In March of this year, it was announced that Barbara Horton, Senior Principal and co-CEO of Horton Lees Brogden Lighting (HLB), was to retire after 41 years with the firm, with fellow Senior Principal Carrie Hawley assuming the role of sole-CEO.
Throughout her career, Horton has been one of the core figures in the international lighting design community, serving a term as IALD President from 2014-15, and acting as a mentor and leader both within her own firm and the design world as a whole.
With a background in interior design, Horton first became fascinated with light during her studies at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City, where lighting design pioneer Jules Horton was teaching a class. Eager to continue learning from the greats, she also took some classes at Parsons taught by James Nuckolls and Bob Prouse, where she developed her “first foundation of understanding some of the basics of lighting”.
From here, she was invited to join Horton’s studio, Jules G. Horton Lighting Design – the firm that would later become HLB Lighting Design – initially for three weeks. “Three weeks turned into three months and three years and 30 years,” she said. “I was inspired by the fact that I could still work with interior designers and architects, but now I had a new knowledge, and I brought something to the table that my colleagues didn’t really fully understand – they thought of lighting as circles and squares on a piece of paper, and now we were thinking of it more as a way to paint the space.
“But then I also got more intrigued by the science of lighting, where it was less subjective and more proven, as opposed to interiors. That’s what propelled me to stay in the business, and then as my career advanced, I moved more into the business side of things, and really enjoyed that part of my career.”
With this focus on the business aspects, Horton, alongside Stephen Lees, was able to grow the practice and turn it into a thriving studio. “Jules Horton was one of those pioneers, alongside the likes of Lesley Wheel, Jim Nuckolls and Howard Brandston, who saw this as an opportunity as a profession.
“Stephen and I were just the next generation who wanted to see the company succeed and have a good reputation, but also have sound financial footing to make sure that we could survive and get paid.”
During the early stages of building the company, Horton and Lees worked with external consultants for professional guidance on the various business aspects, as, according to Horton, “you don’t go to a car mechanic to have your teeth fixed”.
“The two of us realised that we were trained as designers, no matter how much we might have learned about marketing or accounting, we needed guidance from a professional to help us guide our business strategy. Of course, we wanted to maintain some design notoriety, but also at the same time make money, which the first generation of designers were maybe not as interested in.”
As well as bringing a sense of business acumen to the firm, the external management consultants also introduced the strategy of succession planning and looking to the future – something which has become a core facet of HLB’s philosophy ever since.
This is evident by the career progression of Carrie Hawley, who first joined HLB’s New York studio in 1995, and has over the past 26 years risen through the ranks, spearheading the formation of its Boston office and becoming Principal of the firm in 2007, joining the Board of Directors in 2011, and now, becoming sole CEO.
Hawley’s journey into lighting was similar to Horton’s, in that lighting was something that she “discovered” halfway through her studies. A student of architecture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (not affiliated with the University of Miami in Florida), during her sophomore year, a professor that was a daylighting specialist noticed that Hawley had a particular interest in the lighting effects and encouraged her to pursue a specialism in lighting design. “He said that there’s lighting everywhere in architecture, you need to learn about it, so I took one class and was hooked right away. I spent the rest of my undergraduate degree doing some specialised lighting coursework and independent studies, before going on to the Lighting Research Centre at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to get my Master’s of Science and Lighting. Like Barbara I was originally drawn to lighting by the art, and then I got fascinated by the science.”
This roundabout journey into the profession for both Hawley and Horton is something that Hawley believes stemmed from a lack of educational opportunities available to them when they were starting out – something they hope is changing for the better. “At the time Barbara and I started getting involved in lighting, there were little to no educational programmes available to undergraduates. Now it’s becoming more and more exposed, but it’s still a very niche market, particularly in the States,” said Hawley.
“There wasn’t even a degree programme when I got involved,” added Horton. “And I think because of that we’ve been thorough advocates of supporting education to architects and interior designers because it has to start there, they have to understand what it is we do.
“Technology is changing all the time, but the fundamentals of light aren’t, so I think if we can get that across to architects and interior designers, we’ve done a good job.”
