Coming from the UK theatre originally, the use of lighting contrast and shadow to create mood, atmosphere and emotion is in my DNA and the additional drama created within the environments with which we live our everyday lives plays very much in to my hands as a designer. In this article I will try to share some thoughts and insights from an accented or oriented lighting point of view and hopefully change the way we view lighting.

Just in our day to day living for example, we don’t just shop any more we have to have the ‘retail experience’ with shopping malls having to do more and provide more to provide a family shopping experience with strong competition these days from online retailers. So Malls are becoming so much more experiential with the right mix of food and beverage outlets, entertainment or activity centres and the creation of an atmosphere and emotion within the space, lighting has a huge roll to play in all of these areas within the space and can help create an excitement and connection.
It has long been evident to me that in some retail outlets we can have an idea of the pricing before we look at the price tag. In some instances it can be the quality of the goods on show, but more often it is from the quality of the display including the lighting. High quality stores tend to have more shadow, a higher ratio between the light and the surrounding contrast, which tends to give a higher level of sophistication within the store. I know from experience in the really high end retailers the level of design required to create the layers of light for an exquisite atmosphere and totally immersive experience. Lower quality stores usually have a much more one dimensional approach to the lighting, are generally light and bright with a stack them high and sell them cheap mentality.

Bluewater shopping centre, the ‘retail’ experience. Image: Martin Morris

British Museum. Image: Jan Grafflin

Contrast & sophistication at Zara. Image: Window Displays Vienna

Atmosphere and drama purveys our everyday lives and the advances in lighting technology and controls allows us to be evermore creative. Entrances to buildings whether commercial or residential are more themed, hotels are more flavorsome and the facades and exteriors of buildings can be breathtakingly dramatic or sublime in their elegance and simplicity. However, with use of colour comes responsibility, we are designers and not graffiti artists and so often simple drama can be added by the use of shadow and what we don’t light.

Museums and galleries are a great medium to play with contrast and shadow and we can use such techniques to create a totally immersive experience. I personally have lit museum galleries with a 50:1 darkness to light ratio, taking the visitor from piece to piece through total darkness. To have the confidence to do this we must also understand some of the phycology of how we view light, awaken the curiosity of the individual to explore such space, it helps also that we have exiting exhibits to satisfy the spirit of adventure.

I love that museums and galleries these days often have the special space within the space, the exhibition space for visiting artworks or exhibits. Quite often these displays are ticketed and pieces of extraordinary significance, so we raise our game in these areas as it is important in my opinion to stand apart from the day to day lighting of the museum to create a sophistication in keeping with the special exhibits.

I see lighting as an important artistic design element in museums and galleries and it is interesting to me that as art diversifies into less mainstream elements such as performance art and street art and projected art; as well as light shows as part of local or national celebrations, we find that art and architecture are merging in our new visual world. I for one would make a show of my new building with art, music and dancers and open with an excitement and inclusiveness for all.

We have many cultural avenues to explore when lighting museums and galleries and I feel as lighting designers our sympathy must be utmost for the content. I have worked on many such projects in India and Asia and in The Middle East as well as such luminaries of The UK and Europe including The Tate Modern and The British Museum in London, are we lighting the classics or a modern art display of discarded clothes or an unmade bed. The White Cube Gallery interests me as the whole gallery becomes a blank and evenly illuminated canvas for the art to stand alone in. Interestingly, in all my travels, no client has ever asked me to design in a ‘European’ style, I wear an Indian hat when I am in India.

For me personally, the days of individual wall mounted picture lights are gone, excepting that with some old and classic works this is the people’s method of choice. I much prefer to seamlessly integrate my lighting into the architecture so that we have the light without a direct association to the source.

As architectural lighting designers these days we have to be comfortable with so many different lighting techniques in our attempts to stay fresh and at the same time to capture the beauty. We have to be projectionists, 3D projection mappers, light sculptors, colorists, story tellers and pioneers that drive our clients to new limits.

