With the company celebrating its 25th anniversary, arc sat down with four of the Project Managers from Office for Visual Interaction to discuss its design principles, its ethos, and what the future holds.
2022 marks the 25th anniversary of Office for Visual Interaction (OVI). Founded in New York by Enrique Peiniger and Jean Sundin, the studio classes itself not just as lighting designers, but as “philosophers, storytellers and tailors who identify the essence of a project and craft designs into vivid architectural metaphors”.
Over the past 25 years, the company has worked with a broad array of high-profile architects on projects around the world, including a longstanding collaboration with Zaha Hadid Architects.
To commemorate OVI’s landmark anniversary, arc held a roundtable discussion with four of its Project Managers – Markus Fuerderer, Wendy Jiang, Monica Llamas and Ramy Makhaly – to find out more about what makes the studio unique.
With a background in architecture and product engineering, Fuerderer joined OVI in 2007 after meeting with Peiniger and Sundin during a previous role at Erco. He recalled: “It was really interesting to me how OVI worked with light and space, coming from an architectural background where you only really work with matter, and the product side where everything is tangible and touchable. What light does with that, as far as perception, was and is my main passion.”
Originally from China, Jiang has always had a passion for art and architecture, and completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architectural Engineering at Penn State University. During her time at university, she met Fuerderer at a careers fair, and later interviewed for an internship at OVI. “During the interview, I got to know a lot more of what OVI does, see a variety of projects, and through those projects see a nice combination of art and engineering, which is what my degree and passion was in,” she said.
“From there, it was a no brainer for me to take the opportunity for the internship, and then after that I came back full time after graduation in 2016.”
Makhaly first joined OVI in 2013, having recently completed his Master’s in lighting design from New York School of Interior Design. Born in Egypt, Makhaly studied Interior Architecture at the American University in Dubai before moving to New York. It was during his Master’s that he met Sundin, as he explained: “Jean was one of my judges on my thesis presentation, and was the only judge that I had a design-driven conversation with. Then I saw OVI’s projects, and my eyes grew wide – I was fascinated by the idea of working with world renowned architects that I had been dreaming about and learning about all through my interior architecture degree.
“That drew me in and I’m grateful that it did because during my first week at OVI, I was working on changing the façade of one of my favourite architects of all time just to allow space for lighting. I don’t think I would get that opportunity anywhere else, it’s very special and unique.”
Finally, Llamas is the most recent recruit to OVI, joining the team in 2019. Like everyone else, she came into lighting design through a background in architecture, having gained a degree in her home country of Guatemala. “That’s where I first encountered this fascination for lighting and realised the infinite opportunities it offers within a space and for the human experience,” she said. “It’s such a unique way of still being in touch with architecture, still being in touch with my first love, and the ever-changing quality of light that never ceases to impress me.”
This led Llamas to shift from architecture to lighting, completing her Master’s degree in Lighting Design at Parsons School of Design in New York. Having practiced as a lighting designer in New York for several years, Llamas was approached by OVI after being recognised in the 40 Under 40 North America Awards in 2018. “I had a really enticing conversation with Jean, talking about our interests in design and lighting and the time flew by. That immediately sparked an interest in the office. I already knew the projects were great, I knew the work that they were doing, but it was that conversation with Jean and seeing how passionate she is about design, her thinking behind OVI and the value that the studio carries on through the project that drew me to join – it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.”
Within OVI’s team, there is a very diverse, multicultural mixture of designers from around the world, each bringing different interests and perspectives. It’s something that the project managers believe to be of benefit to the firm as a whole. “It’s one of our core strengths, the different backgrounds not only in fields, but also culturally,” said Fuerderer. “We bring together an understanding for the cultural context, but then also really different interest focuses, where I think we all really work well together across all stages – everybody can do everything.”
“Learning from one another, we get to understand the culture of different parts of the world, and that’s really valuable,” added Jiang. “We like to pick each other’s brains on different perspectives, different ideas, and eventually we will infuse those shared perspectives in the design as well. That’s what makes this collaboration and the design process quite interesting.”
Llamas continued: “OVI is a common element that brings us together, but bringing our own personalities and our own upbringing is what makes the interaction so rich. It’s much stronger than if we were all from the same mould or had the same perspective or way of thinking.”
“It’s such a melting pot of everything, we’re able to touch everything in the world. It’s nice to learn from everybody’s experiences; whether they’ve worked somewhere or they’re from somewhere, whether they have specific projects somewhere, all of these affect us in the big picture,” Makhaly concurred.
To this point, the team acknowledged that their broad scope of backgrounds can give them an inside track on international projects. Makhaly continued: “Even just knowing the visitor experience in those countries – because we don’t always have the opportunity to visit sites and locations before projects – knowing the space, knowing what people who live there do on a day-to-day basis, what they experience, what they expect, what the cultural aspects are, all of these aspects are very valuable to us.”