Using these fundamentals of light, Horton and Hawley have amassed a vast and diverse portfolio of projects at HLB, ranging from workspace, hospitality and transport facilities to monuments, cultural landmarks and wider urban regeneration schemes.
Across this broad scope of work, Hawley doesn’t believe that the studio has a distinct “aesthetic” within its work. “We’re here to serve our clients and help them discover the best within their design thinking, not create our own style or influence them. We have a more collaborative, design-centric approach to projects, where it’s about what the client is trying to achieve. The thing that we consistently strive for is to produce excellent high visual quality, and we like to take our clients on a design exploration, so they see a lot of different possibilities.”
Horton added: “We gravitate more to people that want us to be collaborators. One thing that I can say is overriding is that we don’t necessarily make the lighting the feature. We come in and look at the architecture, we look at the interiors and landscape and find ways to realise the ideas that the architect, landscape architect or interior designer had.
“I think about how we use light to move people through a space, the colour or type of light that we use. Now that we can apply our craft to psychology or physiology, it’s really exciting to think about all that we do. Lighting design has become so much more than those original circles and squares on a piece of paper, it’s now the whole science of how we see, how we experience a space, and how we maximise all of that knowledge into creating a really great environment.”
With more than 40 years’ experience at HLB, Horton has crafted many great environments through light in her time, but while she has several personal favourites, she can’t pinpoint one specific ‘landmark’ project. “I think it’s really the collective,” she said. “But on a personal level, there are projects that were rewarding for a number of reasons, the ones where we’re giving back to the public; certainly, any of the exterior park projects or the monuments where we understand their history and how they impact people’s lives, those are the things that are exciting and rewarding for me – how we can make a space, and make people feel good in that space or use it in a better way, those are the projects that really make a difference to me.”
Hawley concurred: “I think it’s the people-based projects, the ones where you feel like the design team just nailed it, that stand out. Sometimes you see projects and you’ll think ‘that was so easy’. We strive to make it look effortless because that’s when the architecture and the space comes alive and they’re transformational emotionally. When you hit that moment on a public project or one that’s really focused on people, it’s extraordinary.”
Hawley cited two projects that stand out in this regard, the Temple Beth Elohim synagogue in Wellesley, MA, and the Sean Collier Memorial at MIT. Temple Beth Elohim saw HLB work with William Rawn Associates in what Hawley describes as “an epitome of daylight and the visual experience”. She explained: “It has a lot of technical elements, and it looks really easy, but it was probably one of the hardest projects I’ve ever worked on.
“To this day I’m extremely proud of the results that we pulled off, it was a really harmonious project with all of the right visual sensibility associated with it.”
The Sean Collier Memorial, constructed in memory of the MIT Police Officer who was killed by the Boston Marathon bombers in April 2013, is another landmark project for Hawley. “That one meant a lot to me, and the way it came together was amazing, as it represents a tragic moment, but we were able to take that tragedy and find the significance of it and come up with a design concept that had a really strong sense of meaning, and it looks great.
“The fact that these projects are going to be there for a long time, you have to think about that. The disposable, trendy architecture is exciting, I like doing it for other reasons and it can be really fun, but I think these are the most meaningful long term.”
To that end, Horton added that the World War II Memorial in Washington DC was another incredibly moving project to have worked on. “Living through Jules’ history through World War II, getting a first-hand view of it, and then having a client who were participants and hearing their stories from Auschwitz to the Pacific, and then to understand the meaning of each of those components of the monument and the longevity of it was really powerful.”
The lighting here, designed by Horton and Stephen Lees, incorporates a subtle, warm-coloured, almost imperceptible light that emanates from the features, so as not to take away from the other monuments on the National Mall – a stark contrast from the floodlighting the architect initially requested. “It immediately proves the point that lighting shouldn’t be the first and most important thing here, it’s about the monument,” Horton added.
Hawley continued: “How do you work with light and materials to really connect with people and give them a strong visceral response, so they feel engaged when they’re there? Those are the projects that I think really matter in the long run.”
