Sally Storey

A pioneer of lighting design and with a focus on creating natural-looking effects by artificial means, Sally Storey has been key to making the discipline a key ingredient of architectural and interior design, says Jamie Mitchell

Describing Sally Storey as an influential lighting designer doesn’t really go far enough. As design director of two successful lighting companies, John Cullen and Lighting Design International, Storey has redefined the way designers use artificial light in homes, offices, hotels and restaurants. During her 28-year career, she has been at the forefront of sustainable lighting technology, and her books, including Lighting by Design and Perfect Lighting, have helped make the craft of lighting design an integral part of architecture and interior design.

When Storey studied architecture at Bristol University in the Eighties, lighting design as we now know it was almost unheard of. ‘My tutor had no knowledge of it at all,’ says Storey when we meet at the offices of Lighting Design International in Hammersmith, west London. ‘The only thing you were told how to do was to put a certain number of fluorescents to a given area and that the light should be even in a room.’

Anyone familiar with Storey’s work, which often involves using lighting to pick out certain objects, and layering different light sources to create ‘texture’, will know that she didn’t follow conventional wisdom. ‘I remember thinking, “This is totally wrong”,’ she says. ‘Architecture used to be about creating even lighting, which ends up like the light from an overcast sky.’ She gestures towards the window and a leaden sky outside: ‘Probably the worst environment to be in.’

Storey has always been inspired by natural light and the ways in which artificial lighting can be used to recreate the drama of nature: the contrast of light and shade on sand dunes, for example, or the reflection of water dappled on the wooden hull of a boat.

In the course of researching her thesis on the relationship between architecture and natural light, Storey interviewed lighting guru John Cullen and ended up working for him in her holidays from university. ‘He asked me to design his first showroom,’ says Storey. ‘I said yes and thought I’d worry about how to do it later!’

After graduating Storey went to work full time at John Cullen, and when Cullen died in 1986 she took over as the company’s design director. Projects for the likes of David Bowie and Jemima Khan followed. ‘At the time we were mostly doing houses, but we were also being asked to do offices,’ she says. ‘Residential clients wanted us to provide all the equipment and design the scheme, but the commercial clients wanted consultancy.’

Her response was to set up an architectural lighting consultancy, Lighting Design International, which focuses on commercial projects such as the recent renovation of The Savoy hotel and The Peak, a new landmark building, also in London, with colour-changing LED strips imbedded in its facade.

At the beginning, says Storey, no one wanted to pay for consultancy. But now, almost 30 years on, lighting consultants are recognised as a valuable part of the team. ‘They’ve never been so important. With regulations changing so quickly and with such a variety of sources, you need someone who really knows how to make it all work.’

The recent popularity of LED lighting is an example. According to Storey, persuading clients to use LEDs instead of traditional less energy-efficient lighting sources isn’t a problem: ‘Clients would actually be disappointed if you didn’t use them,’ she says, ‘but I think that people often use them too much because they don’t know the constraints.’

Despite huge advances in LED technology, Storey says there is some way to go to being able to use LEDs in every situation. ‘It still doesn’t quite have the warmth, the candlelight quality, of incandescent lighting,’ she says. ‘For commercial situations like offices and shops that’s not always a problem, but the real challenge outside the home is in hospitality: ensuring that you get that warmth when you dim down.’

There are some products on the market, including the AmbiDim LED, developed by John Cullen’s product designer Graham Lunn, which replicates the warmth of incandescent lighting when dimmed. Another method is to use LED in conjunction with other light sources. Even with this way, the potential for saving energy is huge. ‘If you think about lighting a room, using LED with other lighting can reduce energy consumption by about 25 per cent,’ she says.

Storey has done much for the reputation of lighting designers, but she says they are still the unsung heroes of interior design and architecture: ‘Of course the building wouldn’t be there in the first place without the architect or interior designer, but I see what we do as adding the refinement, making an interior look as good as it can. In a way we’re the make-up artists of the interior design world.’

To illustrate her point, Storey shows me pictures of a recent project for several beautiful suites at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s restaurant and hotel in Oxfordshire. In the bathroom of one suite, she lit a surface of simple white ceramic tiles using pools of light and shadow in such a way that it looks like marble.

On another recent project at the ESPA spa in Riga, Lighting Design International worked with chandelier designer Eva Menz to create a 22m-tall wire installation made of hundreds of glass crystals, each of which had to be lit individually to look like rain.

Perhaps it’s the weather on the day of our interview, but I’m reminded of another of Storey’s projects, a private spa whose lighting, I suggest, is reminiscent of lightning forking through a densely clouded sky. ‘I love those contrasts that you see in nature,’ she says, ‘like when you get those shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds and it’s like a spotlight. All those things still wow me, and they still inspire me to work with light.’

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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