“It’s not so much that you have to be informed about a specific space or place in the world – because of our background, there is a sensitivity to it,” Fuerderer continued. “If you don’t know it, you’re sensitive to it and you might ask certain questions that someone else might not. We have a lot of fun with those conversations.
“It’s not only about the project, it’s as much as we learn from the process and the projects as well, and that goes into the next project, the next discussion. That sensitivity of culture is something that we actively develop and evolve.”
Llamas added: “Because we come from different contexts and different cultures and different backgrounds, we are also receptive and able to fine tune what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, and what we’re bringing in order for the team to be open and welcoming of those ideas as well.”
Makhaly continued: “The design principles that Jean and Enrique set up from the beginning, even though we all come from different places, somehow, we all share the same design principles. That’s how we’re able to provide an OVI solution that will always evoke a cohesive feeling across all projects, even if the projects look different or have different needs.”
Following on from this point, Fuerderer agreed that he feels the overarching philosophy or ethos of OVI has remained consistent in his time with the studio. “I feel it’s not so different from the very beginning,” he said. “We’re really focusing on a story, a message, and that’s consistent throughout our projects; it’s what connects the visual portion to the architectural vision of the shape or form. That’s a thread that runs from the early projects all the way to the latest competitions.
“Something that is also very important is how this message is translated into the actual building, because you can have fantastic ideas, wild concepts, but if you can’t manifest those into reality, they’re just fantasies. That’s something that is part of the philosophy – finding a storyline that is clear and concise, then finding ways to build that and incorporate it into the project needs.”
“It’s about finding that essence,” Llamas added. “A space can be many things, but what is its essence? How will it be lived in? How will people interact with it? How are we able to translate that into a story with light that people can experience? It’s what enriches every one of our designs and makes them unique – each space has a story to tell and we’re able to dissect that and tell it through light.”
In a similar vein, Makhaly added that for him, it’s about the emotion that the designers are trying to create. “Jean told me something in my first week, she said that lighting is like a magician’s touch. We have the ability to create magic, because without light you can’t see architecture, so we have the opportunity to paint with light.”
Jiang continued: “A lot of the time, people don’t tend to realise lighting is the element that makes the space sing and makes you feel and create emotions. That drew me to lighting in the first place – being able to play with that “invisible” fabric and curate memorable moments.
“We want to make a magical moment, but we also need to be realistic and work with the rest of the team. It’s never lighting dictating the design, but lighting complementing the architecture, working with all disciplines, and finding ways to achieve both the stability that you need, and those magical moments.”
“If people feel good in a space, but they don’t know why, that’s the magical part,” said Fuerderer. “We try to achieve this in our spaces, but for me, maybe this is my lighting geek side, when somebody feels well in a space and we start to understand why that is, there’s a fascination. And the moment you start to understand it, in a way that becomes even more magical to me – although I understand how it works, it’s the intrigue of the thought process to get to that result.”
In their quests to make moments of magic, the team has worked on a number of high-profile projects during their tenure at OVI. Examples cited include local New York projects such as 520 West 28th Street – ZHA’s first project in New York, the Reimagine the Canals project along the Erie Canal in upstate New York, and the collaboration with Foster + Partners on Apple’s Fifth Avenue store. Looking further afield, projects such as the Lululemon headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, in which Jiang adopted biophilic principles so that the lighting contributes to “the healthiest workplace in the world”; the phenomenal Al Wasl Plaza at Expo 2020, a project that pushed Makhaly to “learn more about media and dynamic lighting”; and the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) in Saudi Arabia, which due to its parametric design, Fuerderer explained as being “very different from the traditional ways of how I understood architecture”.
Although each project varies greatly in scope and style, the team discussed the idea of there being a connecting thread that links each project to one cohesive narrative. “There is, but not in a way that you would put a red beacon on all of our projects,” said Fuerderer. “It’s more like the way we treat light to attribute character, to give an identity. We work with so many different architects and design teams, they all have their own unique styles, but also respond to their environment, to their clients. The same is true for us, it’s more about how we respond to those pieces. That’s the common thread, which goes back to storyline.”
Llamas added: “We see light as a material, it’s not something that we are introducing to a space as an object to illuminate, but it’s another layer of material that we are able to work with and mould to the space’s needs. We won’t ever have a catalogue to show clients what they’re getting, but we will shape and work and tailor the design, so that each of the spaces are responding and have that seamless integration with light, that’s when you find the magic moment.”
“I 100% agree, and I think the common thread typically comes on principle and methodology, how we approach to design spaces with light and how we can curate the experience, appreciate the architecture and the materiality more, without even noticing lighting doing too much work,” continued Jiang. “We’re constantly trying to research what is the next thing in lighting that we can infuse into design and bring fresh perspectives to a space. Perhaps it’s a new way that light can interact with a material, or perhaps it’s how lighting can change the way people normally see a space. Rather than just the static experience, but how we can bring dynamic experience and interactions to a still space.”