Alongside their impressive portfolio of projects, one of the areas in which HLB has really stood out amongst its peers is the emphasis it places on the business of lighting design, and in particular the notion of succession planning. This is an area that Horton has regularly spoken about, both at IALD conferences, and at [d]arc room livestream in 2020, and it is an interest shared by the entire firm.
“Once people enter the profession, one of the things that our firm has been committed to is educating the industry at large in the business of design. Nearly nobody in the industry has a business degree – a lot of people can be fantastic designers, but don’t really know how to run a business, how to mentor their teammates, understand insurance requirements and contracts and so on,” said Hawley.
“Barbara and Stephen were amazing in recognising this early on. In the transition through Jules’ retirement, they learned a lot and became committed to long range planning, and they nurtured whole generations of lighting designers who now understand the power of strategic planning, of having a strong financial understanding and how to mentor people long term.”
Such was this long term, forward thinking that there is a running joke at HLB that in Hawley’s first interview with the firm, Horton was already thinking about her as a potential replacement – a joke that it transpires, wasn’t too far from the truth.
“You’re always looking to hire your replacement, that’s the way that it should be at all times,” Horton said. “So, you look at certain candidates and what attributes they have, certainly the confidence level, even if they have no idea what they’re talking about yet, if they feel good in their own skin you know you’ve got lots to work with.
“Carrie was one of those people, there are many in the firm just like that, but she persevered and proved herself, which is how she got to where she is today.”
“I never envisioned taking Barbara’s job, I was just enjoying learning the whole way,” Hawley added. “It wasn’t until eight years ago that we even started talking about it in very loose terms.”
“Frankly, Carrie expressed the interest. We posed the question to several people, and she was the only one who said she’d like to take a shot at it. It has to start with an individual who has the interest. You can always teach the skills and techniques, but having the interest to start with is extremely important.”
With the growing success of the Women in Lighting initiative and the recognition of female designers in the lighting industry, HLB has been leading the way with its proud status as a women-owned practice. However, Horton, a winner in the Achievement category of the first ever Women in Lighting Awards, explained that this wasn’t a conscious decision on the owners’ part.
“When I started out, the only two prominent women that I can think of were Lesley Wheel in the United States and Motoko Ishii in Japan; they were stand out lighting designers, strong women and people who in some ways influenced me.
“I don’t know that we ever made a conscious decision to be a women-owned business – we had two male partners, so I was outnumbered. But it was pretty early on in my career that I said we have to mentor women. I don’t want to sit at a table and be the only woman in a room with 30 men, it was uncomfortable, and it took a long time to gain respect, so it was a move to elevate the industry, hire the right people, mentor them and get them to be leaders in their own right.
“We’re not the only firm that has done that, but I think we’ve been successful in that now more than 50% of our principals, our owners, are strong women leading offices, with long standing careers, who are now mentoring the next generation.”
Both Horton and Hawley cited the role that their parents played in encouraging them to pursue their goals. Hawley explained: “I feel very fortunate because I grew up with parents who never gave me a reason to doubt that I could do anything.
“I met Barbara at the beginning of my career, and she continued that approach, alongside Jules and Stephen, so it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do something. And now, I have three daughters, and they have had a lot of visibility in terms of seeing women in their lives succeed at a high level. They don’t see any limitations and I think that’s a really great thing.”
“I look at my mom’s generation and she struggled to be recognised as somebody with intelligence and abilities and everything else,” Horton added. “And just like Carrie is promoting her daughters, my mother was really supportive, pushing me to education, and I think that influenced me to say that I’m no different to a man, I can do the same things. But when I got into the world of business, I realised that I was the only woman at the table, so I wanted to make sure that women got a fair chance. I think we’ve definitely succeeded from that point of view, but there’s still a glass ceiling out there.”
When asked if they had any advice for any young female designers entering the industry, Horton cited IALD associates Anna Sbokou and fellow WiL award-winner Chiara Carucci as inspiring examples, adding: “You have to be strong and maintain your integrity. You should never go into a meeting with a chip on your shoulder. You need to be smarter than the other people in the room, but not arrogant; I think that humility goes a long way, but also being strong in your convictions about what you’re doing and standing up for yourself in those situations.”
