KTH Lighting Design Division

Pic: Rodrigo Muro

As the Lighting Design Division of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden celebrates its 20th anniversary, arc looks back on the history of the Division.

Widely considered to be one of the leading higher education facilities for lighting design in the world, the Lighting Design Division of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, this year celebrates itsw 20th anniversary.

Founded by Jan and Agneta Ejhed in 2000, the division, formerly known as the KTH Lighting Laboratory and still colloquially referred to as the Lighting Lab by students and alumni, was created due to a lack of Master’s level education in lighting design in their native Sweden. The Ejheds wanted to change this and engage people in the discussion surrounding lighting design in a more advanced, deeper level, and in order to do this, an education was needed.

The origin of this educational offering was a series of independent courses with different specialised topics. In 2006, these were later compiled into an overall Master’s programme – the Architectural Lighting Design course. While the independent courses started out in Swedish, the number of international students expressing interest meant that the Master’s programme was offered in English.

Since then, it has become one of the most recognised Master’s offerings in the world, with students continuing to travel from around the world to enrol in the course.

Rodrigo Muro is the current Programme Director of the Lighting Design Division at KTH. He explained further the original vision for the programme and how it has grown: “Jan’s figure is extremely important to all of us who had the fortune to learn from him,” he said. “His legacy is to promote a deeper engagement in the knowledge and discussion on the subject, and move from a technical approach towards a ‘Human Centred Philosophy’. This has become the motto of the Lighting Design Division.”

Muro has been on the faculty at KTH since 2011, and having completed his own Master’s at the school in 2006, he believes that the international scope of its students and alumni has become a beacon of the course’s appeal. “That is the signature of our education; an international education that brings together people from around the world who, later on, will spread the gained knowledge and philosophy of the Lighting Lab worldwide.”

Muro’s own Master’s thesis was centred on the need to develop new theory, with education being at the core of the lighting design profession, so it was a natural move for him to return to KTH in an educational role, first as a teacher, then a course leader, before becoming the Programme Director last year. He explained further what this role entails: “My role at the Lighting Design Division is diverse; besides being the Programme Director, I am course responsible, an examiner, lecturer, tutor and I also do some research. So it is difficult to separate one activity from the other,” he said.

“Activities range from the macro to the micro: from programme planning to face-to-face tutoring of students’ projects; evaluating the prospects for each admission period; defining content for each course; evaluating each course to see how it works and how we can improve it; coordinating with the administration and aligning the programme into KTH’s vision; coordinating teachers; coordinating activities with students, amongst other tasks, are part of the everyday responsibilities. And very importantly, evaluating our own performance to be able to evolve and improve the course in every edition.”

In its current formation, the Architectural Lighting Design Master’s programme comprises five courses, which students go through in one academic year. The education is structured under the criteria of building up knowledge, course after course, with the principle to learn by means of first-hand experience, which is then complemented with theory. “So the students test a lot, they see light, they work with light, they feel light,” Muro explained.

“One of the main principles that we have is that students should start working with hands-on projects so that they really understand how light works from experience, and then the theory comes into place afterwards, so that they’re free of the constrictions that theory can give you. And when the theory does come, they then understand why things happen. We have noticed that sometimes when we start giving out facts and numbers and theory, it can be difficult to grasp if they don’t experience it first. That’s why we have this approach.”

The curriculum of the programme addresses different ways of learning under a structured, pedagogical system, and the learning process of the students follows a mix of processes where explicit, implicit and tacit knowledge is attained. Content is distributed under four main topics – Light and Humans, Light and Space – Outdoor, Light and Space – Indoor, and Light and Science, alongside the final course, a degree project, where students combine the theory and skills learnt throughout the course in a specific situation.

While the programme has naturally expanded across its 20 year history, the core principles instilled by Jan and Agneta Ejhed still remain in place, as former Programme Director Federico Favero, explained: “The programme is so immensely more dense, intense and structured,” he said. “But the basic philosophy and goals are the same: give the students the tools to understand conceptually and technically why they’re lighting a space.

“We provide a methodology to approach the complexity of the architectural space and the interaction between light, people and the environment. I believe we are advancing continuously in the understanding of this interaction, which is ever more important for health and the sustainability of the planet.”

