Iris Molendijk

19th December 2022

Recognised in the inaugural Silhouette Awards last year, Iris Molendijk has quickly made a name for herself in the lighting design community. Here, she tells arc about her fascinating, concepual Master’s thesis, and her career’s rapid ascent.

hile many burgeoning lighting designers will use their Master’s theses as an opportunity to apply theory and research to real-world applications, Sweden-based Dutch designer Iris Molendijk has instead gone down a more conceptual route, looking at the ways in which light can merge reality and imagination, the conscious and the subconscious.

Inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s book “The Poetics of Space”, in which he focuses on the personal and emotional response to buildings and of the phenomenon of daydreaming; and also by the research of Wolfgang Metzger, Molendijk wanted to investigate how light can blur the lines between the real world and the imaginary.

“In his book, Bachelard said ‘Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity’. I wanted to combine this abstract way of thinking, daydreaming – how do we observe these dreams? Can this also happen in an environment around us? This inspired me to look into the options of building an installation that would trigger people,” she told arc.

“In my opinion with lighting design, you can create scenarios that are not real or not there. This is the same with a dream – it seems real, but it is not. Or is it?

“Dreaming is the main function of our brain. During the night, our mind is free to drift off but when we are awake, the mind has a material frame that makes us perceive the world around us. According to research, approximately 80% of our perception of the environment is through sight. We often think that what we see stops at our eyes, but human perception is an active information-seeking process that both includes the eye and the brain, some is conscious and some unconscious, the brain filters the information that is worth our attention. Humans need to understand the nature and structure of environment. Based on this understanding, we evaluate the space.”

The environment that we look at, Molendijk explained, can be categorised into two visual fields: a structured and unstructured environment. A structured visual field shows a clear hierarchy in the space with clear focal points, contrast and depth; while an unstructured environment misses contrast, depth and focal points.

“When the environment is not structured, our perception is affected and the image given by our eyes is interpreted differently in the brain. Our brain is not able to structure the complete space and will fill in the parts that are missing,” Molendijk continued. “The feeling of not being able to focus on a reference point often results in a feeling of disorientation. Our mind then takes over and creates thoughts and imaginations.

“In the 1930s, psychologist Wolfgang Metzger found out through an experiment that when subjects gazed into an unstructured or homogenous visual field, with no stimuli, they started hallucinating. This was called the Ganzfield effect. Participants referred to being in an unreal, almost dreamlike world. The lack of structure seen during the Ganzfield effect stimulates the brain to look inwards instead of focusing on external stimuli. Since it is our brain that is involved in these hallucinations, and our brain uses our past experiences, this experience might be different for everyone.”

Molendijk’s thesis, completed at Stockholm’s KTH, used the Ganzfield effect as an outset to “investigate loss of contrast, depth and perspective, to investigate the thin line between reality and imagination”. To do this, she looked at the possibility of adding a light stimulus over time to shift between reality and an imaginary state of mind to make people aware of their visual abilities.

“Within the experiment, I wanted to trigger people’s minds to show how light can change perception, since most of us take what we see for granted. But is everything we see real, or are some things illusions?”

For the experiment, Molendijk created a tunnel that simulated an unstructured visual field. The tunnel was homogeneously lit, and at five-minute intervals, a light stimulus was given, illuminating the end of the tunnel. Participants were asked to sit in the tunnel and look straight towards the end into the unstructured visual field.

The results found that when exposed to an unstructured visual field, focusing became hard. The whole tunnel looked the same, and the mind could not find any visual clues in the space, resulting in a field where participants had trouble understanding the space in terms of depth and contrast, with some even starting to hallucinate.

“When a light stimulus was given, the space became clear again, it gave the participants structure, and they could interpret the surroundings again. The light stimulus could be seen as a bridge between our imagination and reality.”

Although her research appears to be very conceptual, Molendijk feels that there are some practical takeaways that can be applied to everyday design practices. “Our environment is always connected to our mind, and the other way around,” she said. “The Ganzfield effect is something that might be far away from our daily reality, however it does show the importance of focal points, light stimuli, and a light stimulus over time.

“When creating lighting strategies, the effects of light to its surroundings and its changes should always be considered. Creating a lighting strategy with focal points in the space, so that there is contrast and depth in the space, results in the mind being able to structure the environment.

