Lauren Dandridge, Co-Founder of Chromatic, sits down with arc for a frank discussion on intersectionality, diversity and inclusivity in lighting, and how the industry can become more equitable.
Over the past two years, the world has been a tumultuous place. As we stayed inside to avoid the ongoing pandemic, we watched in shock and horror as societal injustices and inequalities were brought to the forefront.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed in May 2020, and Sarah Everard’s murder in March 2021 were particular flashpoints, shining a harsh spotlight on the inequities that still exist surrounding race and gender. These moments forced many of us to look inwards, to question our own subconscious biases and privileges, and ask ourselves what we can do, what we need to do better. It led to a lot of difficult, in some cases uncomfortable conversations, but they are conversations that need to be had, nonetheless.
These conversations are what led to the formation of Chromatic – a new lighting design studio led by Lauren Dandridge, alongside co-founder Nick Albert, that is focused on addressing issues of inequity and accessibility in the lighting industry.
“The skeleton of Chromatic is the conversations that Nick and I have that come from a place of extreme discomfort for both of us as a Black woman and a white man – or at least it was at some point,” Dandridge explained. “Now the hard initial phase is over, and we’ve reached a point of comfort in terms of talking about these things.
“When we started the firm, we said from the outset ‘we don’t want to be just another lighting design firm’. There are truly outstanding lighting design firms that do really beautiful and artistic work. I think we can be capable of that and make the biggest, best work out there, but so what? Art without purpose goes in the hotels by the freeway that people only see when they’re in transition.
“I want something that is meaningful not just for me personally, but to my community and to the lighting industry as a whole, and at the time when we were talking about it, I didn’t see it. I found people outside of lighting talking about it, but I didn’t see my industry, that I’ve been in for a really long time, taking a firm stance and then doing something. That became an important part of what we do; we do lighting, but with the human condition always at the forefront.
“The human condition is so much larger than the parts that we as an industry have traditionally thought about. What we are here to do is have lighting talk about the whole human experience in a greater way than it has been so far. I think of Chromatic as a perspective: there’s a view that we take on how lighting informs and is used by humanity, but also the process through which you can execute those designs.”
For Dandridge, the journey that led to the formation of Chromatic was a long one, that saw her travel through theatrical lighting design, architectural lighting design, education, sales, and then back to architectural lighting design again. But through it all has been a love and fascination for light that has endured from an early age.
She recalled: “I went to a private school in Maryland. It had a theatre programme, and I remember in one of the theatre group’s plays there was a lighting effect that I saw, and I thought it was so cool. I talked to the teacher and asked them how they did that, and they showed me a lighting console. That was in middle school, so I ended up making a bit of a thing out of it and kept helping on the plays and the performances.
“Eventually, like most people, someone influential came into my life – her name is Susan Tannery, she was the theatre director at my high school. She told me she went to school for technical theatre, and it seemed like something that I would be interested in.”
As such, Dandridge went on to study Theatrical Lighting at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Here, she said that she took to heart the classic mantra of ‘do what you love, and it won’t be work’. She explained: “I thought I love theatre, so I’m going to do theatre. But it turns out it isn’t work, because it doesn’t pay well enough to be considered work.
“I decided to take a couple of chances on other things, where I first learned what it really meant to pivot and use all these skills that I had, but in a different avenue. I got an internship on a movie that was shooting in Chicago and worked in the art department. I learned a whole set of different things – we’re still creating environments and trying to create moods, but it’s much more based in reality.”
This experience led to another internship in Los Angeles the Spring before she graduated from college, which in turn led to a job. “But then another influential person came into my life, and they were not a nice person,” Dandridge continued. “I thought ‘you’re still working in this industry, even though it’s common knowledge that you’re not a great human being’. I realised that this is an industry that will continue to promote people who are not their best selves, and I had a really hard time with that. So, I thought ‘if I’m going to be in this industry, I need to have more skills and I need to be able to pursue a different position so that I know how to get there, so that I don’t have to work for that kind of person’.”
