Lighting Designer Larry French in the Spotlight

In the weeks and months to come, the Philips Lighting Blog will feature a series of interviews with lighting designers whose artistic skills and technical knowledge have produced lighting installations that are innovative, functional, appealing and energy-efficient.

We start this series with architectural lighting designer Larry French one of the Principals at Auerbach Glasow French in San Francisco, CA.

Starting his career as a theatrical lighting designer, Larry French transitioned into the world of architectural lighting and has received numerous awards for his work.

Larry continues to develop creative lighting solutions for public spaces, commercial offices, retail spaces, residences, restaurants, and any other project that comes his way. As an accomplished professional, Larry exudes passion for his work and inspires others around him.

What gets your creative juices flowing when it comes to lighting design?

Some of the most exciting and fun projects are the ones where you get something that has a great framework to start with–a great space, building or environment–and what you want to do is make it better. I’ve always liked really complex challenges because that’s what really gets you thinking in new ways.

Winnipeg International Airport, Manitoba designed by Larry French. (All Photo Courtesy belong to photographer Tim Griffith)

What is the biggest consideration in lighting a space?

I had an early mentor in theatrical lighting who told me that ultimately light reveals–so pay attention to what you’re lighting, as well as what you’re not lighting. You need to understand what you’re showing the viewer, and how you’re showing it, so you can appreciate where the darkness and shadows should be. This is just as crucial in lighting design as putting light on something!

Another big consideration is trying not to make too many moves in a space. I love to cook and some of my favorite recipes are those that have a limited number of ingredients to expose the ultimate flavor of the key ingredient in the dish. I like to do the same a lot of the time with lighting.

Do you think your history in theatrical lighting has given you a unique perspective in moving into the architectural side of lighting?

Theatrical lighting forces you think about the light first, and not the instrument that is creating the light. You learn to start with the quality of light in a three-dimensional space and develop a pre-visualization in your head of how a space might look. This is something that is hard thing to teach. While there are great advantages coming into architectural lighting with an engineering background–knowing the calculations and technical considerations–it really helps in the initial conceptualization stage, not to worry about how you’re going to physically create something.

Where do you look to get some design inspiration?

The first thing that comes to mind is the sheer beauty of the physical environment–not just the natural world and what natural light is doing, but also man-made environments. The thing that makes a designer work is having a fantastic visual library. You really want to be a hyper observer of the world and stay as curious as possible–try to see everything you can and record it so that you have a huge experiential base to draw upon. Life is the experience you need, as long as you’re paying attention.

School of Law, South Edition – University of California, Berkeley.

Describe your design work in five words.

Program-driven–No project is approached the same way because each building or space presents new challenges that require creative solutions.

Integrated–Lighting is always a symphony with other instruments and it’s important everything falls together.

Considered–There’s a good reason for every choice you make, and if there isn’t then you need to re-examine why you did it in the first place.

Meticulous–If there’s any common thread in our work, it’s the level of attention to detail that we give it. We put a lot of energy into the process by working out the problem and making sure we understand how it’s going to work in the end.

Elegant–It fits; it feels right; it has grace to it; it has inherent beauty.

What are the biggest challenges in the lighting industry?

Keeping up because things are moving really fast! It’s always been an industry where there has been innovation, but up until the last 5–10 years things didn’t change that much. Even though LEDs have been around a long time, it’s taken the advent of the solid state technologies for people to start looking at them as a different form factor. We’re seeing some amazing new things, such as innovative approaches to general area lighting using LEDs, and some fantastic stuff with OLEDs. Who knows what’s coming next! It’s challenging and exciting because there’s always more to learn and it’s a never-ending learning process.

Where do you see the future of lighting design going?

Solid-state lighting is in its infancy and as it continues to develop and more tools become available, I’m a little concerned about losing tools as well. I don’t think there’s an inappropriate use of a given tool if it’s used in the right way, such as some forms of incandescent.

I also think that 3D printing is going to revolutionize our lives. Once that technology advances further I believe that it will inject itself deeply into the lighting world. I would particularly be interested to see it applied to custom fixtures where the price is higher and might justify a 3D printed shroud to pick up on an architectural detail, shape or form that you couldn’t make with a mold or dye.

Looking back, which project are you most proud of?

It’s like naming your favorite child because there’s so many that I have a real fondness for. I guess that’s part of putting so much attention, care and consideration into even the smallest project. When you do that consistently it speaks volumes and I love what I do.

One of my favorites is the recent revisit and redesign of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the big open bay water tank. This was an opportunity to light a million gallons of sea water, which houses some of the largest ocean swimming creatures that have ever been exhibited. It was a tremendous challenge because animals can’t tell you what they like and don’t like. We had to figure out how to achieve what exhibit designers wanted and make these creatures look beautiful in a very unnatural state, while taking into consideration their natural state and their needs. It was really challenging and the solution is mesmerizing. It hypnotizes me!

Monterey Bay Aquarium, California.

The Wrightsman Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also something I’m very proud of. They’re a series of period historic rooms containing European decorative art. With each room I tried to sustain an atmosphere–a sense of place and time–while still revealing the object. You want to see the exhibit but you also want the room to have life, as though people have just left the space. In one room the idea is that a card game has just finished. The low light of dawn is streaming through the window and the cards are still on the table, along with a half full cup of tea. The candlesticks have just been blown out and the wicks of the candles are black and short because they have been burning all night. This is just one example of the work I did there but each has the same attention to detail.

The Wrightsman Galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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