In the old days, lighting design functioned as an invisible partner of store design. Lighting provided a comfortable, ambient environment - say 50 to 60 foot-candles of brightness. Spotlights on featured merchandise tripled ambient levels.

But the light itself was always the star. Lamps and fixtures remained hidden. Recessed ceiling fixtures, wall washer fixtures beneath moldings, and tiny MR-16 spotlight track fixtures all stayed in the background, lighting the store without calling attention to the sources of the light.

About six years ago, Warner Bros. and Disney discovered something about lighting design: In stores selling entertainment as well as merchandise, lamps, light fixtures and colored light created as much interest as wall fixtures, wall moldings and flooring.

"Warner Bros. came in with theatrical PAR fixtures set against a black ceiling, with an overall store design aimed at recreating a theatrical setting," says Cynthia Turner, vice president and director of lighting for New York-based FRCH Design Worldwide. "They used big, beefy fixtures that customers noticed."

Warner Bros. also used heavy color filters, Turner says, giving a warm pink, yellow and reddish cast to the store, making it a completely different color than any other store in the mall. "Putting colored lighting on the merchandise was always a no-no in retail. Before Warner Bros., we always wanted customers to see the real colors of the merchandise. Disney used fixtures in a similar way, with big theatrical cans, but bright colors instead of black."

Suddenly, light fixtures and colored light joined the other elements of design as an equal visual partner in creating retail environments. Almost every retailer clamored for an entertainment design, complete with a theatrical lighting package.

Not all retailers succeeded in selling entertainment, however. For a conventional clothing retailer, theatrical lighting design often proved expensive and ineffective.

After a time, a number of conventional retailers backed away from lighting that called attention to itself. Others found success in adapting theatrical lighting design concepts to store design themes. Still others have continued to push the limits of lighting design to enhance the entertainment value of their store designs.

Creating themes with lighting Bass Pro Shops Inc. opened a 300,000 sq. ft. flagship store in Springfield, Mo., in 1981. The hunting, fishing and outdoor megastore proved so successful that the company has recently added four stores and plans to build six more by 2001.

Bass Pro Shops store designs revolve around themed displays. The flagship layout, for instance, contains a 40-foot tall waterfall, a 17,000 sq. ft. wildlife museum, a live snake exhibit, and massive saltwater and freshwater aquariums.

Custom-made decorative lighting fixtures contribute to the theming throughout the store. "When you enter, you see huge metal chandeliers decorated with metal moose heads," says FRCH's Turner, who helped design the latest Bass Pro Shops stores. "Different shops use different fixtures designed to highlight themes. For instance, in the fly shop, you'll see wall sconces like what you may find in a lakeside cabin."

The design of the lighting fixtures changes from store to store, Turner adds. In Florida, the fixtures have a tropical theme, while in Texas, they have a western theme.

Interesting lighting fixtures are so important to Bass Pro Shops that the company has built its own metal shop to fabricate fixtures for merchandise as well as lighting. "Each time they build a new store, they fabricate new fixtures to insure an individualized look," Turner says.

Lighting and lighting fixtures can help define virtually any kind of theme for a store. When menswear manufacturer Haggar Clothing Co. unveiled its first factory store in the summer of 1998, the tightly themed store recreated the feel of a traditional clothing factory, right up to the lighting.

In the Haggar store, a vaulted metal ceiling with exposed trusses combines with a concrete floor, metal shelving and metal ceiling fans to create a factory-like setting. Factory sewing machines, shirt-maker forms and cutting tables throughout the store add to the theme.

"We used slightly finished industrial fixtures for ambient lighting," says Chip Williamson, vice president of retail environments for FRCH, which handled Haggar's store design. "The light sources were as important as the fixtures. We wanted factory-style lighting. So we chose metal halide lamps."

Incandescent accent lighting comes from industrial-style fixtures with wire cages set inside galvanized half-globe housings. Above the cashwraps, Williamson built chandeliers with industrial objects. Criss-crossed conduit forms the bodies of the chandeliers, while work bench lights in metal cages provide more factory-style light. In addition, each chandelier has a revolving yellow fork-lift caution lamp, which turns on when the cashwrap opens for business.

Even if a store doesn't sell entertainment, today's lighting design styles can provide a measure of entertainment while highlighting a store's image. Bob's Stores of Meriden, Conn., operates 31 stores of the same name throughout the New York metropolitan area. The big-box stores have traditionally sold name-brand casual clothing and footwear to the baby boomer market. The company's newest store, which opened in the summer of 1998 in Norwalk, Conn., aimed to expand its marketing reach to younger consumers.

