Shedding light on the future

Public and commercial awareness of lighting design is growing, but the sector can also take a lead on energy consumption

Lighting design has traditionally been viewed as the poor relation of architecture. It has historically changed very little, avoided PR and stayed, if you’ll forgive the pun, out of the limelight. It has played second fiddle to more bullish design disciplines and seen less than its fair share of recognition among ordinary consumers. But, suddenly there are signs that things are beginning to change – and that 2007 may be the year that lighting design begins to shine.

The main reason for this is an increased sense of public recognition. In February, London got its first lighting festival, Switched On London. Designers from a variety of organisations were called to light up local landmarks around the Pool of London on the Thames, showcasing the dramatic effect light can have on the urban environment and encouraging people to think about responsible lighting – sustainable streetlights powered by donkey dung were just one of the exhibits. The festival coincided with The Arc Show, a trade show for lighting designers and related industries.

Jonathon Hodges, lighting designer at Jason Bruges, was responsible for an interactive collaboration with Traxon which allowed people carrying Bluetooth-enabled phones to light up parts of London and Tower Bridge. ‘Good companies have been doing great work here, but until now there’s been no way of engaging with the public,’ he explains. ‘I still have to explain to people what I do.’ Despite the fact that Glasgow, Frankfurt and Lyon all have lighting design festivals, it took some persuading to get London businesses involved, and the go-ahead for the festival was only granted in October, when companies realised that the festival could be a commercial draw.

There are other changes on the horizon. The South Bank Centre, in collaboration with Willie Williams – who created the lighting for several U2 tours – is planning on setting up a ‘lighting lab’. Although details are hazy, in a recent article for LiveDesign magazine, Williams explained, ‘For all the recent blather about convergence, there is still a remarkable lack of dialogue between the various lighting disciplines. There are few opportunities for theatre, rock, and architectural lighting designers to meet, let alone have any meaningful exchange, while artists who work with light are usually viewed as another species altogether. Crossing the boundaries continues to provide the most rewarding and educational experiences of my work life, so it seems like a missed opportunity that there are no centres of communication for everyone who works in light-based art disciplines.’

Meanwhile, the industry’s trade body, the European Lighting Designers’ Association, is changing its name to the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association. This move coincides with the decision to host the Professional Lighting Design Convention – the first in the world – in the capital this year. ‘Lighting is no longer niche,’ says Paul Traynor, who will become president of the PLDA in April. ‘It is not extremely unusual to hire a lighting designer for any big building project.’

Raw commerciality is also helping thrust lighting designers forward and business is undoubtedly booming. Jonathan Speirs of Speirs and Major Associates reports that for the past four years, his consultancy has taken one to two enquiries a day and worked on 30-40 projects a month. As parts of the Middle East and India open up, UK-based lighting designers are taking a slice of the pie, working on enormous projects with huge budgets. For example, Speirs and Major is working on the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, one of the largest in the world. ‘The design business has realised a good lighting design consultancy can add value,’ explains Speirs. ‘Compared to what you have to spend, the visual return is high.’

There are still issues to be dealt with, however. One key problem which everyone agrees on is that it’s hard to find talented, well-trained designers. Nick Hoggett, who is a director of the newly merged DPA Lighting Design and Campbell Design, said at the time of the merger that the desire to expand further would potentially run into the problem of finding good designers. Speirs agrees, ‘Lighting design has arrived, but we are not ready. There are very few places where you can study lighting design and though these will give you a grounding, they won’t make you a lighting designer. The only way is to build up confidence over time.’

Speirs also criticises the industry for doing itself down. ‘Some consultancies simply do not charge enough. It cheapens our discipline,’ he says. Hodges says, ‘So little is dedicated to lighting, but it’s so fundamental. The general public is only just waking up to the fact that better lighting can make for a better lifestyle. We need to stand up and be noticed.’

One of the major future problems in future for the lighting industry may not be recognition, but the looming spectre of climate change. Light by its nature means using energy – and incinerating fossil fuels to make buildings look pretty will begin to seem the height of decadence very soon. Luckily, says Hodges, timers, sensors and other appropriate technology will help confront this problem. ‘Although,’ he adds, ‘I do just walk past building sometimes and think, Switch the lights off!’

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