David Ghatan

19th December 2019

As he reaches the end of his two-year stint as IALD President, David Ghatan chats with arc’s Matt Waring  on his career, his tenure as President, and what the future holds.

From an early age, light has been a constant source of fascination for David Ghatan. 

“My mother would say it was from when I stuck a key in an electrical socket as a young child,” said Ghatan, of an interest that has taken him on a 20-year journey that has seen him progress from intern, to company president, to the president of the IALD.

Now approaching the end of his two-year tenure as IALD President, Ghatan opens up about this journey.

“Starting from a young age playing with blocks and Lego, I wanted to be an architect,” he said. “During my time at George Washington University, my interest in theatre design grew. I was able to combine my interests and craft a course of study combining theatre scenery and lighting design, architecture, and fine art in an exploration of design.

“The foundation of my degree programme was that through industrialisation we stopped training designers and trained specialists. It was important to me to find the core of design and the art of conceiving and creating, then to learn different fields in which to apply this foundation.”

It was during his studies, between his junior and senior years, that Ghatan took an internship with architectural lighting firm CM Kling + Associates. Here, under the tutelage of founder and mentor Candy Kling, he realised that architectural lighting was for him.

“I was very fortunate to find a field I loved and a mentor whom I learned from every day,” Ghatan continued. “While I thought I wanted to become an architect and pursue a Master’s degree, I was working with Candy and being exposed to world class architecture and designers, I was able to engage my design skills and work on many different projects at the same time.

“I learned very quickly by consuming as much information as I could find and asking many questions of Candy. She was the consummate teacher, always willing to provide guidance and listen. She knew that on top of being a professional and providing the technical requirements, you had to enjoy what you were doing and imbue fun into the project.”

Ghatan worked under Kling for fourteen years, before succeeding her as President of CM Kling + Associates six years ago. In his formative years, he says that he hoped to bring designs that were “formed from a collaborative process, that were sensitive, well thought out, and possessed a bit of the unexpected”, and this is an approach that still rings true to this day, shaping his philosophy as a lighting designer.

“I would say that the designer’s responsibility is to push the project forward. That may mean in technology, science, or application. It can be in the final end product or as part of the design process,” he said.

“For me, this means that there is never one way of lighting something. You must explore the various possibilities and apply your knowledge and skill to reason why one is best for that project. It needs to be collaborative; lighting designers cannot exist without architects, interior designers, owners and end users. The design needs to be developed with the team and have consensus.”

Over the past 20 years, Ghatan has worked on a wealth of projects, ranging greatly in both scale and application, from stadiums and convention centres to hotels, spas and office spaces, always treating each with “equal importance and dedication”, no matter their size.

Reminiscing on some of the highlights from his career, Ghatan said: “I was fortunate in my design career, in that I joined a company that was already 20 years old, with a founder who had been in architectural lighting since the late 1960s. From early on I was a part of the design team working through solutions.

“Memorable early projects such as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington DC were notable for the scale and amount of coordinated drafting. We were seeing a shift in technology and the introduction of ceramic metal halide and compact fluorescent in place of traditional halogen sources, and the facility has been a public success since day one.

Other career highlights for Ghatan include the renovation of the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, the Boston Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, the Music City Center in Nashville, the Phoenician Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium. “BC Place was a very large scale project, with a colour-changing roof and façade,” he explained. “On top of the design work, we were later engaged to develop the content for the façade. This meant learning new software and storyboarding through the sequences of dynamic façade lighting.”

This experience led to Ghatan co-founding sister company Pixelumen Lab in 2014, which in turn allowed him to “re-engage with my fine art and scenic design skills, now applied to burgeoning interactive technology”.

Because of the variety of projects that he has worked on over the years, and the sheer scope and potential of lighting design in general, Ghatan revealed that he doesn’t ascribe to a particular “signature style” in his work.

“I feel that in lighting design it is important to be fluid and comfortable in many techniques,” he said. “If I had a style, I would say it is timeless. I want my designs to be as resonant in ten years as they are today. This means finding ways to integrate the lighting with the architectural concept – note I did not say specifically with the architecture. I think this is often confused. If the lighting is part of the overall design concept, and embraces and enhances it, I find no fault in that lighting being exposed.”

This focus on integrating lighting design within the overall architectural concept is a core consideration for Ghatan when developing lighting schemes, as he elaborated: “Light is perhaps the most important element in our lives. Be it in the built environment, the natural environment or our health and wellbeing. Yet it is very likely the most misunderstood and the one we know least about.

“When planning a project, I look to the concept. The design we are collaborating on originated somewhere and has a series of core values or purposes. I try to distil those, sometimes even before the architect has clarity on these themselves. I then set myself the challenge of achieving those goals while trying to not simply ‘paint by numbers’ using techniques or applications I have used before. You have to repeat yourself sometimes, but you need to push for new approaches when you can. I look at knowledge and research on what is current with regards to light and its impact.”