The search for the next thing in lighting leads the conversation on to what the future will look like for OVI, what the next thing in lighting will be and how the company will change in the coming years.
“There’s nothing as constant as change, so we have to keep changing,” Fuerderer enthused. “The changes are coming from the needs of our clients – we adapt to that. Certainly, there’s a handful of challenges; we are living in a time where we have limited resources in terms of energy and materials, so we want to be very careful with that. At the same time, we have incredible tools to work with to almost forecast how these systems work together.
“We’re looking at a future where idea creation is almost starting to get artificial intelligence in use. But how do we translate that back into the real world? It’s an exciting time, and we have some really radical ideas from competitions that we’re working on, so there’s a lot to learn and develop around that.”
“The challenges that we encounter on projects are ultimately going to lead us into forward thinking, into new solutions, new collaborations and discussions around design,” added Llamas. “Whenever we have a connection or invitation to be part of a new project, that’s where our minds are blown in terms of ideas that we can implement, ways that we can innovate, and ways that we can interact, but it’s always related to the conversations that we’re having, and keeping in mind that we want to be conscious of the environment and the resources that we’re using.”
Jiang added: “It’s something always triggered from interaction, whether it’s internal or external. Those are where we collectively think there could be a better way forward.
“We’re trying to outreach to some schools either here in the US or in China; Jean and Enrique led a lecture in China for a university with a lighting engineering programme, and our studio also participated in some of the lessons. It has been interesting not just hearing what our peers in the industry are thinking about, but also the next generation, what they’re looking to learn. That is also a channel for us to share our experience with them.
“That said, looking at things that are not just related to lighting gets us inspired a lot of the time, just to take a moment outside of it to see some outside elements – whether that’s from nature, from art, things like that give us new inspirations that we think can be translated into a lighting moment.”
However, with changing technologies, Makhaly is keeping an eye on how this may impact on client demands. He explained: “Because we’re so responsive, it’s all going to depend on the client. More and more with the technologies and tools that are available to us, the sky’s the limit – and I don’t say that in the best way; sometimes that can be great because you can do anything you want. But that can also be, for somebody like the end user, not so great because they can do anything they want.
“We almost become gatekeepers or protectors from the beginning of the design process to think about the future of cities, the future of landmarks, the future of sky lines. How is lighting going to impact that, and what is our project, in relation to other projects in the next 20 years, going to look like? Are we going to be OK with that in 10, 15, 20 years? Are we still going to be proud of our work or is it going to look dated? All these big picture ideas and thinking forward is where I see change and evolution, because we’re always trying to think forward.”
As for the next 25 years, the team were in agreement in the hope that OVI will continue to push boundaries and create inspiring lighting projects. Makhaly continued: “It’s about the people. So long as that focus remains and the team keeps growing and flourishing and has the same design thinking, the same principles, with room for individual interests to flourish, then I have nothing to worry about, I feel like we’ll always be going ahead.
“There’s something very beautiful about the name Office for Visual Interaction – it’s not just lighting design. It’s not specific to just lighting design, architectural lighting, it’s about creative work, creative thinking, visual interaction with materiality, with nature, with so many aspects.”
Llamas agreed, adding: “I see us pushing the limits. We don’t provide solutions that are from a template or are repeated from project to project. Pushing the limits and the boundaries in that creative way, that responds to the projects that we’re dealing with and people that will be inhabiting those spaces, it’s certainly already an exciting place to be because we will continue creating beautiful narratives for spaces as we’re evolving as a team and a company.”
“I couldn’t say it any better,” said Jiang. “It’s very open ended in that we don’t really have an exact answer. We will keep doing what we’re doing, but as it moves along there will be new things that we explore through each other, through technology, through the research. We’ll keep incorporating those into our design process and see where that brings us.”
The last word though, went to Fuerderer, who concluded: “There are a lot of things on the rise that are truly radical. For example, the next iteration of what we did with KAPSARC, the parametric design. This is the next evolution of that where parameters are connected to the variables of the environment and have real-time input of shaping the building geometry and materials. We will be a lot more responsive to the context – not only from a performance perspective but also aesthetically. That’s where I think a lot of significant changes will come from, and ultimately shape our future and culture as a whole, it’s a really exciting direction.
“As far as our view internally at OVI, the goal is to continue to be on the forefront of developing that, together with our architects and clients. I’m looking forward to pushing this direction for OVI, alongside our like-minded team, like all of you. So, for the foreseeable future, that’s what I see.”
We’ll have to check back in with OVI in 2047 to see how correct they were.