Elevator Cabs as Art

A Columbia cab designed and built for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in anticipation of a visit to the institution by Pope Francis in September 2015: luxury materials used include bronze-tinted stainless steel embossed with a diamond pattern, hardwood maple and bronze handrails.

The evolution of cab aesthetics

Elevator cabs today can be seen as moving works of art in more ways than one. Louis L.J.” Blaiotta, Jr., CEO of Columbia Elevator Products Co., Inc., opines:

“It is incredible to me, in just the few decades that I have been involved in the elevator industry, cabs have progressed from being merely functional, sometimes-pretty vertical conveyances to serving as canvases upon which designers and architects express profound, revolutionary ideas — so much so that, in fact, the goal of today’s elevator ride can include extraordinarily delightful sensory experiences for the riding public.”

Elevators, when first introduced, were used primarily as material lifts, with aesthetics taking a backseat to functionality and safety. Blaiotta continues:

“But, once we started putting humans atop those moving platforms, the ‘look’ and ‘experience’ became as important as the ride. Unlike the enclosed hoistways of today that penetrate the various floors of a building in a blind/dark shaft, those early passenger elevators of the late 19th century were in full-view/open-atrium applications, with the elevator running up the middle of a grand staircase. These displayed with pride the miracle of mechanically moving people ‘up and down’ with everything exposed in full view — a reflection of the age’s great technological and industrial advancement. Naturally, there were safety exposures that needed to be addressed. To protect the riding public from all the moving hazards, we locked riders into ‘birdcages’ made of open latticework that kept them safe, while allowing everything to be seen. And, since these early installations were initially reserved for the über-wealthly in ultra-luxe buildings, these cab enclosures were mandated to look ‘pretty’ and naturally became the subject of artistic expression and elaborate design.”

As time passed and elevators became more of a modern convenience than a luxury product, they began to have a dramatic effect on the architectural design of the modern multistoried building. Gone were the grand staircases of the 1800s, replaced by the more space-efficient enclosed elevator shafts of the 20th century. Once the cabs were traveling in these dark spaces, the need for open latticework cab enclosures gave way to designs more driven by concerns for comfort and safety. There was a major change to close up the cab walls and ceilings to protect passengers and keep the cab interiors free of dust and debris. These boxlike cubicles were (even by definition) unattractive, so it was not long before creative forces set in to beautify the cab interior. Designers began to rethink the visual form of elevator cabs, outfitting them with curvy, domelike car tops reminiscent of the early “bird cage” and more contemporary looks that eventually gave way to canopies and dropped ceilings.

Over the coming decades, walls evolved from simple wood to raised wood panels to utilitarian, interchangeable and seasonally reversible hanging panels. Ultimately, today’s cabs are highly aesthetic, lightweight, eco-sensitive, and include relatively inexpensive cab walls and lighting solutions. In the current real-estate environment, property owners face fierce competition from new construction, and, in response to the constant challenge of keeping their buildings occupied and their tenants happy, they are redoing/remodeling the elevators. Today’s steel-shell designs provide an infinite array of approaches adaptable to any budget, style and aesthetic preference, and can easily and economically respond to evolving trends, conditions and needs. The steel-shell model has been a driver of rapid change in the development of elevator aesthetics.

As recently as the 1980s, code committees were still grappling with issues such as the placement of seating in elevator cabs, installation of TV screens and in-cab signage or displays indicating or advertising what was to be found on various floors of public buildings. The code committees’ logic was that if a cab feature did not absolutely relate to the functionality of the elevator, it was a distraction that did not belong there: for example, electronic “ribbons” — digital displays that horizontally scroll information, such as a stock market ticker or weather forecast — might cause elevator delays, because riders might hold the door open for someone to read a display. There were also concerns about safety issues resulting from protruding wall displays on cab walls that might catch on passengers’ clothing. The sheer number of disparate code rules developed to cover various “in-cab features” created a burdensome complexity that was bound to change in response to today’s increasingly time-challenged society, gravitating toward a more streamlined and information-based approach to life.