Retro graphics, billboard-sized lifestyle photography, blocks of strong colors such as banana yellow and slate blue, and video monitors tuned to MTV have given the young men's and junior's departments a youthful look.

An innovative lighting design helps tailor the image of these departments to Gen-X. Standard fluorescent fixtures hang from an open ceiling. The FRCH design team hung the fixtures asymmetrically, so some fixtures go sideways, while neighboring fixtures hang diagonally across the planes created by the others.

In addition, FRCH used multi-colored fluorescent lamps - yellow, blue, green and red - to give the department a funky, contemporary feeling.

Entertainment retail lighting For those in the business of selling entertainment, modern lighting design can rise to the status of equal partner with brick and mortar design.

The Mohegan Casino in Uncasville, Conn., offers a good example of this. Designed to pay tribute to nature and to Mohegan traditions, the floor of the two-year-old casino contains eight, 35-foot high fiberglass and wood trees with cast glass leaves. On the ceiling, powerful 1,000-watt theatrical fixtures beam light down through the glass leaves, which diffuse the light creating patterns on the floor. Incandescent MR-16 lamps hidden in the trees provide additional lighting accents.

The circular casino contains four quadrants, one for each season of the year. The lighting that falls through the trees follows the seasons: reddish light characterizes autumn; cold bluish light defines winter; yellow-greens and pinks bring spring to life; and greens and blues highlight the summer quadrant.

Natural light forms part of the presentation and comes from massive skylights set in the casino's domed ceiling.

A planned addition to the casino will use light to celebrate the heavens and Mohegan lore. "There will be moving clouds, sunsets, star effects and a projection of the aurora borealis on the ceiling," says Paul Gregory, a principal with New York-based Focus Lighting, a lighting design firm that specializes in entertainment retail.

Gregory also handles lighting design assignments for Star Theatres, a Southfield, Mich.-based chain of theaters. In the chain's newest location in Southfield, lighting helps play off entertainment themes in three areas of the theater lobby: the area around the concession stand, a retail area and an arcade area.

The concession area features giant images from the world of movies. Cut-outs of actors and props from old films hang from the ceiling, along with theatrical riggings, giant mock-up film reels, and classic film marquees. "It's a brightly lighted area," Gregory says. "The light levels are around 75 foot-candles, with spotlights focused on the product logos."

The retail area is decorated with palm trees, coconut trees and storefronts with moving lights overhead projecting patterns on the floor.

The video arcade recreates the theater district of mid-century Detroit, with movie marquees beckoning visitors. Antique signs accent the area. Above, powerful theatrical spotlights frame the displays.

Overall, the design conveys the spirit of the movies, complete with Hollywood style theatrical lighting. Even more elaborate is the lighting scheme used by The Art Of Entertainment, a store adjacent to the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.

The casinos at the MGM Grand operate day and night. But many of the adjacent retail stores close by 10 p.m. The Art of Entertainment offers a spectacular light show periodically throughout the night to remind casino visitors that the store will re-open in the morning.

The store sells art with an entertainment theme as well as art created by name entertainers.

To create the show, lighting designers from Long Beach, Calif.-based Lighting Design Alliance used intelligent light fixtures called Martin Roboscans. Two Roboscans hang from the ceiling in the corridor outside the store, while four more hang from the ceiling inside the store.

Each Roboscan contains a light source, two gobos or pattern generators, two color wheels and a prism. These devices enable the unit to project and move patterns of colored light. The prism adds effects by splitting the patterns into two or more images.

The front of the store is all glass, allowing the Roboscans to project light from the outside to the inside of the store. Likewise, light from the interior units can flow to areas outside of the store.

"The show starts with a bang," says Andy Powell, senior designer with Lighting Design Alliance. "The Roboscan sends large searchlight beams panning across the store, from outside and inside."

Music bursts out of a set of exterior loudspeakers. The lights continue to move around the space, fading and changing colors, focusing on featured merchandise in the store. The gobos also project the MGM lion logo on the back wall of the store and then pan the image across the floor.

Along with the lighting show, music plays "That's Entertainment." An appropriate tune considering that more and more, lighting is becoming the entertainment.

When themed stores like Warner Bros. and The Disney Store began making light fixtures into design elements, it changed how the industry looked at in-store lighting. The lighting fixtures, rather than just the light itself, became an important part of setting the mood for a store. Now, designers are creating impressive light fixtures that help highlight a theme and provide entertainment.