As such, Dandridge enrolled in some extra classes at UCLA. It was here that she met another influential person, Kathy Pryzgoda, who taught the lighting classes in UCLA’s Architecture and Interior Design programme. Like Dandridge, Pryzgoda had a degree in theatrical lighting, but was teaching the architectural lighting class – something that piqued Dandridge’s interest.
“I cold-called her and said, ‘I see you’re teaching architectural lighting; I have the same degree as you and I’m curious to see what you’re doing with it’. We went out to lunch and had a great connection, and she hired me to be an assistant. She was running an amazing, single-designer firm, making it work and still doing work at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought ‘this is the best life ever’, she was doing architectural work, which kept the finances consistent, as well as the theatrical work, which was the passion.
“But then, the economy tanked at the end of 2008, so I needed to find another job.”
Luckily for Dandridge, she had done some freelance work for another firm, Konsortum 1, where she met the next influential person in her life, Eileen Thomas. “She was working as a singular lighting designer in a massive electrical engineering firm. She was amazing – incredibly humble, and incredibly giving in terms of knowledge. When you meet someone who genuinely wants you to succeed, all you want to do is succeed for them, and that’s how I feel about Eileen. She saw potential in me as a junior designer, she was incredibly patient with me, and I embarked upon a very steep learning curve.”
And then, as Dandridge puts it, “life happened”. “As simple and terrible as it boils down to, I needed to make more money. I have an ambitious husband who has his own business, and we were looking at the kind of life we wanted to live – it wasn’t that I wasn’t making good money, but as hard as I was working for the money I was making, he said ‘you might as well be working for yourself’.
“David Komonosky, a salesperson at Performance Lighting Systems, had previously said to me ‘if you’re ever thinking about making a change, just give me a call’. So, I made this choice, which at the time seemed like an end of the world decision to leave design and become a sales agent. I thought that I had sold out and given up on life, but then what I realised once I started doing it was that being a sales agent is amazing. I could be the kind of sales agent that I would have wanted to call on me – I always kept a designer’s mentality while keeping a very clear line between what a salesperson does and what a designer should do. I felt that it was my opportunity to learn how the sausage is getting made.”
Dandridge worked in Specification Sales at Performance Lighting Systems for nine years before, in May 2021, making the decision to return to architectural lighting design to establish Chromatic alongside Nick Albert.
“I had been feeling for a few years that this career is checking so many of my boxes except for my personal passion – I work for great people, I make good money, I’m able to take care of my kids, Performance helped me be the kind of mum I wanted to be for a really long time. Now it just so happens that I need to show them something different,” she said.
“Nick and I met around 2015, when I started to call on the design studio he was running. We started talking about future plans in late 2020. We had already become good friends and spent a lot of time talking about the industry, things we liked and things we wished were better. Shortly after, he was speaking with his wife, Susan, and she mentioned that he and I should work together. So technically the beginning of Chromatic was neither of our idea, but instead Susan’s.
“We spent 6-7 months thinking and marinating on the kind of firm we would want to have and the kind of work that we wanted to do. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, we launched in August of 2021.
“Chromatic is something that I had always wanted to do – not necessarily having my own firm but being a designer and having your work be viewed and done in a way that is reputable and good for the environment and good for humanity and all these things.
“Chromatic is our love song to how we want lighting to be effective in the world. It’s about process and perspective. We’re saying, ‘here’s this diverse firm with different perspectives in terms of race, gender, our personal histories’ – we value all of that and it informs how we approach projects.”
Since forming Chromatic last year, and indeed since the tragic events of 2020, Dandridge has been looking at what she can do as a designer and an educator within her role as Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of South California (USC), to address issues surrounding equity, or the lack thereof, within lighting. In a particularly stirring piece for Architect Magazine, published in October 2021, she talked with Editor Wanda Lau about the “legacy of inequity in architectural lighting”.
“Most of my words start from a place of personal perspective,” she said. “I think about the entry into lighting design that I had as incredibly accidental. If you think about all the things that interested you as a kid, how many of those stuck? Why was it lighting? I don’t know, other than that’s the seed that got the most nurture and attention.
