“Light is not important for architecture, but for people who live in it.” That is the view of Dean Skira, multi-award winning lighting designer and founder of Skira Architectural Lighting Design. A bold claim, particularly from someone who has made his name in illuminating buildings, but for the past 27 years, Skira has been showing that light can not only be a functional tool, but also a beautiful spectacle for viewers to enjoy.
Based in his hometown of Pula in Croatia, Skira traces his relationship with light back to the ‘vivid imagination’ that he had in his teenage years. “I installed incandescent and neon lights under my bed, lighting up the darkest corners of my room,” he recalled. “I painted the bulbs in various colours just so that I could sit there and enjoy the lighting scenes in a created ambiance. I was moving furniture, testing the space and its possibilities, choosing fabrics and so on.”
Clearly, a career in lighting, architecture and design was beckoning, and when he was in his twenties Skira moved to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). A big move for the young Skira, but one that paid off, as only four years later, he had set up his own practice and become a professional member of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) of North America.
“One of my clients in New York convinced me to start my own practice and yes, it was a big challenge for me and I was afraid. I had no idea if it was going to work, but now I know that it was a good decision,” he said. “Back then, I envisioned that my career would develop in between constant travel and the drawing desk. What I didn’t know is that I would be travelling in light and walking through shadows.”
While metaphorically journeying through light and shadow, Skira’s literal travels did bring him back home to Croatia, returning to the small, northern Adriatic town of Pula in 1995. “After eight years of living and working in New York, I returned to Croatia, which at that time was struck by war,” he explained. “There was a great devastation and misery, so as a young man I started to spread the word of light when lighting was way on the margins.
“What started as design work with tangible forms has, over the past 30 years, developed into building and creating with the intangible and the ephemeral. Today I have a team of people that have been with me for many years and I consider them as an integral part of the creative process in every project that we work on.”
Skira continues to work out of his hometown of Pula to this day, with his team of fifteen designers, engineers and programmers, out of the remarkable ‘House of Light’. Built in 2006, the House of Light is an asymmetrical box that reflects the sunlight with its brilliant white walls by day, but glows in a series of bright colours by night, making it truly stand out in the Croatian landscape.
Designed by Skira himself, the building was constructed with light as a fundamental part of the architecture, so much so that Skira designed furniture with a subtle line of light included in order to fully integrate light within the building space. The impressive design of the building was, according to Skira, a vital part in showcasing his own style and understanding of light and architecture. “I needed to physically present my personal approach towards architecture, form, light and ‘design’, hoping that clients will recognise the possibility of stronger cooperation and my understanding of architectural space and ability to develop architectural details that contain a light source or lighting instrument which is properly integrated within the structure itself,” he explained.
“I think we must be able to demonstrate to our clients the technology and the tools we use, and what we are capable of doing with them. The House of Light was designed with the aim of ensuring that people in it feel good and become inspired, where the priority is always to ensure added value for our client through that synergy.”
But such an innovative and iconic headquarters is only fitting for someone who continues to do new things with light. Whether this be through his work with light fittings themselves, such as the Red Dot Award-winning Trick – a luminaire developed for iGuzzini whose main purpose, according to Skira, is not to provide general lighting or ‘mathematical requirements to illuminate space’, but is instead to create something that you can play with – or massive projects like the brilliant Lighting Giants, an installation that turned eight cranes at Uljanik Shipyard – one of the world’s oldest working shipyards – in Skira’s hometown of Pula into a giant light show, transforming these huge industrial structures into colourful recreations of their ornithological namesakes.
After years of planning, and several months of designing, assembling and testing the lighting system, the Lighting Giants were unveiled in a special ceremony in May 2014 that drew ‘thousands of people’, and the reaction from this crowd is something that Skira still holds dear. “The people fell silent, there was a complete hush,” he said.
“It’s this silence of about 15,000 people that showed up at the inauguration event when we turned on the lights that spoke the loudest about the success of the installation.
“The most valuable thing in that entire project which, in my opinion, is also a reflection of its publicly responsible design, is that people have accepted that design as their own. The people of Pula were and still are proud of the cranes, and Pula was provided with a living sculpture, classifiable among more attractive vistas in Europe and worldwide.”
This emotive reaction ties in to Skira’s philosophy of light being for the people, rather than an ‘instrument for the service of architecture’ – an approach that Skira feels should be fundamental for any lighting designer worth their salt. “I believe that every serious lighting designer is primarily considering the affect of lighting on people who are using those spaces,” he said.
“Creating positive emotions in spaces that we illuminate is the primary function of a lighting designer. Providing the utilitarian quantity of light is a process that doesn’t really depend upon creativity, it doesn’t require an artistic or philosophical approach if we just want to illuminate the space for the basic necessity to see at night.
“Light is much more than that, and with light we can transform any space in the nocturnal setting because it is the light that directly influences our perception, our spatial recognition and all other qualities of the space which can be manipulated, controlled, enhanced or ruined with light.”
Skira’s focus on the transformational ability of light, rather than the basic function of illumination that it provides, runs deep throughout his portfolio of work. While some designers may aim to create a beautiful, artistic lamp, Skira instead sees the lamp as a hidden tool, with the light itself the end result. It’s a belief that can be difficult to put into practice, as in Skira’s own words, it is almost inevitable that the source or luminaire will be visible from a certain angle, but it’s one that he tries to actualise in his work.
“I am very much into understanding the form of light that exits the luminaire, and the form of light that is projected onto the object that we are illuminating,” he explained. “My point of interest is the appearance of the object or the space, because we know that light does have a form, and it’s visible only when revealing other forms. I’m aware that most people don’t perceive light as something that does have a form, but this perception is the key ingredient of understanding the use or design of lighting instruments.”
Throughout his lighting career, spanning almost 30 years, Skira has received many accolades and awards, particularly in the past five years, where he has picked up accolades at the IALD, iF, LDA, Red Dot, Blueprint and darc awards, amongst many more. However, while there are some awards that he does hold dear – the LDA award for Lun-up back in 2012 a particular highlight, as an award for his first product design – Skira believes that winning awards isn’t the only criteria of the success of a project.
“In one of my recently shortlisted projects, I used a luminaire I designed, and translated a cultural and historical visual theme into light inside a tunnel which interconnects two continents [Tunnel Eurasia in Istanbul], I created the architectural structure with my team based on the interior lighting concept and the local traditional arc element. This structure became the visual symbol of the tunnel on a national level, was incorporated into its logo, and even became recognised by the historic heritage protection agency and became a national postage stamp motif. I do feel like a winner accomplishing all of that because of the light in just one project.
A man of many philosophies, listening to Skira talk about lighting – as he does at many events around the world, most recently at Delta Light X, an event held during this year’s Milan Design Week – is an enlightening experience, as he talks with the authority of a man who has spent nearly 30 years at the top of his industry. This is rarely more evident than when chatting about the ‘holistic and sustainable’ methodology that Skira incorporates into his work, designed to benefit both the user of the space and the surrounding area.
Here, Skira captures what may be the raison d’être for lighting designers: “Imagine being in a museum and looking at a wonderful painting, where the artist showed the perspective of the space, the colours, shadows, expressions, surrounding landscapes, maybe even buildings,” he explained.
“Those paintings are telling a story from every angle down to the smallest details. Everything is in balance, even if that painting has so many elements, they are all necessary for understanding the feeling, emotions and the message that the artist wanted to transmit through it. This is how I view our space, our environment and the ecology of all the elements in the space. Every single element in it at night viewed as a whole should bring the same feeling as viewing a good painting in a museum.”