“My thesis was also about awareness; it highlights how amazing our brain is. We always think that we understand our surrounding, but our brain is so much more complex and is often filling in information for us. Being aware of that made me look at the world with a new view. I started questioning my surroundings more often; observing is one of the most important skills to have as a designer, knowing how a space is built up and where you can make a change.”

Before she was breaking down the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, Molendijk first discovered the world of lighting design while studying Interior Design at the Jan des Bouvrie Academy in the Netherlands. Here, during her first semester, she had a course about materiality, and her teacher shared a story about her work in a New York theatre. “Filling a black box with light fascinated me, and I was inspired to dive more into lighting,” she recalled.

“During my Bachelor’s degree, I tried to look for the limits, and tried to get the most out of it – only working in interior design was not enough. I realised that there was a bigger picture than just the interior or architecture. With light, I can create that connection. You can create an amazing interior design, but if you forget about the lighting, no one will see your hard work on the interior. The same applies for architecture, if you create amazing forms and shapes, but these stand in the shadow, no one will notice them. Working with lighting, you help to highlight parts of the design. You make an existing design even better.”

Keen to pursue this interest in lighting, after her Bachelor’s degree, Molendijk enrolled in evening courses in lighting design at the Lighting Design Academy, led by Berry van Egten. It was here, she said, she found her passion. “We had classes once a week, and every week I looked forward to the next class. There were visits to manufacturers who showed their products, lectures about the physics of light, and design sessions, culminating in our own practical lighting projects. After this, I knew that I wanted to create more lighting designs and continue working in a practical way.”

From here, things began to snowball for the Dutch designer. Only a few weeks after enrolling in the Lighting Design Academy, Molendijk was given the opportunity to start working as a lighting designer at Beersnielsen in Rotterdam. While working here, she joined the IALD lighting design workshop for Lights in Alingsås, where she got to work with Johan Röklander, and met fellow students who were completing their Master’s at KTH. “That showed me my next goal,” she continued. 

“I had always fancied living in Sweden, so when I heard that I got accepted for the Master’s degree in Architectural Lighting Design at KTH, I was more than excited. When I started studying in Sweden, I knew from the first day that I did not want to leave the country – a feeling of coming home overwhelmed me when I arrived at the airport, and when I got to KTH, I had the feeling that I had arrived at Hogwarts.

“When I was younger, I always thought of a Master’s degree as reading for hours through thick books and writing articles about difficult topics. Something that I learned at KTH is that light cannot be taught through books. Light is a medium that you need to experience, you need to surround yourself with it, place yourself in a room and observe where the light is coming from.”

After her studies, Molendijk got a job as a research and teaching assistant at KTH, and got the opportunity to join the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership project Light4Health – a cross-disciplinary course on the intersection of lighting design and health research. Keen to continue learning and “studying lighting on a more technical level”, she joined the Swedish University of Applied Science. “Here I learned more about electrical engineering, programs like MagiCad and the Swedish way of working with light,” she added.

Through her further studies, and her teaching assistant role at KTH, Molendijk realised the different between working in practice and working in research. “I loved being surrounded by students and helping them finding their signatures as designers and helping the projects progress. But I also missed the hands-on creative process,” she said.

“Through one of my classmates at the University of Applied Science, I got the opportunity to start working for Helmet Experience Design, my current position.”

Based in Stockholm, Helmet Experience Design is a small, three-person team led by Ola Carlsson-Fredén and Alexandra Manson, who Molendijk said “believed in me and gave me the opportunity to join the studio”.

“Since we are only three people, I took on a lot of responsibility right from the beginning. We have only worked together since January of this year, but I already have the feeling that I have grown a lot, both professionally and personally.

“At Helmet, the work that we do is really diverse, but in every project we focus on the experience that the end user will have. We create visual experiences that make people see, feel and interact. Every project has a clear expression and a strong identity.”

One particular project that stands out for Molendijk is Helmet’s Circular Concept; working together with Rebel Light, the studio has created a sustainable office solution for office spaces. “Helmet wants to contribute to a more sustainable future and working with circular products is a first step in the right direction,” she explained.

“Together with Rebel Light, we designed a ‘toolbox’ that creates a well-balanced, inspiring office space with fixtures that can be re-used again. Our design solution also works with as few fixtures as possible, and still creates the right light environment needed for an ergonomic workspace.

