Meeting through the Silhouette Awards’ mentorship programme, Marci Song and Momena Saleem share similar career paths that have seen them travel the world. Speaking with arc, they discuss their multicultural backgrounds and the importance of having a mentor.
Last summer saw the launch of the Silhouette Awards; a new awards programme that was designed to shine a light on emerging talent within the lighting industry.
With a goal of offering support to young professionals, the awards honoured up and coming talent, and as part of this recognition, paired them with established designers for a six-month mentorship programme.
The winners of the inaugural Silhouette Awards, and their newfound mentors, were revealed earlier this year; one such partnership saw Momena Saleem paired with founder of SEAM Design, Marci Song (aka Amarasri Songcharoen).
Although the initial aim of the mentorship scheme was for senior designers to “nurture young talent and help likeminded individuals benefit from their own personal experiences”, it wasn’t long before Song and Saleem realised that they had a lot more in common.
Song and her family emigrated to Jackson, Mississippi from Thailand when she was a child. After completing a BA in Art History at a local liberal arts college, she got her Master’s in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. From here, she worked in New York and Boston, before moving to London in 2005; following a four-year stint at another lighting design practice, she established SEAM Design in 2009. Within architectural lighting design, SEAM has worked on high profile projects around the world, in more than 30 countries across five continents, with the likes of Zaha Hadid, Foster + Partners, AL_A, BIG, and Buro: Ole Scheeren. Despite this varied scope, Song believes her core interest is rooted in architecture. “I’ve always been an architectural designer first and lighting is my medium for creativity. Our roots are strongly embedded in architectural design, perhaps we see ourselves more as design agents in lighting for our architects and clients.”
After setting up her own practice, which she now runs alongside husband and co-director Emory Smith, Song explained the overriding ethos that permeates through each of their projects: “We have an analytical and research-led design approach,” she said. “Each project has unique qualities, characters, needs, requirements, and design. It is our job to deconstruct those aspects of the project and reassemble a finely tailored design approach to re-design the lighting brief.
“As an undercurrent to all of this, something that Emory brought to SEAM from his time at Harvard, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alejandro Arevana once said, ‘the worst thing you could do in design, is to solve very well the wrong problem’.”
Through all of this, Song hoped that SEAM would be a studio with a positive, welcoming work environment that can foster creativity. She explained: “At the beginning of my career, and possibly still today, I didn’t see a true integration or appreciation of lighting as a design and construction material that shapes space. This was something that interested me back then, and still interests me today.”
The idea of being a role model and creating a nurturing environment is also particularly important for Song. She continued: “I also wanted SEAM to be a great place to work – highly collaborative, creative, and driven. I wanted to create and maintain a healthy and nurturing work environment. In highly competitive markets such as London and New York, you hear stories, and sometimes experience very toxic work environments, and I did not want SEAM to be that.”
Even if it was never in a formal mentor-mentee setting, there were influential individuals in SEAM’s early years. Song explained: “When I was first starting SEAM stateside, there was a good friend and former schoolmate from Penn – Mark Gardner, Principal of Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects and now Director of the M.Arch programme at Parson’s New School of Design, who gave me my first lighting project opportunity, the Taiwanese Consulate in Manhattan. He also coached me on contracts and professional practice, having taught a course on it at Penn.
“I should also mention Friedrich Ludewig, Director of ACME, who let me rent a desk in his studio and coached me on how to set up a practice in London; and Alvin Huang, Principal of Synthesis – Design + Architecture, and now Director of the M.Arch programme at the University of Southern California. When we shared studio space, he encouraged me to be brave and market myself more via connections and social media, which helped me maintain a company during the Great Recession.”
Song was keen to get involved with the Silhouette Awards and put herself out there as a mentor for others. “This is one of the many ways I can give back to the lighting community, through something that I did not have myself when I was a young professional.” she said. “I have been a mentor for a number of young professionals and design students. It felt natural to take on this role and challenge in the lighting design industry.
“Especially during and after the pandemic, designers need more support. Even seasoned professionals need more support. Mentorship exchanges are platforms that allow people to zoom out and take a moment to assess at a bigger picture. Even outside of the pandemic, these platforms are essential to allow for people to course correct with guidance and support.”