An early step forward was the introduction of internal cab digital displays showing on which floor the cab was located and describing what was to be found at that stop (such as the pool or banquet hall level of a hotel, sometimes with pictures), but the major breakthroughs appeared in the mid-to-late 1990s. According to Charles Simpkins of CE Electronics, which already had installations in Chicago, Atlanta and Toronto by 1997:

“In 1996, CE developed the Elite PI, a multifunction display utilizing active matrix thin-film-transistor screens interfacing with the elevator controller, allowing inputs for priority messages, floor information and scheduled messages. It also allowed for video inputs and live data feeds, with information from New York Stock Exchange ticker tapes and weather information specific to the area where the displays were installed. By 1997 CE had already installed jobs in Chicago, Atlanta and Toronto.

“Today, we interface with Reuters News Service to provide customizable newsfeeds. Thousands of CE screens are used daily throughout the Americas, Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“With the introduction of destination control in elevators, CE adapted the technology to interface with these systems, allowing destination information to be displayed alongside the traditional elevator information. The CE Elite system also gives the customer the ability to modify or change the screen’s look entirely at will, either at the display or remotely via Ethernet access.”

Simpkins emphasizes CE does not need to have codes forgiven or relaxed to install its systems, because the construction and interfacing of the screens are a component of the elevator, ASME A17.1 and UL/CSA compliant, and inherently meet all local and national codes. Additionally, they are designed to operate within elevators’ heat and shock restrictions, within which traditional electronics are incapable.

1997 also saw the emergence of a technology branded as Captivate, consisting of flat-panel displays delivering “infotainment” and marketing messages to “captive” elevator riders. Conceived by founders Michael DiFranza, Todd Newville and Ray Pineau, Captivate launched in October 1998 at Boston’s Seaport Hotel. The company was acquired by Gannett Co. in 2004 and, today, is a major digital media service found in thousands of elevator cabs throughout the U.S. and Canada. A distinguishing feature of Captivate is that it was the first to seamlessly integrate such technology into modern cab aesthetics.

With increased granting of local elevator code variances (and the spread of digital innovations such as those by CE Electronics and Captivate) came the realization that, contrary to what had been speculated, introductions of revolutionary features integrated into cab interiors did not, in fact, have a negative effect on the performance of elevators. This realization opened the door to an expanded vision of what the interior of an elevator cab should and could be — a foreshadowing of once-unimaginable cab designs. Along with the trend of constructing highly architectural special-purpose buildings came a progressive loosening of interior cab code restrictions and the granting of many more far-reaching variances.

Blaiotta comments:

“Fast-forward to today and consider how very far we’ve come in just these past few years. For example, in the observation elevator that goes to the top of One World Trade Center (1 WTC), the surfaces of all three cab walls — side-to-side, floor-to-ceiling — consist entirely of LED screens displaying a digital panorama. Even before passengers reach the top floor to see the view, the elevator ride itself is a breathtaking experience. In the 45 s. or so it takes to ride the elevator from the lobby to the observation tower, the wall panels serve as observational windows on the historical evolution of Lower New York and the harbor. At first, the walls display a realistic image of how the area would have looked in precolonial times (nothing more than undeveloped woodlands) and, as the car climbs the side of the building, a smooth transition of images unfolds the story of 300 years of local history, continually changing the riders’ view. Riders feel as if they are looking out a window and time traveling at the same time.


“Unique as the ride may be on the way up, it gets even more interesting as riders travel all the way down toward their final exit: the cab walls display rocks and other subterranean objects, simulating the experience of being surrounded underground. An extremely impressive feature of the LED displays is that they are far from fragile. Rather, they are extremely durable, relatively inexpensive and easy to replace in case of damage, allowing an opportunity for an ‘always-new’ look to the elevator.”

Says Jeff Friedman of National Elevator Cab & Door Corp., which worked on 1 WTC:

“We anticipate that cab design in the future will be transformed by such displays to create an experiential ride like this, or allow a marketer to deliver a message or the building to change the look of the cab seasonally (or as frequently as hourly) if applicable. Even possible are changes corresponding to, or influencing, the mood of the rider community at any given time, such as being ‘energizing’ in the morning and ‘relaxing’ in the evening.”