“Is there equity in lighting? No. If you look at the people who are practicing lighting design, the people who are practicing in lighting as a whole, if you walk the Lightfair show floor, you will see that there’s not equity there. Is there equal access to the industry? Sure, from a paper standpoint; anybody can go to a university that has a programme and enter that. But just like most things, if you don’t know it’s there, you don’t know how to ask for it.
“I listen to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History, and in one episode he talks about the nurturing of students and how Ivy League schools were having a really hard time getting students of colour, Black students to come to these STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors; but on the flipside there are these historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) that are pumping out STEM-educated kids of colour. Yet when the predominantly white institutions are asked why they don’t have more students of colour, they say they can’t find them.
“The parallel that I’m drawing with lighting is that it feels very much the same way. If we can increase the access point from at least one mechanism that we can control – we know that trade schools have entry points, we know that if we start early, we can get kids more interested in STEM and artistic endeavours – we can let them know that this is an opportunity that they can ask for.
“I teach at USC, and I have very few Black or Latinx students, and so much so are we singular in our existence that when we launched Chromatic, all the students that I heard from were students of colour who specifically remembered seeing me in that class and thought ‘oh my gosh, I have a Black teacher’.
“The industry isn’t equitable because it started off as an industry that wasn’t equitable, and it can’t change until the people in that inequitable industry decide to reach out and pull other people into it.”
As for her own personal experience as a Black woman in the lighting industry, Dandridge said that she hasn’t received any “incredibly outward or noticeable experiences of discrimination”, but rather micro-aggressions and unintentional biases.
“I have consistently been the only Black person in a space for years. But most of the spaces that I have been in have leaned much more towards the ‘I don’t see race’ part of the conversation; and when you don’t see race, it’s impossible to have tokens, because everyone is exactly the same – ironically until you have a baby, then all of a sudden, you’re a woman.
“But what’s interesting is that people are very willing to acknowledge gender, because it feels like a natural organisation of humanity. People talk about marriage, about having kids, all these things that have gender implications built into them, and that may change based on the level of equity we’re seeing in terms of non-binary gender issues. But when it comes to race people are incredibly uncomfortable because there’s no sophisticated language for dealing with all the layers that racism has. When you say racism people immediately feel like you’re talking about them, and it’s so hard to have conversations in workplaces surrounding race where the immediate defensiveness isn’t projected onto you.
“The idea of ‘colour-blindness’ has put white people essentially on defence, where if they even say the word Black or acknowledge Blackness, then they are somehow opening the door to someone questioning them. And until that dynamic, where the immediate defensiveness of acknowledgement of race goes away, the equity part of lighting is going to be very hard to counteract.”
The contrast between gender and racial equity in the lighting industry leads the conversation to the notion of allyship and privilege – something that arc has been particularly focused on over the last few issues. Where the lighting design community has been very keen to support gender equality and highlight male privilege, is Dandridge concerned that racial equity and white privilege is being overlooked?
“The constituency of women has grown over the years, and any time you have more voices, a singular message can be heard more loudly,” Dandridge said. “It’s interesting because the intersection of race and gender and religion and all of these other things happen, and we don’t always know how to acknowledge them simultaneously.
“If we look at the mindset that being a white man is the ‘norm’, or the standard that we’re trying to get to, then white women are right there. But then you have the complexity of, depending on your perspective, I would argue that men of colour have more privilege than white women because of their position as men. You could do-si-do the different human points a million different ways to make it seem like none of them are achievable and yet all of them are achievable.
“The hard thing about privilege is that it’s something that you don’t realise that you have. Trying to convince somebody who worked really hard to get where they are, who sacrificed, made less money, put their head down, that even in all of that work and in that success, they were privileged is going to go down like a lead balloon. Until we can all acknowledge a level of privilege it’s going to be hard to make substantial progress.
“I have it as an educated person, as a lighter skinned Black person, as an American. The level of privilege that I have, I have to acknowledge when I’m in conversations.”
Alongside Dandridge’s views on equity in the lighting industry as a profession, she’s also heavily invested in achieving wider, societal equity through light. In a previous interview inside arc, Dr. Shelly James referred to light as a ‘social differentiator’, and while Dandridge agreed to an extent, she feels that it is “a symptom of a larger problem in how it is applied”.
