It’s not easy being a lighting designer. You’re not only up against lighting manufacturers doing it for free, but also lighting suppliers-cum-designers which can offer a total design-to-installation package. And, more often than not, your clients don’t understand you.
This is not so surprising when the lighting designers themselves have a confused identity. Some call themselves lighting designers, others lighting specialists, architects or engineers. Educationally, the profession is in its infancy, with just one post-graduate lighting design course – the MSc offered by The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College, London.
So what is the role of the independent lighting designer? According to Lighting Design International design director Sally Storey, it demands a combination of technical knowledge and design flair to create the lighting effect appropriate for a project, often working with an architect or interior designer.
“I’m trying to realise that vision and bring to it something they hadn’t thought of,” she says.
Storey specialised in lighting after a degree in architecture and has worked on projects at LDI such as London’s new hotel One Aldwych, and the Hyatt Madeleine hotel chain.
“You need to have a design background. The most important thing to be able to do is to read plans and elevations. Lighting is a three-dimensional tool and you play on the light and shade,” says Storey.
Lighting designers’ biggest problem is getting clients to pay for their specialist services rather than take free design advice from manufacturers or go to lighting suppliers-cum-designers.
Things are getting better, but only slowly, according to lighting architect Mark Major, who says that most of the work his group, Speirs & Major Lighting Architects, does originates from the end-user rather than the designer.
“Maybe we’re just lucky, but we rarely have to fight the fight. There are more clients around who are educated as to the benefits of using a lighting designer,” he says.
This view is confirmed by lighting design veteran Maurice Brill, who trained as an electrical engineer and worked in theatre before setting up his own lighting consultancy, Maurice Brill Lighting Design, in 1985.
“When I started with Theatre Projects in 1971 there were no other lighting consultants in the UK. At that time we were going virtually cap in hand to clients explaining what we could do… that we were offering professional advice and not a lighting equipment service. It was very hard,” says Brill.
Now he is gratified by both a “huge” client and public awareness of the role of lighting design, especially in major external building and landscaping projects.
“The lighting design profession is on the up in the UK. Our skills have become internationally recognised in a short time,” he says.
Imagination lighting designer Kate Wilkins agrees things are improving, but says many clients still regard her profession as a luxury, and those that are willing to pay often bring in the lighting team too late.
Theatres, museums, galleries and other arts buildings show the greatest appreciation of the role of lighting – at Stanton Williams’ recent refurbishment of the National Theatre, the budget for the lighting – designed by Maurice Brill using mostly Concord Sylvania products – was more than 1m.
“If a client recognises that lighting is a fundamental part of the project then obviously they’re willing to bring in a lighting designer,” says Stanton Williams partner Alan Stanton. He says the practice otherwise devises a scheme with manufacturers or electrical engineers.
Lighting designers’ trump cards are independence and creativity. Since their sole aim is to design rather than sell a company’s products, there is less danger of over-specification and, they argue, a wider choice of lighting suppliers.
“Clients recognise the input we can have to a project. They recognise our ability to offer energy-efficient packages and a range of equipment best suited to the task and they welcome the degree of independence,” says Lighting Design Partnership associate Graham Large.
“You can come up with ideas if you aren’t thinking of product all the time,” adds Major, whose current portfolio of lighting projects includes the massive retail development Bluewater Park, the Millennium Dome, and a masterplan for the city of Cambridge.
Storey says most schemes would be compromised if they sourced lighting from only one manufacturer.
Lumsden Design Partnership managing director Callum Lumsden avoids the pitfalls by using Into Lighting Design, a lighting designer/supplier which sources products from a variety of manufacturers.
Lumsden considers that Into can offer a broader selection of products than many other lighting designers (which he feels can favour particular manufacturers), and the manufacturers themselves.
“Lighting can be made over-complex by some lighting designers I’ve met. It seems hi-tech and scientific, but in my experience it seems a bit hit and miss. Into has always got it dead right.”
Russell Lipscombe, design director of Into, says the supply side of its business is generally geared to the retail sector.
“We do upset pure lighting designers, because we offer both supply and design but the design work we do for design and supply is for clients which wouldn’t have the money [for design] anyway. It would usually be left to a manufacturer or even worse, contractors.”
For their part, lighting manufacturers hotly defend any suggestion that they don’t offer appropriate advice.
Marlin senior lighting designer Dominic Meyrick says his company can bridge the gap between clients unwilling to pay for a lighting designer and architects who may have “a knowledge gap” about the technical intricacies of lighting. He says Marlin offers generic lighting advice as well as pure product advice.
“I get upset by lighting companies saying that I have a limited palette. There are only four ways you can light a space and that’s with downlighters, uplighters, wall-washers or spotlights. We’re both after the same thing – good lighting. My lighting has to be good. I can’t afford it not to be,” says Meyrick.
Erco’s Tim Lipscombe says the lighting manufacturer never experiences a conflict with lighting designers.
“Lots of our clients are lighting designers and they themselves are putting forward our light fittings. There’s never any conflict between us. Lighting designers are some of our most important clients,” he says.
All agree that lighting design is becoming more adventurous and fast-changing.
LDI’s Storey singles out increased use of fibre-optics as a future trend while Mark Hensman, director of lighting design consultancy Equation, points to interest in using more daylight in schemes and the psychological aspects of using light. This is echoed by Kate Wilkins of Imagination, who sees increasing interest in lighting, like colour psychology and Feng Shui, being used as a therapy to improve ambience and well-being.
Theatrical style lighting is moving into the mainstream with more use of colour and special effects. Into’s Lipscombe has been involved in projects which control lighting effects through different lenses and others using light sequencers and moving lights that project logos across a shop floor. There is also use of colour correction lenses to enhance the appearance of food products.
“In themed environments you find theatrical ideas being used. There is a demand for the aesthetic that theatrical lighting designers can bring,” says Nick Hunt, administrator of the Association of Lighting Designers, a 650-strong organisation of mainly theatre lighting designers.
According to Maurice Brill: “Whatever the upcoming fads and fashions, there will always be a place for good, unobtrusive lighting design that enhances the space.”
“For me, the ideal space is one where you’re not aware of the equipment,” he says. “It’s just a beautifully lit space.”
Why use a lighting designer?
Specialist technical knowledge of products and relevant building regulations
Greater product choice from a variety of lighting manufacturers
Site supervision of lighting installation in addition to product selection
Design fee in addition to cost of lighting equipment