Veronica Simpson takes a look at the work of lighting design practice Light Collective, with its radical agenda on illumination.
Words by Veronica Simpson
Collaborative is surely one of the key words in design right now: from textile designers working with chemical engineers to create exotic new heat or light-reactive pigments (check out The Unseen) to architects working with biologists to develop new and sustainable building forms and materials (see Michael Pawlyn's extraordinary structures at Exploration Architecture), the cutting edge of design - and culture in general - is about the serendipitous mixing of talents and skill sets to generate innovative new approaches and applications.
Lighting design is up there in the 'collaboratory' with the best of them, but its output is mostly confined to the kind of immersive audio-visual wizardry increasingly conjured up to enhance performances and events from theatre experiences to exhibitions to Olympic opening ceremonies, or used to create stunning art installations. What you don't tend to get is lighting designers being truly free-range in their activities. Or so I thought, until I met Light Collective.
Light Collective is one of the most interesting and innovative studios currently using light as a medium. Started by architectural lighting designer (ex BDP) Martin Lupton and Sharon Stammers, who came to lighting design via theatre and stage lighting, their work combines technical brilliance with a keen sense of fun.
Light Collective's Guerilla Lighting in Salford, at the Old Fire Station
For example, it has a Guerilla Lighting arm which has taken over some of the grittier parts of European towns, unloved spaces in rural villages and even forests, with the help of small armies of locals, reinventing familiar landscapes for one glorious night of mischief thanks to the deployment of portable lamps and coloured film. As justification Stammers - a likeable, no-nonsense lighting evangelist - says: 'Local authorities invest all their money on lighting town centres and never the places where people live, where it's needed.'
Stammers and Lupton are also part of a group of pan-European lighting designers who have founded what they call the Social Light Movement. With a little help from sponsors (iGuzzini and Concord play a key part here), they host workshops with a wide variety of design students and practitioners, taking light out into the parts of the city where it's needed most. One recent project in a Swedish housing association went down so well the association has decided to permanently install it.
Light Collective's sense of fun is also deployed on behalf of lighting manufacturers wishing to find a fresher way of launching a product or technology than the usual conveyor-belt product parades. For example, to showcase the talents of Concord/Havells Sylvania's Beacon Muse Projector, Light Collective dreamed up One Beam of Light, a global photographic competition inviting contributors from all over the world to send in images inspired by single-light sources. The best of these were exhibited at the ICA, but it was so successful it became a touring exhibition.
Stammers, it turns out, did her time as a more orthodox kind of lighting designer, putting spotlights on cathedrals, but found the work ultimately quite boring. She says: 'The first time I thought: I can't believe I'm doing cathedrals, it's so exciting. But each time the way we lit them it was just the same.' So when the duo formed Light Collective, their first decision was to tear up the rule book about what a lighting consultancy could be or do. Their ethos is, in a nutshell: 'Solving problems, very creatively, using light,' says Stammers.
This summer, they got to highlight the creative possibilities of light in a whole new way by curating an exhibition in Paris. Called Lumière: Play of Brilliants, it showcased some of the most interesting contemporary light art and design studios. Located in various rooms in Paris's historic Eléphant Paname venue (a deliciously dilapidated Belle Epoque mansion that doubles as gallery and dance studio), the selected art works found innovative ways to deliver up what legendary lighting designer Richard Kelly had identified as the third key element in any lighting scheme: 'play of brilliants' (the other two being focal glow and ambient lighting).
Guerrilla Lighting hits a tunnel in Liege
Nothing if not diverse, the works included a stroboscopic display of light in water from Paris-based DGT; a kinetic light sculpture of colour-changing circles that moved around a room like some kind of pulsing deep-sea creature, from Germany's White Void studio; a modern-day disco ball from UK art and sculpture group Haberdashery, with sound-reactive LED lights embedded in a sculpture formed of laser-cut acrylic (a microphone embedded in the sculpture sets off LED fireworks every time a noise is made); and Ming, a 3D-printed recreation of two Ming vases by the UK's Moritz Waldemeyer, with LEDs on the inside that played videos across the vases' surface.
Architectural lighting is still very much part of Light Collective's mix. Current projects include a shopping centre in Kuwait and a rustic-luxe farmhouse outside of Florence. Says Stammers: 'The fun thing about working for a shopping centre in Kuwait is you suggest mad ideas and they do them.'
Social media is also a tool it wields with enthusiasm. Passionate about the Twittersphere, it has just reclaimed an app it developed for Phillips, called LightCollector, that encourages people to take light-related images and share them with the global community. Collaborative and interactive in every way, sharing information and inspiration is the way forward, says Stammers. 'We're the creative team for MondoArc Magazine's new set of light awards, the darc awards. The entries won't be voted for by 10 judges in a room. Instead, we've made it online so everyone in the global lighting community can vote. We've made the voting really easy, with only a small amount of categories... All these things are trying to engage an audience and inspire them about light.'
There's no underlying agenda other than to keep inventing and challenging themselves. 'We're very go with the flow,' says Stammers. 'We've just been contacted by a woman in Scotland, in Forres, who wants to do a rural light festival. I find things like that really interesting. Martin really likes architectural lighting design. But for both of us it's about using light to create magic.'
May the force be with them...