We sit down with Paul Nulty, the founder of Nulty, to discuss all things lighting, working environments, creative processes and, of course… Brexit.
As one would expect from a lighting design practice, the room I find myself in has a glorious array of large light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. They emit a soft glow, together becoming bright enough to spread warm, orange light through the room; outside, the grey December sky doesn’t give them much competition. On the other side of the meeting room are the tell-tale signs of a young working environment; a black chalk board details the winners of the latest table tennis match, and the paddles sit against one wall.
Across the large, rectangular table (which, I assume, doubles as the Ping-Pong table) sits Paul Nulty, the founder of Nulty and lover of all things light. His demeanour is relaxed; it is clear that lighting design is a subject that he would happily discuss all day, and why not - since forming in 2011, Nulty seem to have gone from strength to strength. With offices in London, Dubai and recently Beirut, the multi-Award winning practice is certainly one to keep an eye on – but this may prove difficult, as Paul tells me, “we get through about a hundred projects a year”.
ING Bank UK Headquarters Image: © James French
I start by asking perhaps one of the more difficult questions – with three offices worldwide, how do you manage everything whilst still being involved in projects? “I’m a big believer that a successful design practice has to disseminate responsibility,” Paul begins, leaning back in his chair, “We get staff to take responsibility and ownership - the way we’re spilt in London is that we’re three teams; each team takes on a certain number of projects and between me and those teams, we [also] have a Creative Director and a Projects Director. Over three offices it’s hard to split your time. I was in Dubai last week, Beirut is very early days for us – we might be trying to do something in the States as well.”
Paul pauses; it’s clear that he is thinking about the logistics of having so many teams. As if in response, he says, “the problem with growth is [that, it is then] quite difficult to retain quality over what we do – so [to counter this], we have geared the office up, and the teams up, with [quality] in mind from the very beginning. We’re the only lighting design practice I know of that has a specific Creative Director and a specific Projects Director… We’re kind of a series of smaller businesses within a larger business – we get consistency on projects [and the teams] get to build relationships.”
Home on Hampstead Heath Image: © Adam Jacobs
Paul begins to tell me about the type of individuals that work within the Nulty offices; “I deliberately choose people with charisma to join our practice - everybody here has something to say for themselves, sometimes to my detriment”, he laughs. It brings us on to the question of Paul’s own background, and how he first became interested in lighting. “I studied theatre design,” he explains, “but very quickly realised that I didn’t want to stick around in theatre.
As much as I love theatre, it’s the domain of the imagination; it’s great that for one or two hours you can suspend disbelief, but I hated the fact that [that was all theatre did] – and I loved the fact that you could use light to affect the real world. Actually, a lot of the work I was doing was becoming increasingly more architectural; even though I was lighting things on stage, we [began] just using light to transform the space and losing everything that was a materialistic and tangible substance. So I think I was already, back then, gearing myself up towards doing something more architectural and something more with space and environments.”
Paul goes on, briefly sharing his history with lighting design, including working for the Light Bureau for twelve years. It was whilst working here, he explains, that he decided to set up a business on his own. “Before you know it, there I was sitting at my dining room table with no work, no savings, a credit card that I was going to go and buy a Mac, printer and camera with, thinking what do I do now? Fast forward nearly seven years and we’re arguably the second or third largest practice in Northern Europe and growing very quickly.”
Ling Ling, Oslo Image: © Adrien Daste
My next question is easy enough, following this revelation – where do you think that success comes from? Paul shrugs. “Growth definitely comes through passion, and I think I’m very passionate about what I do. I love the people I work with, and the subject matter, so I don’t think I could be anything else. I think that comes across in my work,” he explains, captivating his small audience with the enthusiasm in his words. He thinks for a moment, adding, “It’s become slightly less personal as I have stepped away from it, but it’s still full of character and charisma. If you look at our tone of voice, if you look at the way we market ourselves, there’s a certain style to it that is approachable.”
On the notion of compromise, and working environments in the business: “there are certain things within the business that are wholly uncompromising, and customer service is number one on that list. I don’t care what time people come in or leave, so long as the work gets done and it gets done to an amazing standard. If you give people a lot of intrinsic motivators – here’s your project, you own this – then [they’re doing it for themselves]. [If they] can see that I’m passionate about [the work, then they are] going to try and follow that. As a business, that’s what we’re all about – giving people responsibility and getting them emotionally invested in what they are doing, because then they will deliver the very best of what they can deliver”.
“Anyone who chooses a light fitting is considering where to put that light,” Paul elaborates, when I ask him about Nulty coming across as an approachable business. “Everyone should be educated to know what choosing that placement and light means for their space, it shouldn’t be an accident. We want to be the centre of knowledge; I’ll happily sit down and talk to someone about light. I want the world thinking about the quality of light, because then they’re not going to waste energy, they’re not going to waste light, and then everyone lives in a better space and a better environment.”