It is through this platform that Song met Momena Saleem. Originally from Pakistan, Saleem’s career to date has seen her graduate with a Bachelor’s in Interior Design from the Institute of Design and Visual Arts in her home country, before moving to Italy to complete her Master’s degree in lighting design and LED technology from Politecnico Di Milano. From here, Saleem completed a certified course in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design in the USA, which she said, “nurtured my interests in understanding the power of light in the world’s exemplary buildings”.
During her Master’s, as part of a professional training module, Saleem moved to Istanbul, Turkey, for an internship with ZKLD, where she was able to hone her skills as a lighting designer. She worked on some of the monumental lighting projects in her native Pakistan; alongside this she has carried out global activities as a Women in Lighting Ambassador in her region to educate and spread awareness about the lighting design profession. In 2020, Saleem was named one of the 40 Under 40 award winners, which recognises emerging talent within lighting design. Now, she works as a lighting designer on a range of projects in collaboration with Worktecht and Co, which has offices in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Africa.
This means that despite a relatively short time in the lighting industry, Saleem has lived, studied, and worked across the world – something that has become a lot easier in recent years. “Since the pandemic, the world has evolved and we developed new ways of working,” Saleem said. “I’m living in Pakistan but most of my team and projects are based in different countries. Being part of a remote workforce for international projects is a bit of a challenge, but I always try to find the best strategies to coordinate with my team on a day-to-day basis.”
Saleem added that while working across the world, in a range of cultures, each with different approaches and attitudes, may be daunting for some, she feels that it has been of great benefit to her career to date. She explained: “The most powerful influence on my work has been my multi-cultural background.
“I was born and raised in Pakistan, got my education in Europe, travelled across the Middle East, and spent the past couple of years working on projects mainly in the Asia-Pacific region. The whole experience has taught me that life is richer and more vibrant when cultures collide. The benefits of learning and working in diverse cultures has had eclectic influences on my design approach. The journey has been inspiring in every way – it helped me build the strength, connectivity, understanding and respect of cultural values in each region.
“Lighting design as a concept is shaped by the cultural aspects, social values, the way of living. The meaning of light itself varies in different cultures, it’s narrating a different story in a different setting or event.”
Song, in her time working in the Far East, US and UK, shares Saleem’s view on the concept of lighting design differing across cultures. “What I have found is that there are differences of interpretation – what is lighting and what value does lighting bring to a project?” she said. “Furthermore, how to master light and usher its shape, design and meaning, through different regional and cultural interpretations, into reality. It’s highly nuanced.”
Understanding these nuances and navigating different cultures is something that Song has had to do for most of her life, since travelling back and forth between Thailand and Mississippi at an early age, and while she acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy, she said that she has learned to adjust over time. “Growing up in dual cultures, you never really ‘fit in’,” she said. “I guess you could say that I learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“Identity is multi-faceted and complex, which at times can feel at odds with one another. I had to ask myself how I turn the ‘contradictory’ to the ‘complementary’. For me, this was not just aspirational, it was also survival, particularly in business in a competitive field. This awareness also makes me a highly empathic designer and collaborator.”
Song also acknowledges, “having lived, studied, and worked in several places has enabled me to read subtle nuances of different places and cultures, which has better prepared me to work globally.
“Momena and I have talked about the ‘Immigrant Condition’ – how there can be social anxiety around feelings of displacement. When you go from one school to another in your home country, that’s already a level of displacement. To then bring in the bigger picture of environment, culture, language, it can be very overwhelming. You have to adjust yourself into another culture very quickly to acclimatise.
“For example, in Momena’s case, when she went from Pakistan to Milan to study, there were many hurdles and obstacles to overcome to be part of that academic environment and be productive in your learning. And through her work with Worktecht now, she’s had to learn a whole new culture in a pandemic, through Zoom, to work with a company in Tokyo.
“Minorities – gender, race, nationality, or any ‘other check box’, generally have to work harder to prove themselves. My ‘check boxes’ have made me the professional I am today. Going the extra mile is my default mode,” Song continued.
“It’s natural, especially in design, for people to come at you with levels of skepticism, especially if they don’t know you. One of the reasons and drivers behind starting up SEAM was that I wanted to create a place that was all about the designs, where ideas could come from anyone, it’s a collaborative effort.”
However, through both Song and Saleem’s experiences, the pair have recognised the importance of strong, effective communication in easing the levels of skepticism.
Song continued: “A lot of people in this field travel a lot and work on international projects. Through our work at SEAM in different countries, it’s interesting to see how people communicate, whether it’s visual or verbal communication, it’s how we collaborate on projects and come to the table together.
