Douglas Leigh, the 80-year-old, self-proclaimed designer of luminous urban spectacles, the Alabama native who has brightened much of Manhattan with his megavisions for more than 50 years, has never gotten as much attention for anything.
That's saying something.
The Camel cigarette billboard that greeted homebound soldiers with rings of smoke over Times Square at the close of World War II -- he designed it. The Chase & Sanborn advertisement, swirls of real steam rising from a billboard-size cup of black coffee -- another Leigh creation. Leigh has illuminated the upper levels of the Empire State Building in bright colored lights. He has bathed parts of Fifth Avenue in whiteness as brilliant as in a movie directed by Federico Fellini. "I have experience in the unusual," he shyly drawled the other day from his lighting studio.
The unusual that has sparked a debate in the taste-hierarchy of this city is nothing more than a snowflake. "It's true what they say. No two are alike," he explained. "We searched for several months for the perfect one. We finally found it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ours is literal, taken from real life through a microscope." The snowflake is 2 1/2 stories high. Illuminated by 6,000 tiny twinkling bulbs.
It hangs over the middle of 57th and Fifth.
Hooked to Bergdorf-Goodman on one side.
Tiffany on another.
Herds of buses fume under it.
Millions of shoppers.
"It's a menace to public health," huffed an unappreciative one, while negotiating his way around a pushcart stacked high with giant pretzels and loaded with chestnuts roasting over a charcoal grill. "A hideosity."
"The snowflake has an odd grossness to it," observed New York Times critic Paul Goldberger. "It is big enough to fill an intersection, but that is big indeed for a snowflake . . ."
" . . . bulbous . . . and not a little grotesque . . . razzle-dazzle hanging on wires above the street," Goldberger finished off the poor holiday ornament Leigh hoped would "please people."
"I think Mr. Goldberger must be a terrible sourpuss," said Tiffany's design director John Loring and the man responsible for the snowflake. It cost $60,000, he said. Tiffany, Bergdorf and several other local merchants chipped in. It may become an annual fixture, as much a part of New York as the 50-foot fir tree above the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. "People love it."
"I love it," said Pari Aryan, an Iranian e'migre'. "That's a beautiful. We never had anything like it."
"No big thing to me," a Santa Claus collecting donations for the Volunteers of America sighed. "It's ugly," said the red-nosed and red-suited Santa ringing his bell outside the ultraglamorous Trump Tower.
"A joyful idiocy," theater critic and civic booster Brendan Gill proclaimed over the phone from The New Yorker. "In New York we must be pagan at Christmas and nothing could be more harmless than a snowflake.
"We move now in an intoxication of light. Our society wants to turn ourselves into Tivoli Gardens," Gill surmised.
Gill finds the brilliant illumination of the RCA building in the center of Rockefeller Center a "splendid" example of luminous beauty. Millions of kilowatts highlight the Art Deco building against the longest black sky of the year. "If I had my way I would bathe every inch of New York in pure clean white light all night."
Meanwhile, Leigh fussed in his studio about his latest "spectacle." Maybe it is the ersatz icicles, what he calls the "snowdrips" hanging down from the snowflake -- what Gill calls the "dripples" -- that bother people.
"Maybe I will fix them next year," he pondered. "Really, it's just a snowflake. Nothing has ever created as much excitement.