“Lighting does not care what it does, it is an inanimate object that is taken as a tool by which people in power can wield it against those not. Much like being able to own a home is indicative of a larger financial and economic system, lighting falls into the same category of something that can be weaponised against a group of people, because it is a necessary item that we need for nightlife, for existing in buildings, and anything that is of need, once it is withheld, it puts you in a place of discomfort.
“I think lighting is a social signifier, not in the same way that having a fancy car is, but that you become part of a group that is being transgressed upon, or surveilled, or undervalued by a system that is supposed to look at everybody equally.
“The second issue is that lighting design as a service industry, for better or worse, largely exists in a place of privilege, in that we are an additional service fee on top of an already expensive process. It’s considered extra fancy if you have a lighting designer in the same way that if you had an interior designer or a landscape designer – it’s hard to say that we aren’t specialised to the point of exclusion.
“This is also something that Nick and I talk about; how can lighting design be more equitable? How can we get on the projects that affect more people, that make the quality of light a necessary item to consider?”
This is one of the primary considerations for Light Privilege – a design framework established by Chromatic, through which Dandridge and Albert are trying to address inequities at night by understanding the ways in which light intersects life, talking about privilege and its role in our illuminated experiences, and confronting the ways that light has been used in systems of racism and oppression.
“Accepting that privilege exists becomes the imperative for identifying, understanding and working to counteract the systemic mechanism of inequity,” Dandridge said. “Light Privilege seeks to ensure that all communities have access to the beauty and possibilities of light. We want to take this information and present it to stakeholders and say that lighting has to be a part of this conversation – not lighting from a financial/economic standpoint, but as the creation of an environment, because we know that doing lighting for the least amount possible, by people who don’t understand the greater implications, doesn’t work.
“It will forever be a work in progress, there are always new mountains to climb, but for right now I’m happy for every opportunity to be able to talk about it.”
Looking ahead, Dandridge is keen to continue spreading the word about Light Privilege and building up Chromatic’s portfolio of work. The studio has several projects nearing completion, and Dandridge explained that they are already looking at expanding.
“We have this firm that has this perspective, we created this process, but we’ll need to hire soon,” she said. “I don’t want to have just any firm, because then it wouldn’t be my firm, and I want to have a place where people can truly bring their whole selves. You shouldn’t have to put away 40% of who you are to have peace at your job, and that’s the goal of Chromatic, to be able to have people who believe in our mission and us, and who we believe in and work together to support this way of life, of being your whole selves: the uncomfortable, sticky parts and the parts that are shiny and polished. They exist in the same place, so that’s a big goal of mine for Chromatic – I want to be even better than the people who were great to me.”
Until then, Dandridge will continue to have the difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Although she feels that over time, they are becoming easier.
“In some ways, it’s liberating. Part of working for somebody else is that you’re not sure you’re supported in all the ways that you can be your whole self, and part of entrepreneurship is that I can be my whole self and the consequences only rest on me, and specifically for Chromatic, Nick. But our partnership allows us that freedom because we both 100% believe in the things that we’re saying,” she said. “It’s terrifying at times, because there’s a certain level of success that you can have when you can be invisible and small, and when you step out and become visible and make statements, you’re inviting judgement and opinion, and there are days when those opinions can be a lot sharper than others.
“Dr. Manuel Pastor, a distinguished professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at USC, said to me once that having these conversations is like going to the gym: the first time you go it’s really hard – but then you go a second time, and it still hurts, but it’s not like the first time. And you go again and again and eventually you can do the workout more effectively; you have been trained. And that’s what these conversations have to be like – I know that if I choose to do the work, I will get better, and I think that there is a universal truth in that, and that can be reflected here as well.
“If we continue to have these incredibly uncomfortable conversations with a level of honesty and protection, but not defensiveness, then we can make changes. The conversations beget the change, they are the door through which we walk, but we have to do the work and we can’t be scared of doing it, even though it hurts.”