Chris Lewis

22nd June 2021

Following his retirement in April of this year, arc spoke with Chris Lewis, the former Principal Designer at Lighting Design International, about his 38 year career in lighting.

How did you get into lighting?

I first became interested in lighting when I chose to design a light fixture at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, where I studied furniture and related product design in the early 80s. I began experimenting with light and soon became fascinated with the play of light on surfaces. This was later augmented by a seminar on lighting design given by Janet Turner from Concord Lighting, who showed us examples of how a space can be transformed using light and how the right light can enhance a space and the materials within it.  

Can you give us a brief overview of your career to date? 

When I left college, an opportunity arose at a newly formed lighting design and supply practice called John Cullen Lighting Design, set up by John Cullen and Sally Storey. This was a foot in the door early on when lighting design as a profession was in its infancy in the UK. Sadly, John Cullen died in 1986 and the company split in two: John Cullen Lighting, and Lighting Design International (LDI). From 1986 through to 2021 my focus was always on running projects and achieving the best possible results for our clients and LDI, which at times involved a lot of travelling and time away from home. In that period the company expanded and in 2006 I became Principal Designer. With much water under the bridge, I have now been at LDI for 34 years and in the industry 38. 

How has LDI grown and changed over the years? 

LDI has changed massively over the years, starting with a few relatively inexperienced designers in a small office, through to there now being just under 20 people in a much larger premises, led by experienced Directors and Designers covering a broad range of projects both in the UK and overseas. At the beginning, all drawings and many presentations were prepared by hand but now everything is computer aided. Over the years we have seen staff come and go, but overall, we have done well at retaining people, which hopefully reflects how the company is run, the quality of the projects we undertake and the work we do.  

How would you say the lighting design profession has developed over the past 38 years? 

Back in the early 1980s there were few fee charging architectural lighting designers, with most lighting schemes being designed by the architect, interior designer, electrical designers or lighting manufacturers. However, with a surge in technology and the realisation that lighting could do so much more for architecture and interiors, the specialist lighting designer profession in the UK was established. In the 1980s there was a lot of hard work in convincing clients, project managers and developers of the value of an independent lighting designer, but now it is almost a given that any project of any complexity/value will appoint a lighting designer. Since then, many lighting design courses have become available for people wanting to enter the profession and as a result there are now many more lighting designers and practices. 

You have worked on many high-profile, award winning projects over the years. Is there one that stands out for you personally? 

I have enjoyed working on many projects, but one that stands out both technically and aesthetically is ‘Fifty’ St James’s back in 2004. ‘Fifty’ was a casino/club owned by London Clubs and the main casino area had a 5.5-metre-high decorative ceiling that was listed. The challenge came when we received a client approved visual showing an array of pendants hanging over the gaming tables from the listed ceiling, with no indication as to how they may be supported. To add to this, we were told we could only use the three existing central chandelier positions on the ceiling to support the proposed lighting. We came up with a solution to run two innocuous-looking trusses from one end of the room to the other, on which we could hang the pendants. These trusses were supported by cables connected back to the old chandelier positions and to the side walls, and all the electrical cabling came in at the ends of the trusses. The system consisted of pendants that incorporated downlighters to provide illumination to the tables, dome cameras on the underside of some pendants, back lit shades, and a tray on top to house transformers and connections; and trusses that incorporated all cabling and control gear for the lights and cameras, spotlights to light features on the walls and ceiling, and emergency lights. The scheme was a big success, and the project won an award at the time.

What have been the personal highlights of your career? 

I have lots of fantastic memories of people, projects, places, and incidents, but I think the main highlight was always seeing a project completed to my expectations and the client’s satisfaction, followed by the industry lighting design awards. 

When you first started out, what did you hope to bring to the world of lighting design?

When I first started out, I aspired to design beautiful but functional lighting schemes using appropriate technology, and where necessary to design innovative light fixtures and details to create the look and effect required. Looking back, I certainly feel I have done all of these and added to many manufacturers’ product ranges in the process. 

How do you plan on spending your retirement? 

Even though I have been wedded to lighting design for the past four decades I do have many interests, not least, sailing, travelling and bird photography. There are also lots of projects to do around the house and people to catch up with, Covid permitting.

Will you remain involved in the lighting industry in any capacity? 

I do not currently have any plans, but I cannot rule it out either. I will certainly stay in touch with what is going on in the design world, albeit at a distance.

What do you think the future holds for the lighting industry? 

Lighting is so important to everyday life and the nighttime economy that I can only see it continuing to develop. In recent times it has been the development of LED and wireless technologies, which developed so quickly and are now mainstream, so who knows what new technology and opportunities will arise!