Favero has been involved with KTH since 2005, when he “came to Sweden to attend a four-month course and never left”, and was the first full-time employee recruited by Jan and Agneta Ejhed to the Lighting Design Division. In the following years, he progressed to the position of Programme Director, before stepping down to focus solely on his PhD in 2019. “It was wonderful, exciting and overwhelmingly enriching,” he said. “It was my first job in an academic setting, and at 27 years old I found myself being an assistant teacher of a class of students who were my age or older, with more experience than me and an incredibly varied background from all over the world. I couldn’t have asked for more in that period.”

Favero also expanded on the “philosophy” of the Lighting Design Division, emphasising the experiential focus discussed by Muro. “Jan Ejhed’s approach to design education is at the core of our philosophy. We are very much concerned with understanding light and the effect of lighting on people and architecture, only when we have shaped that idea we discuss what and how to design lighting. Lighting design is a reflective practice that needs to learn continuously to dialogue with the complexity of the architectural process and the dynamic transformation of technology.

“The role of experience is also vital for us. We cannot conceptualise light, we need to experience it, observe it, play with it, recreate it, reconceptualise it, and then observe again what happened. It’s an amazing, never-ending process of discovery that is motivating and similar to life, which is a continuous process of learning and doing.

“We provide an open platform for discussion. We don’t talk of right and wrong – this approach helps the students to feel safe, which is important to create a sense of trust. This is perhaps one reason why we are called ‘the lighting family’, we create an atmosphere where it is possible to speak and develop freely.

“In this frame, at KTH we inspire the students to collaborate more than compete with each other. We really focus on the importance of good teamwork, of process development and not just the final product. Hopefully this approach teaches the students humbleness and respect for others, and also a reflective approach that shapes their design thinking positively.”

Muro added: “Considering that lighting design is a broad profession with many different angles and at the end, each student will decide their own route, we at KTH have the philosophy to create thinkers that can solve and create lighting related solutions. What does this mean? We promote in the students independence and a self-learning attitude. This comes hand in hand with cooperation and the ability to work in a team; with the spirit, skills and will that this requires.

“The whole point is to provide a constructive learning environment, in which the goal is to foster creative, critical and inquisitive thinking. We ask them not to accept blindly what we teach, so fruitful discussion is what is most important to promote during the sessions.”

While the Lighting Design Division began life as part of KTH’s School of Technology and Health, it has since become a division within the KTH Architecture School – a move that has opened up more collaboration and cooperation between architecture and lighting design students, while architects are also now able to take part in a one-year course on architecture and daylight. This is something that Muro feels will be beneficial in the long run, as it will increase the chances of architects bringing in lighting designers for projects and involving them in the design process, as they’ll have a more solid understanding on the importance of lighting.

Alongside the educational offerings, Muro added that research has always been an important factor for the Lighting Design Division. This has recently been expanded with the introduction of Ute Besenecker, who last year was appointed as Associate Professor in Lighting Design. “Ute is leading and strengthening the Division with multiple research projects, collaboration with other universities, and setting up a platform for a strong PhD programme within the Division,” he said.

Another new recruit to the faculty at the KTH Lighting Design Division is Foteini Kyriakidou, who joined as a lecturer at the same time as Besenecker. Another former student of KTH, having completed the Master’s programme in 2007, Kyriakidou teaches on both the Architectural Lighting Design Master’s course and also the Daylight Architecture Studio.

She agreed that the core principles of the school have remained the same in the time between her graduation and her return in an educational role. “What I find different is that the course is even more structured than before,” she added. “I believe this is due to the experience of my colleagues, the development of scientific knowledge within the KTH academic environment concerning light and the general evolution of technology – when I was a student, we used to work with different types of lamps (fluorescent, halogen, metal halide, etc), rather than LED lamps that are widely used today.”

This vast advancement in lighting technology over the past few years means that the Lighting Design Division needs to remain at the forefront, so that what it teaches its students is always up to date.

Favero explained how it achieves this: “We teach the students the basics in terms of terminology, approach and technique. With that in mind, we invite guests who are at the forefront of tech development to show us the way. But we always have to keep in mind that technology is a tool to achieve a goal, which is a sustainable and enjoyable environment. It is a key difference with educations that have photometric knowledge as the goal of their education. In the future we need more collaborations to help us develop, for instance, a better understanding of the interaction between technology and humans through software, controls and AI.”

Muro added: “We update ourselves as any other lighting design professional should: courses, training, conferences, reading papers, spreading information internally at the Division. A very efficient way is keeping in close contact with different actors within the profession; researchers, designers, manufacturers and other educators. I am personally also a part of Light Bureau, so this keeps me updated at the praxis level.

