Paris in Late Winter: Lighting the Salon Doré

Our sense of a room is often deeply influenced by how the space is lit. As the Salon Doré at the Legion of Honor was being reinstalled, curator Martin Chapman worked with lighting company Auerbach Glasow French to help reproduce the experience of visiting a candlelit French Neoclassical interior. We asked Martin a few questions about their work together.

How does lighting a period room different from other museum spaces?

Museums often use spotlights and other modern fixtures, but those wouldn’t have been appropriate here. We wanted to use the historic pieces that were originally part of the room—the wall lights, the torchère and the chandelier as the apparent sources of light. Apart from providing them with electric candles, we enhanced these fixtures by adding things like hidden glow lights and fiber optics.  For example the chandelier is a kind of “machine” that lights the room; it has four separate circuits of lighting that discreetly focus on different aspects of the space.

We were also able to hide lights in unexpected places; for example the rear sides of the stanchions contain lighting elements that can’t be seen by most visitors.

This is meant to reproduce the light of a late afternoon day in the winter months in Paris, France. That time of day is when the inhabitants of the house would have been preparing to receive guests, and the furniture here has also been arranged to reflect this.

Modern building codes would have been very foreign to the original builders; how did you address this problem?

There are plenty of requirements in the code about lighting a public space that were a challenge in a room like this. Modern expectations are for much brighter spaces in general. The original lighting would have been so dim that people would have hardly been able to make it across the room! Fortunately there’s another source of light that isn’t dependant on the fixtures—the windows. We installed lighting in these windows to simulate sunlight, and that helped us to resolve some of these issues.

This room conveys a very particular time and place. How specific is the lighting to that circumstance?

This is meant to reproduce the light of a late afternoon day in the winter months in Paris, France. That time of day is when the inhabitants of the house would have been preparing to receive guests, and the furniture here has also been arranged to reflect this. We gave Auerbach Glasow French a very specific and difficult brief, but we knew from the beginning that getting the lighting exactly right was absolutely essential. They have done a brilliant job.