giving thanks (for my career)

This week is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday meant to celebrate the kindness of the American Indians to the earliest European settlers.  Without the natives’ help, the first settlers most likely wouldn’t have survived.

In that spirit, I would like to give thanks to the many people who’ve helped develop my career in design and lighting (not to forget me as a person, too!).



Mom and Dad

Of course I have to start with mom and dad, right?  How does a kid gain a obsessive fascination with lighting in the first place?  Why didn’t I want to become a baseball player or some other blase ambition?  My parents bought me cool toys like a Lite Brite; they took me to Walt Disney World, with its amazing  theatrical and atmospheric lighting environments; they let me take over the Christmas lighting in our yard and take it from a single roofline string of big fat ’70s bulbs into a modern white-light holiday extravaganza.  I remember one summer helping my dad install a low voltage Intermatic Malibu landscape lighting system in our yard — don’t laugh, I was learning the fundamentals of spotlighting, color filter selection, and landscape lighting design at the age of 10.  At night I would stare out my bedroom window looking at the magical effect that lighting had on our backyard garden.



Lee Kennedy @ University of Virginia’s Drama Department

While I was at the School of Architecture at the University of Virgina, my nascent interest in light kept gnawing at my soul.  I found in the course catalog an upper-level Lighting Design course in the Drama Department (which happened to be right next door to the School of Architecture).  I went to see the professor, Lee Kennedy, and asked him to wave the pre-reqs – he said “I’ve had a couple architecture students before – you guys are great at this!  Sure, you can join the class!”   And so started my official lighting career.

In the very first class, we entered into a black-box theater with no light – nothing, zero, total blackness.  Lee gradually faded up a single A-lamp bulb on a pole in the middle of the room and asked us to describe everything we saw and felt.  By the end of the semester I was running a set of High End Systems Cyberlights via an HTML “magic sheet” page!  And this was in 1996!  It was Lee who taught me both the fundamentals and the potential of light.  I remember around 1998 Lee pointing to a small article about new LED lighting technology from a company called Color Kinetics, telling me “this is going to be big“.


chris ripman adam kibbe

Chris Ripman & Adam Kibbe @ Ripman Lighting Consultants

I moved up to Boston to start my Masters of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.  I applied with Ripman Lighting Consultants for a summer internship.  Imagine me, an awkward kid looking for his first professional role, meekly arriving for an interview.  Lucky for me, Chris Ripman is a wonderfully paternalistic guy who gave me a chance.  I proceeded to intern there for the next three years.  Chris and Adam are expert architectural lighting designers who tackled a huge range of projects.  They believed strongly in the value of mockups – to the extent that they maintained an enormous storage facility filled with every form of light fixture, light bulb and accessory you could imagine.  I did a crazy range of projects:  I spent nearly an entire summer installing fiber optic and track lighting systems in the Boston MFA’s Ancient Near East galleries; with generators humming we mocked up the flood lighting on an entire Civil-War era fort in Groton, Connecticut; and imagine me on a cold and windy night in Boston’s Seaport district, standing on the top of a 20+ story skyscraper, hanging out over the parapet with an enormous 4-degree metal halide spotlight, to mockup a concept of “moonlighting” the plaza below.  That’s how you learn architectural lighting!


Sheila Kennedy & Michelle Addington @ Harvard’s Graduate School of Design

While at Harvard, I was officially pursuing a Masters of Architecture but unofficially pursuing my own specialization in Lighting.  I wound up learning from two amazing women with brilliant abilities to combine technical concepts with artistic concepts who both loved the art of light.  They taught me the art of designing for the future.

sheila kennedy

Sheila Kennedy (now a Professor at MIT’s School of Architecture and continues with her own firm of Kennedy/Violich Architects) taught an elective design studio called “Bugs, Fish, Floors, Ceilings” that explored how light might one day become a type of architectural material.  We researched bioluminescent animals (hence the “Bugs, Fish” name), then experimented with combining EL, LED and even glowing phosphorescent powders into architectural materials like plywood, concrete, glass – you name it — and we then took the concepts we learned and designed a theatrical performance space that exploited the concepts of “embedded lighting”.

