The annual Wild Lights display at the Detroit Zoo is a yearlong effort to plan, and a three-month process to install.

The annual Wild Lights display at the Detroit Zoo is a yearlong effort to plan, and a three-month process to install.

Photo provided by Jennie Miller

Experts share holiday home-lighting secrets

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 21, 2017

METRO DETROIT — The holiday season isn’t complete in metro Detroit without doing a few things: watching the Thanksgiving Day parade travel down Woodward Avenue, listening to old Christmas songs recorded by Motown legends and, of course, seeing one of the many famous light displays around the region.

After years of creating elaborate displays that draw festive audiences from far and wide, local lighting experts shared some secrets on what it takes to create Art Van Furniture’s Wonderland in Warren and Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.

Steven Greening, of Grosse Pointe Woods, has been a part of designing the zoo’s Wild Lights spectacle for five years. While his role as technical supervisor means he wears a lot of hats around the park, the light show takes up a good portion of his year.

“It quiets down in the spring and summertime for a bit, but we’re always talking about it and always exploring new options and products and researching new ideas,” said Greening. “I guess the real solid planning starts in early summer when we start finalizing where things will be and what new elements we’ll bring in. Then the installation starts in August.”

The research element of the display comes from the zoo’s mission to always increase its sustainability practices and make the park an eco-friendly star of metro Detroit. That’s why the Wild Lights tradition was brought back from its hiatus several years ago, with the advent of energy-efficient LED lights.

But to plan for an eco-conscious display that’s equally entertaining takes plenty of forethought. That trick is one of Greening’s secrets: Make sure you’ve got your display well-thought-out before you begin to install.

“We have a limited number of colors and lights to work with. So we’ll start with an animal light sculpture, and then we’ll determine what colors would compeiment (that sculpture) and what would make sense with the theme of that area, instead of just grabbing what we’ve got on hand,” he explained.

Then comes the all-important, if not terribly exciting, prep work. Greening’s team pulls out all of its equipment, including specially designed installation poles and hooks — because lights should never be fixed to a structure with staples, he warned.

“It could pierce through the insulation, for one thing. The best-case scenario is the lights will stop working, and the worst-case scenario is you could start a fire,” he said. “There are molded plastic clips available, some permanent, and you just clip the lights in.”

The crew also stretches out each strand of lights to make them more flexible before they go up.

“We unbundle them and have someone hold each end; that way, the coil isn’t unraveling where we put it. It could lose that tension and start to fall or collect around the base of the tree,” Greening explained. “Our goal as a crew is to do over 450 trees and make it look like it was all installed by one person.”

Consistency is key for the lighting team at Art Van Furniture too. Chris Meier, director of visual merchandising for the company, said a neat and even appearance makes for a beautiful outdoor light show.

“I think a lot of times you can follow the architecture that’s already given to you, lining the outermost edges as the roofline permits, and the doorways and windows,” he said. “Just make sure you spread out what you have. If you do one window, do it on the other side too. If you’re doing a mix of colored and white lights, make sure they’re evenly distributed so it doesn’t feel lopsided.”

Electrical tape can help hide some trailing strands of bulbs that extend past a window or door frame for an even cleaner look, though a broken light is a fast way to make a whole display look like a mess.

“If a strand goes out or something, we keep a running list of notes of what needs fixing (on the store’s display) so it doesn’t impact the whole presentation,” he said.

Meanwhile, when it comes to creating a show-stopping holiday scene indoors, spreading out the décor isn’t as effective as it is outside. Meier said smaller, clustered vignettes have a bigger impact than sporadically placed items. 

And there’s no better time than the holidays, Meier thinks, to make an awe-inspiring statement with your décor.

“Mr. Van loved that the holidays were always such a family-oriented time of year; that’s why he saved the parade and implored us to really go over the top with our décor. It’s not just for people who come to the store; it’s for the whole community,” he said.