The problem of bringing natural light into spaces that lack it has vexed architects for centuries. Katherine Chia, AIA, and Arjun Desai came up with a smart, modern alternative when designing the conversion of this New York City loft from a commercial warehouse space to a residential one. “The space was dark and cavelike,” Chia says. “We thought, What can we do to really punch light through it?”

With the support of their clients, actor/film producer/restaurateur Bershan Shaw and her publicity-shy partner, Chia and Desai decided to design a light source of their own. They and lighting consultant Christine Sciulli created a series of 8-foot-tall, translucent plastic light boxes that delineate different rooms within the 4,000-square-foot unit. The boxes act as walls, with the added benefit of transmitting light and shadows. “We wanted to activate the space, but in a really subtle way,” Chia says. Plywood uprights divide the light boxes into vertical strips, while clear resin shelves inserted periodically provide nooks for storage and display. To keep costs and waste down, each piece of the light boxes was prefabricated using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling and laser cutting, then assembled at the contractor's shop and transported to the site.

Chia and Desai applied a similar level of inventiveness and care to the rest of the loft. They placed the two large public spaces—the kitchen/dining/living room and the library—in diagonal corners to establish a dynamic spatial connection. Inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko and the early sculptures of Anish Kapoor, they sparingly deployed bold, saturated blocks of color to highlight individual walls. And they tied the entire project together using existing items: large round columns, ceiling beams, and an exposed sprinkler system. “The original bones were worth calling out as details,” Chia explains.

project: Light Box Loft, New York City

architect: Desai/Chia Architecture, New York City

general contractor: Kane Contracting, New York City

mechanical engineer: Rodkin Cardinale Consulting Engineers, New York City

lighting consultant: Christine Sciulli Light + Design, New York City

project size: 4,000 square feet

construction cost: Withheld

photography: Paul Warchol Photography

Continue to part 3: the great divide