Making light

There are three career routes into architectural lighting design – 90 per cent of practitioners start in theatrical lighting, engineering or architecture. But, the man who recently became lighting design consultant on new projects for the Louvre in Paris and designed the opening show at Glasgow 1999, did none of these things. “I can’t really say why I ended up doing lighting design – I just fell into it,” claims museums and exhibitions lighting specialist Richard Aldridge.

“Fifteen years ago I trained in music, drama and dance and wanted to be an actor,” he continues. “I had done some basic lighting during my theatre studies course, when I met John Roberts of Light Plan.” Roberts offered Aldridge a job in his company as buyer for his lighting range. “I thought, oh well, acting’s a precarious profession. I’ve a young family to bring up, it’s another string to my bow – and then I was asked to do a small residential lighting design project and things grew from there,” he says.

Aldridge then met James Wadsworth at Light Projects, who took him on as in-house lighting designer. “He had a small amount of experience by then, but you could tell he had lighting design in his blood,” says Wadsworth. Working on a Light Projects scheme for an exhibition in Dorset was an emotional and professional turning point for Aldridge. “I was lighting prints and pastels by artists such as Pissaro, Degas and Gauguin and I thought, ‘This is wonderful. I want to specialise in this’,” Aldridge says.

Wadsworth takes up the story: “After a couple of years working for us, he started doing his own projects. We worked together on things like Hampton Court Palace and the Wallace Collection. He gained a lot of practical, hands-on experience during that time.”

Aldridge stayed with Light Projects for five years, expanding his client base in the art and museums world – among them the British Museum, Sotheby’s and Hampton Court Palace, where he was appointed specialist lighting consultant. In this latter role, he memorably lit the Mantegna Gallery (see case study, page 19).

“Everyone finds working for a lighting manufacturer a constraint, but you have to be creative and make it work for you,” Aldridge says. “But Light Projects was fairly open and fair with me – and I realised that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I wanted to do well, to do it to a decent standard.”

His next move was to Microlights, a manufacturer specialising in theatrical retail and exhibition equipment, based in Wiltshire. Microlights boss Richard Millington offered Aldridge a job as independent consultant under the company’s umbrella. “I ran a separate company, Q Lights. I did some designs for its sales team, mainly in retail, but on my own projects I had complete freedom, I didn’t have to use its equipment. I liked the arrangement and I learnt a lot of technical designing skills, calculations and so on while I was there,” says Aldridge.

Unusually, Aldridge did many of his best-known lighting installations while still with Microlights – it was only in 1997 that he spread his wings to go solo, working from his home in an old converted pub near Winchester.

By now, Aldridge knew where he wanted to take his career. “The opportunity to work around fantastic works of art, I loved that,” he explains. “I didn’t want to light hotels and shopping malls.” Occasionally, Aldridge does turn his hand to architectural lighting schemes – his most recent being the Dyson V factory building in Wiltshire, designed by Chris Wilkinson Architects (with which he also worked on the “glass bridge” at the Science Museum).

It was during his spell at Microlights that Aldridge read an article about the Mona Lisa. “I knew the Louvre didn’t have a new lighting scheme so I rang the director, Pierre Rosenberg, offering my services. He actually rang back and over the next few years he got to know my work,” he says. Eventually, they met in Paris, and helped no doubt by Aldridge’s persuasive French (his mother’s nationality), Rosenberg asked him to oversee the lighting for all the Louvre’s new projects – as well as designing an exterior lighting scheme for the Musée d’Orsay.

“The biggest problem with museum lighting is poor maintenance and focusing,” Aldridge explains. “During lamp changes, everything gets disturbed. No one educates the electricians and they have no time to refer back to the plans. So, for example, I got the Louvre to change all its dichroics – and to move to luminaires that can be locked in position.”

Aldridge was also commissioned to redesign the lighting for three specific galleries, including the Salles Mollein. The architects had proposed lighting the tall paintings from both the ceiling and floor. As the latter element was unacceptable in safety terms, Aldridge came up with the idea for a line of asymmetric fluorescent fittings, recessed into a special housing in the ceiling. These almost exactly achieved the prescribed limits of 75 lux at the top and 40 lux at the bottom of each painting. “It was a very simple solution – I believe in keeping things as simple as possible,” Aldridge adds. “It’s the © objects on display that should speak. I don’t want people to say, ‘look at that Richard Aldridge lighting scheme’, I want them to say it’s a great exhibition.”

I asked Aldridge about his working methods. “Regardless of how much calculation I’ve done, on every single project I insist on doing a light test – then I know it will work. At the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum we have a prototype gallery to test things out in,” he says. At the new British Galleries, Aldridge is trying something adventurous – a lighting scheme for pictures, textiles, objets d’art and furniture, almost exclusively using fibre optics.

