Collaboration with architects for specialist lighting design

25 May 2018

Over the past few decades, specialist lighting design has steadily grown in stature, becoming a fundamental part of the design process. Andrea Valentino talks to Chad Rains, founder and creative director of Illuminationworks, about his early arrival onto the lighting design scene, the importance of emerging technologies, and how close collaboration with architects is crucial.

Light has always been a subtle part of stagecraft. In ancient times, coloured awnings were stretched across the theatre to hide actors from the glare of the sun. By the Renaissance, scholars were writing detailed treatises on how to best illuminate a space. In 1545, Sebastiano Serilo recommended placing candles and torches behind amber-coloured water, immersing actors and crowd in delicate gold light.

The invention of the lightbulb pushed theatrical lighting ahead further. By the mid-20th century, it was as crucial to performance as any soliloquy. But even as it shimmers down to us in a theatre, for a long time lighting was not seen as a specialist field in its own right.

With more light coming from vertical surfaces, a space can feel lit without being overly bright. This adds to the sense of relaxation.

Chad Rains recalls such times vividly. “When I was in school – between 1987 and ’92 – lighting design was still a very new field,” he says. “Back then, it was just New York and London, and even London was dwarfed by New York. I remember all through the 1990s, we still took people from interior design or architecture, and then trained them to become lighting designers.”

From this hesitant start, both Rains and his profession have prospered, working confidently alongside architects and interior designers. Rains himself – founder and creative director of the London-based Illuminationworks – has found similar success. His work has won broad praise, most recently at the 2017 Lighting Design Awards, where he and his team were anointed Lighting Design Practice of the Year.

Listen to Rains explain his design philosophy, and these achievements become easy to understand. “For me, the most important part of any project is ‘integration’,” he says. “This means making the light fittings as unobtrusive as possible, while still delivering a memorable atmosphere that can be relaxing and exciting, depending on the use of the space.” The purpose might have changed, but the subtlety of theatre lighting is still there for all to see.

Developing skills

These ideas did not appear overnight. Rains first encountered lighting design as a student at Louisiana State University. Under the tutelage of Andrea Daugherty, an influential professor, he developed an appreciation of lighting as part of a broader set of architectural tools. “Andrea encouraged me by creating a one-on-one independent study course and emphasising lighting design in my normal interior design classes,” Rains explains. “By my senior year, I had a substantial lighting portfolio.”

It helped that Rains was entering a relatively undeveloped field. “I could tell that some of the trigonometry formulas used for quantifying lighting really perplexed most of my classmates,” he says. “I saw this as a clear advantage going into the workplace, so I pursued lighting as a speciality focus in a time when there were no lighting design programmes.”

Such foresight paid off. After a stint in New York, Rains moved to London and worked under Arnold Chan, the force behind graceful lighting schemes at The Wolseley and Hong Kong’s Landmark Hotel, among others. “I continued working on high-profile projects around the world and further developed my hospitality lighting skills,” Rains says.

In 2006, he founded Illuminationworks and has been there ever since. A parade of big-name commissions followed, including Manchester Selfridges, a string of Marc Jacobs stores and award-winning work for menswear brand Kent & Curwen.

Structural foibles

Pushed to explain these triumphs, Rains remains diffident. “We have continued working on great projects worldwide,” he says simply. But not even he can hide his pride at Illuminationworks’ success, something he ascribes to working closely with architects and interior designers throughout the design process. “One of the things that makes us different is that we look at each individual project and proscribe a unique solution to it,” he says.

“We are brought in during the concept stage. Usually the architect or interior designer has already advanced their own concept design, and done the space planning or initial layouts. We comment on their ideas. Then we take it further and create our own lighting design concept package with 3D sketches and breakdown the different lighting ideas for a space.”

Harmonising ideas with architects and interior designers never gets dull. “The projects that are dictated to you can be a bit boring, to be honest,” he admits. “Those where you have complete free reign can be boring, too. Lighting is often very subjective, and if you don’t have someone who has an opinion on the project, it can spiral out of control. I think the projects in the middle – where interior designers and architects are interested, but not dictatorial, about the process – are the most gratifying projects to work on.”