With the emergence of such new cab designs have come several considerations, as Friedman continues:

“The job of the cab company in some sense is the same as whenever any new material or design is introduced into the cab space: ‘Does it comply with the governing codes?’ ‘Is it safe?’ ‘How well will it hold up?’ ‘How can it be maintained?’ and ‘Can it be used in a cost-efficient manner?’ But, displays and electronics are more complex than metal mesh and thin-cut stone, and the audio/visual contractors of the world are not elevator experts. Architects, elevator contractors and cab companies will need either to learn and stay on top of a complex, evolving technology or rely on companies that make it their mission to integrate displays into elevator cabs. By example, at 1 WTC, we engineered our way through hundreds of hours on subjects addressing questions such as: ‘How do we protect displays from people, and people from displays, which are faced in thin, un-laminated glass?’ ‘How do we provide adequate cooling for all the heat created by the displays and also meet the ventilation requirements for the passengers?’ ‘What can be done to make sure the riders taking this nearly 1-min.-long ride at a top speed of 2,000 fpm only hear and “feel” what they see on the displays, not the roar of the wind and motor as the cab travels?’”

Other applications of such technology include the simulation of a building’s exterior surroundings on the cab walls, moving with the cab and creating the illusion of gliding up and down through the open air, even though the elevator is contained within the center of the structure, nowhere near the outside walls.

Blaiotta explains:

“This is quite a difference from previous approaches to such a rider experience. Take, for example, ‘observation structures’ such as Toronto’s iconic CN Tower, where passengers rode to the top in an all-glass elevator. While providing a thrilling overview of the city and a compelling experience, there were maintenance downsides: keeping the glass clean, overheating of the cab by the beating sun, and other weather-related and operational issues. By contrast, digital displays now can simulate and even enhance the elevator experience, without the difficulties of the ‘real thing’ and with the flexibility to modify and freshen the experience at will. The ability to periodically refresh the experience is particularly relevant to work environments, where the same people ride the same elevators every day, with today’s visually attuned and media-savvy riders constantly seeking something new.”

These days, such experiential technology is being applied not only to cab walls, but to cab floors and ceilings, as well. Blaiotta continues:

“I’ve seen elevator cabs with floor displays that make riders feel as if they’re looking down a hole into the elevator shaft. These images are so realistic that some people experience a degree of fear upon first entering the cab, with fear converting to wonder when they ‘get it.’ Riders can see moving images of whales swimming or panthers roaming beneath them as they ride the elevator. Creative designers are taking great pride in seeking opportunities to take the initially deceptive look of an ordinary wood-panel car and suddenly and unexpectedly morph the walls into an illusion, such as riding in a spaceship, moving past stars and other celestial objects.

“Taking this a step further, destination elevators can deliver an illuminating presentation, specifically about the occupant of the floor being visited. Imagine an elevator wall displaying a greeting to the rider, specifically by name and company, using data downloaded from the swipe of the visitor’s security card. Over the course of the elevator ride, information corresponding to the rider’s specific purpose in the building would be presented and timed to terminate immediately upon arrival, eliminating any concerns about interference with the speed or operation of the elevator car. Such possibilities to create sensory (rather than merely architectural) experiences — in effect delivering highly sophisticated, informational, emotional amusement rides — are endless!”

Beyond simple amusement and emotional engagement, research scientists and design practitioners have been working on a new design theory looking at how the use of nature displays is thought to add value by positively impacting peoples’ physical state and wellbeing. Consequently, a certain kind of virtual skylight, an optical illusion known as biophilic (a love of life and the living world) has begun to appear on hallway ceilings of hospitals, wellness centers and medical/dental practices. Biophilic design is believed to reduce stress, heighten clarity of thought and promote healing. Made by companies such as The Sky Factory, these digital trompe-l’oeils (French for “fool the eye”) can create highly realistic illusions of bright blue skies and gently moving clouds designed to calm and relax patients and visitors by connecting them to a view and feeling of nature.

David A. Navarette, an American Institute of Architects Continuing Education provider, and The Sky Factory’s director of Research Initiatives, wrote in October 2015 for High Rise Facilities that these displays are “designed as biophilic illusions that take advantage of how our cognitive perception assesses visual/spatial stimuli to create a surprising experience of openness in otherwise enclosed interiors.” To further leverage these properties, this concept is being taken to a new place by Columbia, which is in the process of installing such biophilic ceilings in elevator cabs at Ohio’s Dayton Children’s Hospital, where the first such application in the elevator industry is taking place.

