with co-scenic designers Paul Sannerud of Viterbo University and Sue McElhaney, a scene painter. Foster, himself, toiled late into the night as Town Square was built, working as a carpenter, over the final 16 weeks of the process.
The on-site design-build team also included Frank Miller and Jerry Scholts of Madison's Erdman Development Group, Peter Tan and Chris Oddo of Strang Architects, also from Madison, ETC's Bill “Flash” Florac, and a crew of painters and carpenters from the local theater world, including four scenic artists from Sun Belt Scenic in Phoenix. Rosco donated quite a bit of the scenic paint. “The idea for Town Square evolved from the Marketplace at the Herman Miller building in Zeeland, Michigan, where an atrium joins the corporate offices and the factory. “I can't really say who had the Town Square idea first,” says Foster. “From a design sense, it was very collaborative.”
The centerpiece of Town Square is a three-dimensional version of the diner in Foster's favorite painting, Hopper's famous 1942 Nighthawks, serving as the reception area. Additional old-fashioned facades include storefronts of a Chinese laundry, a hardware store, and a movie theatre whose old-time marquee flashes a neon “Century” sign in a nod to a historic lighting company, an insurance company, and P.S. 8 (where ETC's Steve Terry went to elementary school). The color scheme for Town Square combines the brick red, greens, and blues of Hopper's palette, as well as the sepia of vintage photographs. “Design wise, Paul Sannerud and Sue McElhaney did a really good job evoking Hopper without being over the edge with it. We found out he had a lot of green in his palette,” says Foster. “I am also happy with the physical shape and volume of the space. I made a model to see if it would be too large or too small, or too tall or encroaching. I think it's just right.”
The upper stories of the facades are painted on industrial-scale metal mesh that acts like a large scrim, while the lower sections are hard construction. “I approached the walls as if lighting four cycs at four different times of day,” says Schuler, noting that “there are offices behind the walls, and an ETC product showroom in the movie theatre. When the lights are dimmed, you can see into the offices.”
There is also a real deli, with tables and chairs for lunch, and people walking along the upper corridors can actually see through the walls and call out to those below. “You can also do bleed-throughs and reveal the people in the corridors,” says Schuler.
To light the metal mesh walls, some of which are 40' high, there is a double system, with ETC Source Four HID PARs that remain on all day and incandescent Source Four PARs that can be used at night. “Quartz is not a logical source choice for fixtures that are on all day,” he explains. “The HID has a longer lamp life and is much more efficient than the incandescents. The overall look, when the HID daylight system is on, is of a pleasant afternoon in downtown Manhattan in the 1940s, yet with slightly heightened color to enrich the painting,” Schuler adds. “It is actually quite naturalistic during the day. They go to work light at night unless there is a special event.”
One of the challenges Schuler faced was the yellow light inside the Hopper-inspired diner. “This is not a good color for a work environment,” he notes. To recreate the ambiance of the diner, Schuler used six rows of yellow fluorescent tubes, yet added MR16s over desks and counters as task lights (at the opening night party on June 11, several ETC staffers were dressed as the characters in the painting, adding to the Hopperesque ambiance).
Top light in the center area comes from Source Four PARs used as downlights, some with Wybron CXIs for color mixing, while cobblestone templates add texture to the floor. “These are just for fun,” says Schuler, noting that some of the people in the factory had never seen what they make actually in use and thought the cobblestones were painted onto the floor. “People came in and said, ‘How do you do that?’ It was astonishing to watch Fred explain it all to them.”
Each wall is lit with a three-color system, adding layers of light onto the painted facades. The faux brick on the northern facade, for example, is lit with Lee 013 (straw tint), GAM 323 (Indian summer), and HT079 (just blue), while the western facade, featuring the Empire State Building, is lit with Lee 152 (pale gold), GAM323, and HT079. Rosco thicket templates add texture to the surfaces.
ETC's newest fixture, the Source Four Revolution, is part of the rig as well, with seven of them used to focus on architectural accents, if desired, or for fun little lighting events. “Something happens with the lighting, using the Revolutions, in Town Square once every half hour,” Schuler notes. “For example, they might all glow on a manhole cover, then do a ballyhoo around the space, and return to the manhole cover. I tried to do as much as I could with the Revolutions to see how they would hold up, and these did very well.”
The Revolutions are also used as performance lights for parties and special events, along with the Source Fours, and can be focused on small performance areas such as the West Side Story, or Juliet, balcony over the diner area, and the Evita balcony outside of Foster's office, on the Empire State Building facade. “High school students come in and perform short scenes for parties,” notes Schuler (as indeed they did during the opening festivities).
Schuler programmed the lighting on an ETC Expression console. “I sent a plot and a hook up just like you would anyplace else. They ordered the fixtures from themselves.” Duane's crew included ETC's Bill Belleveau, who served as project manager and also designed the HID part of the system, and Sarah Clausen, who worked on the programming.
“For events, the space is actually like a black box theatre, where you can add textures and colors, even slashes of sunlight and sunset,” Schuler notes. “It's a space where you can do almost anything you want.” He even added an echo of sunset colors to reinforce the afternoon sun that streaks in through large west-facing celestory windows under the high, sloped ceilings of the building. Yet to create the look of a night sky behind the painted facades, Schuler opted for fluorescent tubes with R80 (primary blue). “You can see the blue glow from outside through the high windows at night,” he says, adding that you can also see the light from the Revolutions that are left on a test bench all night, as they swing through the space.
The new building brings the company's 450 Wisconsin-based employees all under one roof, with manufacturing, offices, and a showcase for ETC's products all surrounding the central area. “I think there is something about the space that has a good hubbub of activities,” says Foster. “There are impromptu meetings, and it has created a really nice environment for people to use. It's starting to fulfill its primary mission as the center of the company. One of the things we have to work on — one of my missions — is to introduce the factory portion of the ETC family to the Town Square concept, as they moved in before it was completed. I think we should have mixers with free lunch for the staff as long as they really get out of their own little groups,” he says, reflecting on the social dynamics at ETC, a maverick company suddenly on the eve of its 30th anniversary.