Sheila was literally 15 years ahead of the lighting industry.  At the time, I’m guessing many of her colleagues thought she was crazy, that it was all a theoretical exercise.  But time has proved Sheila right – we now have the technologies to accomplish nearly all of the concepts the studio theorized back in 1999.

michelle addington

Michelle Addington (now a professor at Yale’s School of Architecture) brought the rare background of having academic degrees in both architecture and engineering.  Michelle is an expert with environmental control systems and literally worked for NASA in one of her previous roles.  I asked Michelle to become my thesis advisor as I explored the emerging field of physically interactive controls for architectural lighting applications, combined with the emerging LED technology just coming into the market.  I wanted to explore how luminous surfaces with interactive controls could impact different applications, and Michelle and I eventually agreed to focus on interactive lighting control for retail applications, using the “web 1.0” storefront paradigms at that time as a reference.  I created a real life demo for my final thesis using about $20k worth of borrowed CK equipment, a Horizon controller, plus some ultrasonic and infrared sensors from Radio Shack.

Michelle challenged me to think about light as a material in very advanced ways — like the impact of layering translucent planes of light-emitting or light-obscuring panels to selectively conceal or reveal merchandise depending on physical proximity or physical touch.



Daina Yurkus @ LightThis!

Pronounced like “Dinah Shore”, Daina was a Senior Associate at Fischer Marantz Stone in New York who decided to start her own lighting design practice up in Boston.  I interviewed with Daina at about the worst possible time – a couple weeks before 9/11.  But as a testament to Daina’s huge view on life, she felt like she would have enough work and hired me anyway in October 2001.  With her big blond hairdo, bright pink lipstick and Brooklyn accent, Daina would belt out Broadway show tunes at 9am on a Tuesday morning, drink a gin & tonic by 4pm, all while using terms like “we need a real shit-kicker here” to describe a spotlight with a lot of punch.   Daina taught me how to draw old-school concept sketches; I taught her how to digitize her work flow, marketing, and spec system.  See also taught me the value of having a big personality – Daina was outstanding at building relationships with clients and winning jobs.  Because of that, for three years we had an incredible run of great projects, ranging from huge office fit-outs, to ultra-chic lounges, to the landscape lighting of a $23 million mansion.  We even won a prestigious IALD award for Montage, a luxury Italian furniture store in the Back-Bay.  That incredible range of work was a gift to my career – giving me such a range of project experience that I really came to understand the differing demands of architects, interior designers, owners, end users, contractors, and developers across a range of applications.


kevin dowling

Kevin Dowling @ Color Kinetics

Kevin Dowling comes across as one of the nicest people you’ve ever met.  He’s also brilliant, with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and truly a visionary technologist.  Kevin taught me the importance of generating a technology-based vision by extrapolating technical trends into development roadmaps that take large leaps into the future.  Plus I learned from Kevin the importance of getting out there, speaking in public:  Kevin was a huge influence on the early stages of the LED lighting industry, setting in motion key enablers of the industry’s transformation by educating the market (Kevin spoke about LEDs in endless forums), advocating for government support (such as the US DOE’s L-Prize), establishing critical industry standards (like LM-79 and 80) and getting investors excited in the industry.  Plus he somehow managed to remain a nice guy along the way!



Rogier van der Heide @ Philips Lighting

Rogier has that magic “it” factor that some people have when they walk into a room.  I came to work for Rogier when he was the Chief Design Officer for Philips Lighting (Rogier left Philips to join the Zumtobel Group). Rogier certainly has the technical chops and one of the most preeminent resumes in the architectural lighting design scene, but what I learned from Rogier is the importance of formulating and advocating a vision for the future based on true empathy for customer needs.  Rogier has a deep, deep appreciation for customer service and from this fundamental viewpoint of the market, he is able to formulate a totally different view of the future than how the market traditionally operates.


Thanks to everyone!

So many people have helped me develop my career that I can’t possibly name them all.  But I’m incredibly thankful that I picked up the fundamentals of my craft from folks like Lee, Chris and Adam;  an ability to craft a technical vision for the future from folks like Sheila, Michelle and Kevin; and a deep appreciation for the art of client engagement from Daina and Rogier.

Happy Turkey Day!