Close cooperation with architects is also important for pragmatic reasons, especially in older buildings. Unlike new designs, historic properties have structural foibles that only become clear during renovation. As an example, Rains cites his work with 21c Museum Hotels, a US hospitality company that specialises in conversion projects. “We’ve done seven [renovations for 21c] so far, and six of those have been adapted for use from existing buildings,” he says. “One was previously a bank; one in Nashville was an old warehouse.”

Each project is different, he says. “As builders go in there and start renovating – doing the field work, tearing the walls down and the ceiling out to see what’s really behind – they start to see hidden columns and structural beams. This forces you to adapt the lighting design. It’s not just a case of doing the first few design phases then [leaving] architects on their own. You have to see it through to the end,” he explains.

Down on downlights

But successful lighting designers cannot rely on tenacity alone. Light has the power to soften sober rooms and snap dreary ones to life, but it needs to be used carefully. Inexperienced designers do not always get the balance right, Rains says. One problem involves using harsh light when softer tones would do.

“Often, the colour temperature is inappropriate to a specific environment,” he explains. “The back-of-house areas are not lit to the same level of sophistication [as public spaces]. These might include kitchen areas immediately adjacent to the dining room in a restaurant, or storage rooms in a spa environment.”

For its part, Illuminationworks include every corner of a building in its plans, bringing Rains’ theory of ‘integration’ to elegant fruition. “We always take adjacent backof- house areas into our scope,” he says. “[This is to] limit the possibility of someone opening a door and flooding the space with atmosphere-killing, cold, bright lighting.” Using mellower light, with a lower Kelvin number, helps too. “In hospitality environments, we never use lights higher than 2,700K, with warm white colour temperatures,” Rains adds. “In a space with no daylight, we might even venture lower to get a dimmed incandescent effect.”

Rains also explains the importance of placing fittings carefully, and is especially keen to underline his aversion to ceiling lamps. “We seek to envelop the guest in light from the perimeter as much as possible,” he says. “This approach allows the limited use of downlights, which can feel glaring if not carefully positioned. With more light coming from vertical surfaces, a space can feel lit without being overly bright. This adds to the sense of relaxation. We save the downlights for tables, for example, where you might have a flower display.”

Dolly lighting

Reflecting on his two decades as a lighting designer, Rains concedes that better technology has helped him polish his art. “I have seen the industry go from halogen to LED,” he explains. “These days, we use tunable white LED technologies that mimic halogen dimming, wherever possible. This is especially useful in rooms with daylight, where cooler temperatures look better in daytime, and can get gradually warmer as night falls.”

A related development involves ‘dolly dimming’, where individual lights in a room can be controlled separately, allowing even more versatility. “Let’s say you’re working on a corporate project, or a museum, where the walls might be reconfigured in future,” Rains says. “At a museum, for example, you might have a temporary exhibition and need to then change all the lights on the ceiling. This can be done easily with a dolly system. With the old voltage lighting systems, you’d have to rewire all those fixtures. Overall, dolly dimming helps future-proof projects.”

This flexibility is proving handy as Rains explores new markets. His team has several commissions in East Asia, including shopping centres in China and a cosmetics store in South Korea. All this poses special challenges, Rains says. “Unlike in Europe, clients in Asia prefer light to be brighter and more even,” he says. “You have to light the floor and everything else in the space. There is also a tendency to light a bit cooler.”

Illuminationworks is also working on a number of projects back in the UK, including a London gym and a country hotel. “It’s good to have contacts in every region, because it’s nice to have your work spread around the world,” he says. “If one area starts to dive economically, it’s good to have something else to rely on.” None of this should be surprising: Rains is clearly comfortable shaping light into beauty, whatever the stage.

One of the Marc by Marc Jacobs showrooms with lighting design by Illuminationworks.
The bar of the Lockbox restaurant at the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky.
The American Bar at the Beaumont Hotel in London.

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