Hawley continued: “I think a lot of women feel like they have to be all things to all people and do everything, manage everything seamlessly and never complain.
“One of the things that Barbara has really instilled in me is that it’s better if I can build an army of people around me that can help support the vision, learn to delegate and let someone own it, let them be that champion of something. Barbara automatically goes out of the gate trusting people, assuming that they’re going to do a great job. And then she’s there if they’re struggling, but she gives you an ownership on something so that you can really take it and run with it.”
“I think the most important thing is to give designers an opportunity,” Horton added. “Trusting people to do the right thing and to be invested in what they’re doing means that they own it, and you have a great success.
“Any advice that I would give to somebody who has a small practice, is just starting out or even a couple of years into their career: think about when you were sitting at that desk for the first time and what you didn’t know, and how you incrementally added to your toolbox to get to where you are now. Reflecting on where you started from and what it took for you to get there gives a certain amount of humility and helps with the expectations of everybody else around you. Having that perspective is really important.”
Because of the strong emphasis that HLB places on mentoring the next generation and having succession strategies in place, Horton explained that while the news of her retirement broke earlier this year, it has been on the cards for a long time.
“I saw the first generation of lighting designers in the US fade and close their doors without a real plan. Most of them were single ownership companies, including ours, so it struck me that there was an opportunity to create a legacy,” she said.
“Teal [Brogden], Stephen and I developed that ownership transition plan very early on. We had a strong belief in sharing what we had inherited and making sure that we had a long-term vision.
“I always anticipated that I wasn’t going to be 80, with people saying, ‘we need to get rid of her’. I wanted to go out gracefully and with honour, and Stephen felt the same way. I also think that, seeing how the industry has evolved and the technology has changed, lighting design is so much more than when I first started. I think having fresh ideas, new team members with different expertise, helps the company grow and become more viable and relevant. There is a time in your career to say you’ve got to step down because there are people that can do this better than you, and for me that came this year.”
Far from having a clean break though, Horton will continue to serve her term on the Board of Directors until the end of the year, ensuring a seamless transition. She also hopes to continue her involvement with the IALD, something that is still very important for her.
“And then on a personal level, Stephen and I want to go sailing,” she said. “We’ve had that in our blood for 20 years, we’ve finally got the right boat that can get us where we want to go. All the work and experiences that we’ve had over the years, we’re now ready to take that big adventure and just enjoy life.”
As part of the company’s succession strategy, Hawley has been working alongside Horton as co-CEO for the past year, which she feels has helped make the transition as easy as possible. “People ask me if it’s much different and frankly it’s not because I’d already been getting ramped up for the last couple of years and Barbara has been very graciously transferring things over and mentoring me, she’s been fantastic.
“I have some really good executive members alongside me too, which is wonderful. Teal Brogden, our President, and our COO Beth Nilsen, so I’m definitely not alone. We have a lot of shared leadership, which is great.”
Hawley continued that she is looking forward to this new chapter of her career, and of nurturing the next generation of lighting designers. “There are pivotal moments in your career; you get to a point where you’ve been successful as a designer, maybe you’ve won some awards and served on some committees and had that recognition, but what becomes more fulfilling later is watching the people that you’ve been mentoring rise up, do great things and get that recognition themselves.”
As a business, Hawley continued that HLB has started to put together its “aspirational” new 10-year target, what she calls their “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”. “It’s about designing with purpose and making an impact on the world,” she said.
“We’ve been very US-centric in our first 50 years, but now we want to open up and have a greater voice in the design industry, period. Lighting design needs to be a best practice and a basic practice everywhere in the world, not just in these privileged countries. It’s about people now.
“Everybody at the firm is really jazzed about what we can do when we put our minds to it, and having it be about purpose and people and making an impact on the world is really exciting. I think we have a great ride ahead of us.”
So while Horton may be taking a step back from HLB Lighting, the special attention paid to nurturing and mentoring talent, and having a strong succession plan in place, means she can rest easy, knowing that the firm is in good hands.