“Clients often think that lighting design is only for the high-end market and often go with a cheaper option if their budget is low, but with this model, we want to show that a good lighting design can be for everyone, and at the same time be more sustainable.”

As she was starting out at Helmet Experience Design, Molendijk was recognised in the inaugural Silhouette Awards, whose winners were announced at the end of January. Looking back on the announcement, she said that it “felt really special” to be recognised.

“I was so surprised when I saw my name during the award ceremony, for a second I did not even realise that it was me,” she recalled.

“When I applied, I was working at KTH and I started to realise that I wanted to focus more on working in practice, but I had no idea how I would be able to combine the two fields, especially since I felt that there was such a big gap between them. When I saw an advertisement for the Silhouette Awards, it felt like something I should do.”

Through the Silhouette Awards, Molendijk was partnered with mentor Rouzana Kopti – a Dubai-based freelance lighting designer who specialises in architectural lighting and landscape design. Over the course of the six-month mentorship programme, Molendijk explained how Kopti both inspired and helped her progress.

“When we started our journey together, we did not know each other, but after our first meeting, where we shared our journeys so far, I could feel a strong connection. Rouzana had been in similar situations and made similar choices in life,” she said.

“Something that I really appreciated was her determination. She knew what she wanted to do during the programme, and she made that happen. She also inspired me in the way she stands in life – her philosophy and eagerness to learn more and get everything out of a situation or a project.

“During the programme, Rouzana really pushed me to take everything out of it. She told me that you have to keep working, and while working enjoy every minute of it. When putting so much effort into something you enjoy, you will get a lot of energy out of it again too.

“We also had great help from our sponsor LEDFlex. They were really involved during the whole journey as well. Through them, the IALD and the Silhouette Awards team, I was able to present at Light+Building, an amazing experience that I could only have dreamed about before.

“The official programme has now ended, but Rouzana and I are still in contact with each other. The Silhouette Awards is just the beginning of a great collaboration, and more importantly a great friendship. I can see a collaboration happening at some point, combining our skills, and creating a project together.”

Her partnership with Kopti is just one example of a mentor relationship that Molendijk has had throughout her career, and she believes that such opportunities are essential in helping young, emerging designers find their feet.

She said: “When studying, they tell you that it will be easy to get a job, but when you start applying, you come across vacancies that ask for a graduate with three or more years of experience and an endless list of programs that you should know. The transition between being a student and trying to find a job, is huge. Mentorship programmes are the perfect solution to help decrease this gap.

“As you grow up, you are inspired by classmates, teachers, friends, parents, social media, and through all of these you create your own personality and preferences. This is something a mentor can help with too. During your studies, you’re exposed to so many possibilities and it’s up to you in what direction you want to continue. A mentor can discuss these options with you, and also hold a mirror up to you to make you reflect. These reflections mend so much.

“But mentorship does not need to be in the form of a programme. Showing someone that you are there to help is also a great help. When I applied at Beersnielsen, I had only studied lighting design for two months. I told them my concerns and they quickly told me not to worry – they had years of experience and would help me to gain more myself. Giving someone that security of knowing that it will be alright shows great mentorship.

“I hope that the Silhouette Awards will be a programme that will grow – it shows the community feeling in our community, The lighting industry really feels like a big family, and a programme like the Silhouette Awards only highlights that feeling. People are willing to help one another, and I hope that we can continue with these initiatives and work together to create good lighting for everyone.”

As for herself, Molendijk has a number of exciting plans for the future, but primarily she hopes to “spread the importance of good lighting and how light influences us”.

“I find it so fascinating that everyone is constantly surrounded by light, daylight during the day and artificial light by night, but a lot of people never think about it, don’t know the risks about bad lighting and the importance of good lighting. This is something that I want to change, I want to inform people, inspire them and spread the word about lighting.

“During my time as a research assistant and as a practitioner, I have noticed that while working in research, the day-to-day problems are often forgotten about, and while working in a practice there is hardly any time for research. I hope to bridge that gap and find a way for designers to easily combine research and show how important research is.”

Philosophising further on what she hopes to bring to the lighting community, Molendijk concluded: “It’s quite a vague and abstract thought, but I hope that in 50 years I can look back at my career and feel satisfied that I have connected with a lot of people who have seen the importance of good lighting, and continued to share their knowledge. I hope that we can connect and grow a strong network that will focus on light experiences, sustainable lighting solutions, and a beautifully lit world that will be there for our next generation.”