“But it is not just a matter of lighting skills or knowledge. We all in the Division undergo thorough training in teaching in higher education. This means we get pedagogical tools and philosophy to approach teaching and student learning in a more efficient and successful way. Collaborating with other departments at KTH also enriches our experience to learn from other fields. We support the interdisciplinary approach.”

Alongside the technological advancements, there are a number of other ways in which Muro believes the lighting industry has developed for the better, which will also impact on how KTH approaches each academic year.

“Today’s debatable commercial approach of so-called Human Centric Lighting might have been influenced partly by our 20-year-old approach to lighting; a Human Centred Philosophy. This is now at the core of the industry and the design profession. Light’s impact on health and a concern for taking care of the environment through initiatives such as the preservation of the Dark Sky, energy saving, and social aspects with active proposals like the Social Light Movement and Women in Lighting are all great examples of how much we have evolved.

“At the end of every light related event, I perceive a profession that agrees more and more in the important general questions. Of course there are different positions, but those different opinions create debate and help to push forward important themes. There are still issues to resolve. Maybe I am just too optimistic, but I think we are on the right path.”

While the KTH Lighting Design Division was hoping to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has made 2020 an incredibly difficult year for the school. However, out of difficulty comes opportunity, and Muro feels that the pandemic has actually led to some interesting new teaching developments.

“It started as a difficult situation and then became a challenge, but later on it actually offered more opportunities,” he said. “We used to run everything face to face, but going digital has provided space for new guests from around the world, who have given a different input into the education. We’ve been able to invite people who previously wouldn’t have had the time or wouldn’t have been able to come from another part of the world.

“This will certainly change our education for the future. Not changing into a digital format forever, but whenever it is possible, why not have digital lectures where you could talk with people that otherwise you wouldn’t meet?

“It’s a matter of resistance. If you would have told me a year ago that I had to do lectures online, I wouldn’t have liked that approach, but now that we’re forced to do it, it works. We basically update ourselves.

“From a project side, we had to re-evaluate the methods that we were following to make sure it works, if not completely then some parts of it being digital. We’re still having meetings where it is absolutely necessary to meet – when we’re looking at luminaires, lumen observations, etc. But having a smaller class this year helps a lot for us to be in the same room together and still be able to run it.”

Muro also revealed how the Lighting Design Division plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary in the new Covid climate: “We will have digital sessions, organised in different locations around the world with former students. The idea is to gather different generations from the past 20 years and start the lighting discussion around food.

“Food has been something that has unified the Lighting Family; Agneta Ejhed has welcomed us throughout the years at their place and shared with us on a more personal level their heart next to a plate of food. As a result of that, we have continued organising dinners where we all, students and staff, share dishes from each of our different backgrounds.

“At the 20-year celebration, we will discuss lighting through the first task that as students they all had – “My Favourite Light” – and what that would be today in 2020. All this is the frame around the acknowledgement of the importance of our founders, Jan and Agneta Ejhed.”

Over the last 20 years, the KTH Lighting Design Division has produced an enviable list of alumni that have gone on to achieve great things in lighting design, whether joining renowned practices, setting up their own studios or furthering the profession in other means.

As Programme Director for the Division, Muro explained that it is a source of pride to see what becomes of his students post-graduation. “I am proud to be able to call them colleagues,” he said. “I try to invite practicing KTH alumni as guest lecturers as much as possible to give the students inspiration, so that they can see where they can go. Being contacted by prestigious lighting offices around the world asking for graduates and praising KTH students is also certainly an honour.”

“The moment of catharsis when the students get confidence with the topic as long as they go through the programme is an immense source of joy,” Favero added. “That sparkle in the eye that is a sign that someone became confident and has grown is an epiphany and it motivates all the effort that you might have to make.

“We are proud to have given many students the basis to be able to speak with architects and engineers, therefore they are spread in a varied constellation of offices and institutions. They are not only professionals, but educated in the topic, who can push the boundaries of knowledge further in policy making, institutions and research.”

Another key factor in the success of the KTH Lighting Design Division is what has been dubbed the “Lighting Family” – a concept first nurtured by Agneta Ejhed that encourages a sense of community and camaraderie among students and alumni. “It’s all about taking care of each other, providing this sense that you are welcome and a part of something,” Muro explained. “You’re not just in school, you’re part of a group of people that are freaks in lighting, but are also sensible about the human aspect.”