“When you are the one coming from another country, you have to work harder to figure out how to communicate and collaborate. Those that are the majority don’t necessarily have that pressure. As a minority, there’s a careful consideration, particularly when sharing strong opinions – there’s always fears of negative pushback or retaliation.
“However, something Momena brought up is that it’s interesting to see how there is a really beautiful synergy in communication and collaboration between different people of different backgrounds. It’s one of the unifying factors of design – it’s such a great field to bring people together and to bring creativity together.”
Saleem added: “We have to shift gears, and we have developed a lot of resilience to those unexpected pushbacks, sometimes cultural and sometimes social. The way to overcome all these challenges is through hard work and by developing your skills in collaboration and being more communicative, through this you learn a lot of things.
“Although it comes with all those challenges that we face, it still has its own beauty in dealing with people and developing our design approach, you end up understanding people and the design better.”
With their respective multi-cultural backgrounds, it wasn’t long before Song and Saleem noticed similarities in their career paths. These similarities helped forge a strong mentor/mentee connection, although Song explained that this wasn’t the intention to begin with. “At the beginning of our mentor relationship, it wasn’t focused on this; I was asking Momena how she was getting on with work, where she was in her position with her career, how she navigated the pandemic, etc,” she said.
“But we talked about how she has gone to all these different places, and then back to Pakistan, which doesn’t have a lot of lighting representation, and how she is adjusting to working with Worktecht.
“Japanese culture is very different to Chinese culture, Taiwanese culture, and other Southeast Asian countries, so you’re already having to adjust – that’s very complex when you just want to learn how to be a good lighting designer and project manager. It’s not of Momena’s choosing, it’s just what she has come into. It’s interesting because in any career, you face bosses that are not from your culture, and you have to figure out how to help them help you; it’s the kind of exchange that you have to face as a junior or young professional, and it’s all part of professional growth.”
And Saleem added that, through this process, she has gained a valuable insight from her partnership with Song. “We had a couple of sessions together that helped both of us to navigate how we have come to our position and where we are going. There was a lot to learn from Marci through her experiences, it was like a look into the future, which was really helpful for me to see that things can go even better. There are ups and downs both personally and professionally, but we can still find that balance, and that keeps you going. To hone your skills, to bring value in projects and give the best you can, it’s a process that takes a lot of learning. We’re both still working on it and getting good outcomes as well – there have been great rewards.
“I will always be thankful to Marci for walking with me on this incredible journey of learning, exchanging our knowledge and experiences. Not only has she been a fantastic mentor to me, but she has helped me to understand the process and ways of developing myself and my career, what strategies can be helpful in achieving my goals, and at the same time finding the balance in managing my own expectations. Marci has shared her experiences and what she learnt through her years of working in the industry; her wisdom has reframed my perception towards life in a very positive and impactful way. Each mentorship session was like taking a step forward in my career. She inspired me to work hard and be patient.”
Song added: “Momena and I have talked a lot about the lighting profession and a lifetime of learning. We’ve also talked about patience and managing expectations, and about the importance of communicating with your team – particularly managers and seniors – and to be an active participant in your own professional development. I give the same advice to our junior staff who may move on to other companies and teams. If they are not active in their own development, their agenda will be defined by someone else, and it may not be a path they have chosen. It has been through this mentorship programme that we can have these candid conversations.”
Indeed, following the success of their partnership through the Silhouette Awards, both Song and Saleem have encouraged young designers in the industry to look for mentors and other support programmes – something that the lighting community can readily provide.
“To all the young lighting designers, there are so many great initiatives that keep you whole, and remind you that we are all together and we will make it through; even if you’re young, it doesn’t matter, we can go a long way together. This is the best part of being in the industry,” said Saleem.
“As a young designer, I find myself very lucky to be in the industry, to be connected with everyone. During the pandemic also, it was great to be connected to so many different parts of the world – it was overwhelming, in a good way. Even now things are going back to normal, there are still ways to help keep us connected.”
Song concluded: “After 20 years in the industry, it is nice to see some of these barriers coming down for the younger generation. Speaking out, showing pride in your heritage and valuing diversity are becoming more commonplace.
“It’s a great time for people to get into lighting now. It is becoming a more well-known field – there is a lot of support out there for young designers, and with the current environmental crisis, lighting design can play a really important role in making the built environment more sustainable and adaptable; it is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.”