I feel we also have an important duty as the custodians of beauty not just to end up as pop artists in a Coca Cola (or Thums Up) culture. The Rotunda Tower in Birmingham has a 360 degree exterior media screen at the summit of the building, an expensive installation for sure, for which they accepted some sponsorship such is today’s world. The client stood strong and insisted that opposed to commercial content, that 90% of the screened content was either artistic or culturally themed.

Lazarides Gallery London. Image: Yvette Jones

White Cube Gallery Hong Kong. Image: Scott Terry

Even scallops are less distracting. Image: Trevor Morgan

I see more clients with a vision these days and they are wise indeed as their projects and businesses stand out through their attention to detail. This is no more evident an example in India than The Jaya He Artworks at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Mumbai International Airport T2, where the client GVK have effectively put a museum and gallery inside an airport. This extraordinary far-sightedness reflects well on India in general and Mumbai in particular in the eyes of the world.

I strongly believe that the limiter to creativity is not the budget of the projects that we work on, the limiter to creativity has to be the ideas that we have, if we have a tight budget then we have to have better ideas. We have to know when to use a high cost precision light and when we can use and get away with a cheaper product with a general beam. Clients should work closely with their design teams and trust them to bring projects in on budget or to make the saving decisions if required. The magic happens when all the design elements and construction elements work together in harmony for the greater good of the project.

Tips for using oriented luminaires


I am not a great fan of the scallops created by dissecting beams, mainly as they are often uneven and visually distracting, used well they can make for a delightful visual effect.

Adjustable brackets

I never specify adjustable brackets if a fixed bracket is sufficient. When I need to specify an adjustable mounting bracket then I ensure that they are locked off at the correct angle and marked. We have a duty to simplify installation and maintenance to avoid errors on site.

The correct light fitting

I have often seen, admittedly often through ignorance, lighting that can only be described as a crime to art. I suppose the general rule is that if you have art that is worth thousands it is worth spending more than ten dollars on a light fitting.

The author with Mahesh & Chandan while focusing lights at Mumbai Airport T2. Image: David Gilbey

The Tea Room at The Victoria & Albert Museum London. Image: Alan Munroe

Terracotta Warrior Exhibition at the British Museum. Image: Bob Locker

Mock up of moving water effect, take every chance you get! Image: David Gilbey

Using design style to contrast

This article has discussed using shadow and darkness as a contrast to a great extent, we can also use contrasting styles of luminaires to create interest and texture in a project.

Mock up

I am astonished how many decisions are taken on luminaires from spreadsheets or with a luminaire on the table as opposed to mounted and demonstrated. Mock up at every opportunity you will learn so much from the experience, you will learn more in one hour of shining lights than in a hundred hours of computer simulations.

Kinetic lighting effects always need to be mocked up, for example with a starry sky effect there is a difference in the speed that stars twinkle millions of miles away in the night sky as opposed to when you are standing five meters away from an artificial effect.

Education: the why’s and how’s

Lighting specification is sometimes a choice of choosing your battles and there are some battles that you cannot lose. I find the best way to do this is to educate the client and his project team, if they understand the reasoning behind the product selection they are more likely to stay with the spec. Mock ups are another way to convince the client of the power of your lighting solution.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

It is one of the worst kept secrets in lighting that I am absolutely terrified of heights, this fear has never once stopped me from climbing the ladder, going up to the top of the scaffolding or hanging over precipitous drops on the boom lift. Where there are lights to aim and focus or a better view of the space to be had I will go. There is a famous shot taken by the architect Arvind Saxena of me in a boom lift 50 feet above the floor below which is seriously out of focus, upon reviewing the images together Arvind apologized for the camera shake that had caused the blurred image, I had great delight in telling me that it was not the camera shaking it was me!

If you want to share thoughts or feedback then please leave a comment below.

Leave a Reply