It is through this Lighting Family that Favero met his wife, Isabel Villar, and Kyriakidou was struck by the sense of community within the school. “What I find remarkable is that the sense of belonging, which Jan and Agneta Ejhed initiated, is still alive among the alumni, no matter the year of graduation. I feel emotional when I think of how many friends I have around the world due to this Master’s Course, how much knowledge we exchange, and how much we feel part of this family.”

Finally, what advice is given to new students as they arrive each year? For Kyriakidou, she breaks it down into three steps: “It is evident that KTH principles have a strong impact on my personal ones since I was a student here. However, trying to summarise and distil them through my personal view, I encourage the students to work with light as an immaterial materials following three steps: Observe; Test; and Be Coherent and Consistent.”

Favero was more philosophical, with his advice being: “When the students arrive, I tell them to enjoy every minute of their education. It is a luxurious experience in this complicated world to be able to focus on one thing in the present moment. Have serious fun, which for me means to keep on being curious, motivated and focused.”

While Muro concluded with some more basic, but important advice: “We at the Lighting Design Division repeat this every year to all students: test, test, test. Test your ideas, test your proposals, test the luminaires, until you get there.”

As the Lighting Design Division celebrates its 20th anniversary, with such a vast, talented group of alumni, it’s clear that this advice is worth taking.

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Testimonials

Paula Bez Cardoso
KTH Student: 2019-2020
“I think there is no better place to study lighting design than Sweden. The dark winters and almost 24-hour days in summer had a great impact on how I think about light.
“The culturally diverse character of my classmates was almost as important as the course itself. I can recall of at least 21 different nationalities in my class. To be in contact with so many ways to see light and the world made this experience much richer.”

Rodrigo Roveratti, La Luz Lighting Design
KTH Student: 2005-2006
“I chose KTH due to the lighting culture in Sweden and the high standards and infrastructure of the KTH university. At KTH they teach students to think about lighting as a material, different than at other universities.
“I had such a great experience at KTH, with an amazing integration among all the students and professors. It taught me how to think about lighting to enhance architecture. I have an immense gratitude to Jan Ejhed.”

Alexia Gkika, Buro Happold
KTH Student: 2012-2014
“KTH has a mentality of freedom that can only be appreciated when one becomes part of its community. I felt creative, challenged, inspired, and above all surrounded by people who wanted to share knowledge and experiences.
“The mentality of KTH has influenced the way I perform in my job and my interrelation to others to a great degree. KTH changed the course of my career, enabled me to be where I am today, and for that I feel both blessed and proud.”

Ognyana Zhelezova, Lichtkompetenz
KTH Student: 2011-2013
“I’ve always been fascinated by Scandinavian design, and a curiosity to learn more about lighting and do a Master’s degree abroad made me apply to KTH. KTH opened my mind for a lot of things professionally and culturally. I got to know the depth of lighting, which is still not even a profession in my home country of Bulgaria, and what a person can do with lighting is beyond borders. The people I met were amazing, so diverse, and I have friends all over the world now!”

Mahdis Aliasgari, Lighting Design Collective
KTH Student: 2010-2012
“Those two years were an unforgettable journey for me! From the international vibe to the school’s practical approach and variety of subjects, I learnt a lot from my teachers and classmates. 
“KTH connected us to the international world of lighting. Thanks to the programme, we gained confidence to aim high not only for the practical sides, but also to be involved in the theoretical and academic side of lighting.”

Farahbee Rahman
KTH Student: 2019-2020
“My experience at KTH was deep and intense. It was one year of rigorous learning and exploring a new track. The Lighting Laboratory allowed us to indulge into both artistic and philosophical approaches, as well as hands-on, technical, playful experiments. It was stressful, but not in a negative way. Rather, KTH prepared us for facing harder challenges ahead in our upcoming careers. The experience has been triggering, boosting confidence in our chosen path.”

Basar Erdener, LED Linear
KTH Student: 2006-2008
“What appealed to me the most was the approach and attitude to lighting. It was deep, intellectual and holistic. I quickly realised that there is much to learn from your peers on top of school work. Jan and Agneta Ejhed deserve so much credit for putting us all together and running the programme.
“My entire career took shape during and after my time at KTH. All that I learnt from KTH professors, alumni and fellows are still a big part of what I do and how I work.”