“Most people have been sceptical that it will do the job, but I’m using fibre optics more and more for conservation and maintenance reasons,” Aldridge explains. “Using an ultra-violet filter, there’s no UV and there’s virtually no heat. With white glass fibres and a decent light source, colour rendition is good up to about 5m – and the focus never changes when you change the lamp, so it cuts costs and maintenance time. Fibre optics could banish a lot of the inherent problems in museums.”

At the British Galleries, fibre optics are used a bit like track-mounted accent lights. The light heads, with large 50mm lenses, are set into a floating ceiling “raft,” with the projectors mounted above – plus additional sources mounted in plinths at low level. “I wanted to use a ‘footlights’ technique as well,” Aldridge explains. “Most galleries are very top-lit and there’s little lighting in-fill. But take something like a chair. It’s OK to light it from above, but the legs may be important too.”

Another prestigious project was the lighting for the Diana Memorial Museum at Althorp. So I asked designer Rasshied Din of Din Associates what Aldridge added to the job. “He brought a very sensitive approach to the project. For us it was his track record that was essential, because it all had to meet national museum conservation standards,” says Din. “In terms of the overall lighting, he had a very informed view of what we were doing and his aesthetic approach enabled us to get more depth out of the exhibits. We would certainly work with him again.”

The Things Gallery, the Science Museum (Gilles Cennanzatoddi)

Simplicity was once more to the fore with Aldridge’s lighting for the Things Gallery, one of the spaces within the ‘hands-on’ kids’ areas in the basement of the Science Museum.

Working with the colourful, cartoonish set designs by Eurotrash designer, Gilles

Cennanzatoddi, Aldridge was forced to devise a scheme which relies entirely on general lighting using fluorescent fixtures – original plans for accent lighting had to be abandoned for budgetary reasons.

‘But we weren’t that concerned about lighting intensity, as children’s eyes are much better than those of adults,’ Aldridge points out. ‘It’s not an approach we could have used in a grown-ups’ gallery.’

However, the scheme avoids the overlit blandness that such an approach suggests, mainly by the employment of high levels of wall-washing, using suspended asymmetric compact fluorescent fittings by Microlights and iGuzzini. This defines the cartoon-covered perimeters and provides a good contrast to the less intense lighting in the centre of the space.

Fill-in lighting is provided by a series of circular Marlin Opaline fittings on the ceiling. ‘I like this project – visually it works and it was cheap, as well as being inexpensive to maintain,’ Aldridge adds.

The Power of Erotic Design, Design Museum (Branson Coates)

The main brief for this exhibition was to ‘make it moody’, to create a suitable emotional setting for Branson Coates’ overwhelmingly scarlet sets. However, the project had a major constraint common to many such projects – an inflexible, in-house lighting system. In this case it comprised fixed, ceiling-mounted tracks, with Erco Eclipse low voltage fittings, ‘which give off a lot of spill light, even when fitted with anti-glare louvres’.

Improvising wildly, Aldridge encased all the light heads in black-wrap Cine-foil, which enabled him to control the beams more precisely, by moulding it around the lenses. ‘We were able to crop the beams and create controlled, but dramatic, pools of light, to highlight the objects,’ the designer explains. The graphic panels were washed more gently, to make them readable – many of them by spill light from the zappy neon word features located nearby.

The Mantegna Gallery, Hampton Court Palace

In many ways, this was one of the projects that established Aldridge’s reputation. Mantegna’s late 15th century series of nine paintings, depicting the Triumph of Caesar had been inadequately displayed in the orangerie for years, using ceiling-recessed fluorescents. One of them, The Captives, had been so badly restored and was so dark that it was displayed separately on an adjoining wall, which completely disrupted the narrative.

Each painting is almost 3m2 – and conservation requirements specify a maximum of 250 lux on the painting surface. ‘I thought the ceiling was too low to light from above – that would have caused a lot of reflective glare for visitors. It was the same if we created skylights to let in natural light,’ explains Aldridge. ‘So I tested out the idea of uplighting the pictures from floor level, using tungsten halogen, which has good colour rendering.’ Aldridge used profile projectors mounted in front of the guard rope. The tungsten halogen sources are fitted with ‘blue steel’ filters, to give them a cooler colour temperature of about 5200 degrees Kelvin.

‘We used shutters to keep the beams off the gilded pilasters between each painting, as they are reflective and would have overwhelmed the images,’ Aldridge adds. The lighting proposal was so successful that it was tried out on The Captives – the solution worked and the painting was restored to its place within the series.

Latest articles