Family-run lighting distributor, Atrium, is making waves

We speak to Ulysse Dormoy to find out more about Atrium, one of the biggest independent lighting distributors in the UK.

Founded in 1976 by Patrick Dormoy, Atrium is a lighting distribution company with a design-centric heart; to this day, the company is a family run business. Over the years Atrium has continued to go from strength to strength - it might even be said that it is now one of the biggest independent distributors for its sector within the UK. To find out more about this unique company, DesignCurial sat down with Atrium’s managing director, Ulysse Dormoy – and as the son of founder Patrick Dormoy, it seemed only fitting to find out first-hand how Atrium all began.

“My Dad had always like design and engineering, and [when the family settled in Yorkshire] he met someone that was in the [design] industry,” says Dormoy. “He went out to some suppliers he thought he could work with, and started selling to retailers. At the time we were purely a furniture distribution company, [and] it didn’t take him a massive amount of time to realise that Yorkshire wasn’t the UK centre of design! We moved down to London in 1980, and I joined [the business] in 1988.”

Dormoy moved into sales in the early 1990s and says that this is “where I started finding that lighting was something I actually quite enjoyed. There were already bits of lighting that we were doing but nothing quite concrete; then we were introduced to Modular, who are a semi-technical brand, and that’s really where our passion for lighting came about.”

"As a business we have been quite lucky,” he continues. “The furniture market was changing quite rapidly at the time… It wasn’t quite as simple to operate in as it had been. If we hadn’t had the lighting side of the business at the time, then it might have been a bit of a catastrophe. The paths crossed, and the shift happened between 2003 – 2005; that was when we decided we were just going to have one focus.”

From their humble beginnings in furniture, Dormoy mentions that the move into becoming a lighting distributor was “very much a determined, defined thing. As a consequence of that, it’s afforded us an opportunity with certain brands. A fairly significant one came round in 2010 when Flos approached us to work with them. That was an opportunity that we felt was absolutely right for the business; it allowed us to grow to the next level, to get ourselves into the market place in a world which is ever changing.”

Image: Jonathan Banks

At the helm of Atrium, Dormoy has seen a fair few changes over the year; he mentions that the biggest one has come from the fast-moving world of tech. “Our world has shifted significantly from what it was five, six, or seven years ago,” he says. “The world of analogue sources has now shifted to digital sources, and what you can do with digital sources is totally different to how it was before. We’re evolving massively; one might question if the lighting industry should be part of the tech sector now.”

“How lighting can become part of a building now – what you can potentially do, and what you can already do, is very different to what you could do [years ago],” continues Dormoy. “I think with some of the brands [we work with,] we’re very lucky.They’ve chosen to look at the new technology and of course, while they’ve had to take existing luminaries and upgrade them to new technology, they’ve been quite adventurous to what is possible.”

Dormoy explains that all the brands working with Atrium have an “open minded approach to product development which has helped enormously. For example, six years ago Flos launched the first magnetic system. There was an evolution in that system: in the beginning it was a static system, then there was a dimmable system, and now we’ve got a product that is controlled by Bluetooth signal. You can move the spotlight up and down the track. We’re being brought into areas that we weren’t present in before – the control and positioning of light, which was all done by a controls company [previously]. It’s a lot more involved.”

© Lee Mawdsley

Atrium now work with several different brands, and are solely focused on being commercial lighting distributors. “We still work with Modular, it’s been about 28 years now,” remarks Dormoy, “and along the way we started working with Sattler - I’ve always liked their products. Cooledge is another significant one from Vancouver.”

“It is made to go behind things,” Dormoy says, explaining Cooledge further. “Luminous surfaces, ceilings, walls, the product is developed in such a way that you can’t use it without putting something in front of it. They are a slightly different tack for us, but I liked the technology. I liked what they were doing in terms of taking a problem which exists within the industry, and coming up with a solution for it.” Alongside Flos, Modular, Cooledge and Sattler, Atrium also works with Ares, Buschfeld and Grupo MCI.

The company have recently finished work on one of their latest UK-based projects, the lighting for the newly opened Japan House. “The luminous surfaces that they have [in Japan House] are Cooledge, but around the perimeter surfaces, the little spots are the magnetic system from Flos,” Dormoy reveals. “It’s a prime example of what we can achieve. We can deliver a complete solution for the issue that was there on architect’s list of things to resolve. I think that’s one of our strengths, being able to harness the different aspects of the brands that we work with to deliver a final solution.”

Atrium’s client base comes from a range of backgrounds, including architects, interior designers, engineers and lighting designers; this latter group suggests that Atrium don’t count themselves as ‘designers’, which Dormoy agrees with. “I think there’s a very big difference between independent fee-based lighting designers and the supply side of the industry. All suppliers in the industry have some layer of capability to do lighting calculations and [can] support clients that don’t have a budget for a lighting designer, but I think the skill sets are very different.”

“There have been plenty of occasions where we’ve stepped back, away from the project, and put forward lighting designers to do the work,” continues Dormoy. “It’s not our strength – our strength is in the products that we bring to the market place and technical knowledge about what our products are capable of doing. [But] there are plenty of projects out there where there isn’t the budget for an independent fee for a lighting designer.”

Dormoy pauses for a moment to think, before sharing his thoughts. “I’m hoping that with guides such as WELL Building, we now have a standard – not just for lighting but all sorts of areas – which is actually referring to the people who will be using the building as opposed to just about efficiency,” he says. “Lighting plays a massive part in our psychological and physiological being. I think in that sense, there does need to be a huge education process; there are a lot of lighting designers that promote good light on a consistent basis – but we all have to do to that.”

© Lee Mawdsley

Dormoy mentions that ‘quality of light’ is something that Atrium has been trying to promote for a number of years. In fact, for this year’s London Design Festival, as well as sponsoring the Blueprint Photography Awards, Atrium will have an exhibition space and will be running workshops to educate people on light quality. “Our focus has been on the quality of life and educating people about it in a number of different senses, including the non-visible aspect, like the flicker aspect,” Dormoy mentions. “It all becomes part of trying to deliver a high quality solution.”

Spanning from the mid-to-high end market, Dormoy says the company’s aim is to always “make sure that what we bring to the market place, we’re happy with, and [that it] delivers a consistent solution. We, as Atrium, need to be seen to be delivering a complete, high quality solution. It’s all about the quality of light, the components that go with it, and how we deliver that as a package.” With such a rich heritage and several celebrated brands working with them, perhaps Atrium can help change how the world views lighting – even if it is one downlight at a time.

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