Bloomingdale's, Kuwait Image: © Romeo Productions
Conversation turns to the type of business that Nulty often sees. “78% of our work is repeat business or referral,” Paul begins, “our client base is like a family tree – people move jobs and bounce around the industry but they keep in touch”. The client base seems to be a family tree that keeps growing, and I wonder aloud whether Nulty find themselves working in all sectors and industry. In response, Paul smiles; “that, I think, has been part of our success – sectors wax and wane, especially with the fluctuation of the markets. We don’t do huge amounts of education or huge numbers galleries, but otherwise we cover a lot – commercial, retail, residential, hotels, hospitality and other [projects] like the London underground”.
This brings me to my next question – where in the process do Nulty jump in? “There is always a fine line with lighting design,” Paul explains, “because you don’t want to get in too early – you’re just wasting everyone’s time – so you need the interior designer or architect to have a reasonable concept, idea or look of what they want. The ideal scenario is to come in roughly at the end of their concept. Often, we’re brought in at the middle or end of their schematic design, as they’re starting to develop it, which is a little bit too late. Occasionally we’ve even been brought in when projects are in technical design and they’re trying to deliver it – that gets really hard.”
This idea of where lighting design should be placed within a project’s process leads us into a tangent about what lighting designers really do – “a good lighting designer is first and foremost [working with] the intangible stuff: light, how that light falls upon a surface” – and the frustration Paul feels about architects and designers who forget how important light is, when designing a space. But, as he mentions, this topic is going to be covered his discussion ‘What Architects Should Know about Lighting’ at ARCHITECT@WORK 2018.
The Ned, London Image: © The Ned
Instead, we focus on the future, and what Brexit means for Nulty. “I think the UK market is going to be really tough,” Paul admits, exhaling in a sigh. “My current fear is that we’re seeing the funding for creative arts being further and further eroded, and I think that will have a long term impact. As lighting designers, we are in the centre of the lighting design universe right now – the very, very best are in London - and I fear that we might lose that if lighting designers can’t work with the very best interior designers and architects because they’re moving to Paris, Brussels, etc.”.
On a more positive note, Nulty “should see an increase in retail and hospitality projects – the Pound is weak so tourism is up,” Paul tells me. “There will be a shifting in the market place, but how much it shifts, I really don’t know. It will just be a case of ‘hang on to your hats’ and try and ride it out. It’s worrying, but I think the agile businesses will do well out of it.”
Where, I ask, does that put Nulty? Again, the passion for his work is alight in Paul’s eyes. Still, he is thoughtful. “[It will be] about making sure we’re a business that is as agile as possible - to stay at the centre of that knowledge world so that when people need us, they think of us. We have to try and maintain that competitive edge and innovation. That’s the challenge – remaining competitive, well run and as organised as possible, without becoming too corporate and without losing the character of the individuals within us. It means every single client counts”.
The Wellness Clinic, Harrods Image: © Jack Hobhouse
This leads me on to ask about Paul’s newest venture, Nulty Bespoke – Nulty’s year-old sister company that creates bespoke luminaries. The new business was born “entirely out of frustration,” Paul explains, discussing the differences and spectrum between industrial engineers manufacturing Nulty designs, or taking them to artisans that ask for an incredibly high price.
“What I saw was a market, occupied by very few companies, that fills that artisan gap but is between highly expensive artists and industrial engineers. In the end I thought, why don’t we bring this in house? I can retain the quality over what we’re producing, I get the exact look, feel and engineering that I want and I can control the price, delivery and quality. It’s partly the control freak in me,” he laughs, “[but it is only because of] wanting to elevate the quality of my projects.”
I ask about the relationship between the two companies, and whether this means Nulty projects will only use Nulty Bespoke products – Paul shakes his head. “We are wholly independent lighting designers – if you’re paying me, I believe in an honest day’s work,” he says firmly, “if you want to go anywhere else you are perfectly entitled to do so, because you own the rights to your piece. Equally, to the team I’ve said we’re impartial – if they feel there are other people better placed to offer you the best product, they are not wedded to use Bespoke, they can suggest those other companies. I’m all for impartiality,” he grins, “not least because it keeps Bespoke on their toes.”
Yauatcha, Houston. Image: Adrien Daste
Finally, I question Paul about his favourite element of lighting design. He tells me it is at the final stages of a project, when the team are balancing the lights in a space. “I get goose bumps,” Paul admits reflectively, “it’s the most beautiful thing, when a space comes to life and suddenly has a heartbeat. It really is an emotional thing, and the most exciting thing about my job: switching the lights on and balancing them. It’s composing the visual world”.
Reluctantly, I find that our interview is over; but not before I am given teasers for future projects in London – Waterloo and Camden, keep your eyes open. With a good-natured ‘Goodbye’, Paul Nulty sweeps from the room. After all, he is a busy man, with a growing empire to run.