Katia Kolovea, Archifos
KTH Student: 2016-2017
“With a very diverse and international student background, highly experienced professors and many recommendations from people in the field, I was sure that the KTH Master’s programme would be a fantastic way to begin my career.
“My overall experience at KTH, the interaction with my worldwide classmates, and the participation in global conferences, lighting festivals and other events during my studies has shaped my path as a lighting professional.”

Gayathri Unnikrishnan, International WELL Building Institute
KTH Student: 2012-2014
“My experience at KTH was life-changing. The whole year was filled with lighting experiences in different shapes and forms. It was such a rich, layered experience with a stellar faculty, challenging projects and lifelong friendships, all in the setting of Swedish culture. Working with a multicultural student body sharpened my collaboration skills and cultural sensitivity, and the ethos of the Lighting Lab of putting people at the centre of design has become the North Star of my career.”

Bojana Nicolić, BDP
KTH Student: 2012-2014
“When I enrolled, there were very few courses in Europe in English, and the KTH curriculum covered a little bit of everything – interior and exterior lighting, luminaire design, impact of lighting on health and environment, daylight. It was the perfect chance to get a firm knowledge base, and find out what I really liked. The fact that the course was based in Stockholm, with long sumer days and short winter days, just made a perfect setting for the whole experience.”

Selen Çelik Güngör, Ramboll
KTH Student: 2017-2018
“I was interested in the Nordic countries in general and their approach to designing light. The lack of daylight during winter, and how they deal with it is fascinating for me. The curriculum at KTH was very diverse in scale and detail. Besides its super intense programme that focuses on architectural spaces, our teachers’ vision taught us to study and understand light with its many aspects. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to dive into the lighting world.”

Isabel Villar, White Arkitekter
KTH Student: 2006-2007
“I have no words to explain the positive memories I have from my time at KTH. When I started the course I wasn’t sure I wanted to specialise in lighting design, but it didn’t take too long until I found that this was exactly the field of specialisation I was looking for. I’ll always be grateful to Jan and Agneta, who fought so hard to make this education possible. I never would have discovered the passion I have for lighting design if it wasn’t for KTH. It changed my life.”

Paola Jose, SOMBRA
KTH Student: 2012-2014
“My experience at KTH was truly fulfilling. I learned so many new things, I created a beautiful family and I always felt safe and comfortable. What I loved most about KTH was that the teachers were always there to listen and discuss about our projects or ideas. My time at KTH was crucial in opening the doors to the beautiful world of light. It was the foundation for what I do now and I am extremely thankful to all of my teachers and classmates.”

Dane Amilawangi
KTH Student: 2019-2020
“KTH’s focus on a human-centred approach, and how light quality impacts humans, is for me the most fundamental basis to create a responsible design as a lighting designer.
“I had fantastic classmates from different backgrounds. At first I was nervous because some of my classmates were more experienced, but we were all excited to learn something new together, and our different backgrounds made us complement each other and collaborate better in projects.”

Beatrice Bertolini, giaEquation
KTH Student: 2016-2017
“I was lucky enough to be advised to study architectural lighting design at KTH. I must say that everything I was told about this course truly excited me: a very hands-on programme where I could exchange knowledge and experience both between peers and teachers. My expectations have never been disappointed.
“The year I spent at KTH helped shape my knowledge and skills, and strengthen my passion for lighting design.” 

Martina Frattura, A Beautiful Light
KTH Student: 2013-2015
“Back in 2011, I attended the Light on Focus conference held during Euroluce in Milan. I listened to each talk and afterwards asked everyone “where do I study to be one of you?” They all answered the same: “Sweden!”
“When I was there, I felt I was in the right place, surrounded by friendly people full of passion like me. My KTH stay taught me many things about lighting and the impact that it has on a daily basis.”

Alp Durmus, Penn State University
KTH Student: 2007-2009
“During my time at KTH, I had the chance to meet a lot of great people, who I’m happy to call friends now. It is always great to see a familiar face at a lighting convention, conference or a fair. 
“KTH has a great reputation as an institution. Beyond the obvious networking advantage, earning a Master’s degree from KTH added prestige to my resume. I’m sure it played a role in securing a lighting design job early in my career.”

Viola Deti, Sweco Architects
KTH Student: 2016-2017
“My experience at KTH was very important in helping me build a new perspective regarding the importance of light and lighting design in an architectural project. 
“In my opinion, a deep understanding of lighting and how it can either improve or ruin a project still lacks in many architectural educations. The Master’s programme at KTH helped me to see this as a fundamental architectural element, crucial in spatial design and planning.”