For the past two years, Ghatan has been President of the IALD, taking over from Victor Palacio at the beginning of 2018. Ghatan has been involved with the association for almost as long as he has worked in the lighting industry, rising through the ranks much in the same way he did at CM Kling + Associates.

“When I first started in the industry, my boss put the application for IALD on my desk and simply said ‘fill this out’. It was important to her that her staff and company be a part of the IALD,” he said. “Later, I attended an IALD Enlighten event, one of the first ones, and found the community and family of lighting designers resonant.”

From there, Ghatan became a chapter coordinator, and shortly after put his name forward to run for the Board of Directors. “I was placed on the ballot and elected as a Director at Large,” he explained. “When that term was finishing, I was approached by the then Treasurer and asked if I would consider running for that position. I said yes.

“Similarly, once the Treasurer term was winding down, I had both an interest in running for President, and had some wonderful colleagues who had confidence in me. Overall, it has been a long run on the Board of Directors, and wonderful to see the growth of the IALD not only in numbers, but in depth and substance.”

While Ghatan joked that his first ambition as IALD President was “to simply not screw up”, he explained the primary goals for his two-year term: “The role of the IALD President is foremost to steer the Board of Directors in their work. Work that was begun before my term and will continue after. Advancing this and maintaining a strong and effective association was primary.”

“Over the past decade, the IALD Board has been developing and reviewing the framework of who we are and why we exist. This normal Board work must be pulled up for analysis on regular intervals, and the Board of Directors held an intensive two-day strategy workshop this summer. This effort will influence and frame all of the activities of the IALD. It was my honour to be able to serve as President during this effort, and I look forward to future Boards using these tools to lead the IALD into the future.”

In a wider sense, over the past two years, the IALD has developed a growing influence on policy makers and legislators worldwide through its global Public Policy efforts, as Ghatan explained: “We have had great success, including addressing key staff at the US Congress, in Australia working on fair and applicable lighting legislation, evolving the WELL Standards with regards to lighting, and with the EU through a number of contacts directly with EU legislators, leading to the IALD being formally recognised as a subject matter expert on lighting.”

Ghatan’s Presidential term has also coincided with the IALD’s 50th anniversary – a landmark that has seen the association hold a number of celebratory events throughout the year, culminating in the IALD Enlighten Americas conference, held in Albuquerque this October. “It was an immense honour,” said Ghatan. “I had honestly not focused on it prior to running for President, then it dawned on me that this milestone would occur during my term.

“At IALD Enlighten Americas, we had fourteen IALD presidents and two IALD founders in attendance; spending time with this group of lighting leaders was amazing and inspiring. Throughout 2019, IALD has celebrated 50 years at all of our events, from local chapter-level meet-ups, to social media postings, all the way through to the gold-inspired birthday party to close the Enlighten conference. We felt it would allow more people to celebrate our past, champion our present, and lead the future of lighting.”

These celebrations, and the continued expansion of the lighting design community will remain as highlights for Ghatan’s tenure, as he looks back on his Presidency: “The process has been extremely rewarding. I have been fortunate to connect with IALD members and lighting designers around the globe – from Singapore, to Tokyo, Shanghai, London, the United States and South America. In a time when IALD’s membership has grown by nearly 100%, I am reminded that lighting designers globally are a family, and we seek to find community and connection.”

In the new year, Ghatan will step down as IALD President, passing the torch on to Douglas Leonard, Director of DLLD Lighting Studio, although he will still be active in the IALD as Immediate Past President. “This allows for continuity on the Board and in the role,” he said. “There are also a number of committees on which I serve, but even after these roll off I am certain that I will be an active citizen of the IALD. It is central to my beliefs and ethics as a professional lighting designer.”

Outside of his work with the IALD, Ghatan added that he’s looking forward to getting back to his work with CM Kling + Associates. “As 2020 begins, I plan to take some time to thank my team for their tireless efforts over the past few years,” he said. “CM Kling and Pixelumen Lab have both seen growth and development during this time. Now we will take some time to look at what we do, how we do it, what we want to be doing, and what our customers want from us. I think this effort will allow us to provide a better ultimate design effort.”

During Ghatan’s time as President of the IALD, he has seen membership figures nearly double, and he has offered some advice for the next generation of lighting designers: “This is an amazing time to be a lighting designer. We are at a unique moment in time where anything we can think up is technologically able to happen. It takes imagination, storytelling and skill.

“Younger designers should embrace the new, learn everything they can about emerging technologies, but never forget the core tenets of design. We are designing for people, we have to have their interests and needs in mind.”

Finally, he believes that it is through this constant development of new technologies that the lighting industry, and lighting design, will continue to evolve. “We are headed to a world of personalised lighting where individual interaction with your lighting will be standard,” he said. “However, this requires a lot of thinking and design on what is controlled, how it works, and what exactly interconnects to it.

“We must be careful that the technology does not lead the design, but that quality light and quality techniques founded in knowledge and facts are the leaders. This to me ensures the future of architectural lighting designers.

“As I said previously, we are at the first moment in our history where technology outpaces our creativity. If we can think it up it is doable. It is on us to push for greater and better.”