As such technologies work their way into the architectural landscape, they remain, for the moment, still an exception and futuristic, while conventional approaches to cab aesthetics continue to evolve. Says Blaiotta:

“Using static, high-resolution photo images and advanced digital printing technology, Columbia can integrate company logos or entire scenes directly into laminate cab walls for visually stunning effects. For example, at Columbia’s 50th-anniversary booth at the 2015 National Association of Elevator Contractors Exposition in Boston (ELEVATOR WORLD, December 2015), we showed cab walls displaying all of the company’s logos used over the past half-century, not using decals or appliqués of any kind, but rather with the images directly integrated as part of the laminate finish. Recently, I rode an elevator with digital images behind glass walls, simulating a view into a giant aquarium. I’ve seen cab walls showing the spiral staircase at the Vatican and other famous architectural interiors with all manner of artistic treatments. We’re also seeing natural landscapes, such as full-scale images of beachfront dunes and waves, or thickly wooded forests, or expansive meadows filled with wildflowers.

“Using any graphic image, this is all easily accomplishable and deliverable today as part of the cabs Columbia currently builds, including our XChangaCab® upgrades and modernizations. Other aesthetic looks we can accommodate are steel finishes colored at the molecular level, rather than just stained on the surface, allowing for the look of bronze without the worry of oxidation and repeated lacquering. We can provide hybridized looks, a combination of static laminate panels and digital displays of moving images, reflecting the incremental movement away from simple static treatments.”

Today’s digital displays are evolving from strictly flat to fully flexible, allowing for a wide array of dramatic effects. Further, as lighting has evolved from incandescent to halogen to energy-efficient LED, work is underway to eliminate fixtures altogether by painting ceilings with electrically charged phosphorescent paint that would glow and brightly illuminate the space. Even with what is available today, and within a fairly short turnaround time, a building can be converted to an entirely new head-turning look and attitude cost effectively and with minimum elevator downtime.

“What’s ahead?” asks Blaiotta, speculating:

“It’s fun to contemplate what we’ll see in the future to deliver an elevator ride as an artistic experience, rather than merely as a utilitarian function. We started with the birdcage experience, where riders admired the beauty of the ironwork design and were able to appreciate the idea of moving vertically through space. Next, as safety and swift, smooth mechanical function became an established ‘given’ in the industry, interior cab aesthetics became the paramount focus, designed for the rider to be impressed by the rich décor of the elevator ‘room’ with materials such as bronze or mahogany on the walls, complemented by floors of plush carpeting or terracotta.”

An outstanding current example of this philosophy is a cab designed and built by Columbia for the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the iconic “Rocky stairs” museum) as part of the historic institution’s ongoing expansion and renovation. The project — involving architects Ghery Partners of California, General Contractors L.F. Driscoll and installation by Code Elevator — was completed in anticipation of a visit to the museum by Pope Francis in September 2015. Blaiotta believes this cab represents a culmination of what can be designed and implemented using organic materials to create a “wow” factor without relying on electronic technology.

Today, as a reflection of our visual and technologically advanced society, cab design is evolving to be more artistically experiential, where riders look up from their mobile-device screens to admire a compelling backlit, high-resolution wall or ceiling “screen,” or peer out through glass walls at an architecturally appealing landscape. Tomorrow will bring some form of “fast fashion” — perhaps 3D displays or some other aesthetic technological advancement that, only imaginable today, will certainly allow the elevator experience to further evolve.

“There will always be tension between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern,’ two sensibilities that our industry will continue to serve at the same time to fulfill man’s inherent desire to function in beautiful, artistic, uplifting spaces. The variable will be taste: today’s ‘modern’ may become tomorrow’s ‘traditional’ or ‘dated-looking,’ depending on constantly unfolding cultural shifts. That’s why Columbia is always pursuing more flexible, innovative ways of changing interiors and bringing artistry to cab design. With newly available technologies and biophilic applications, when it comes to cab aesthetics, the sky’s the limit!”

Since 1953, Elevator World, Inc. has been the premier publisher for the global vertical transportation industry. It employs specialists in Mobile, Alabama, and has technical and news correspondents around the world.

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