With Paul Nulty celebrating his studio’s 10th anniversary this year, arc sits down with him to talk about how it all got started, and what the next 10 years may bring.
Since establishing his own, eponymous studio in 2011, Paul Nulty has become one of the most widely recognised faces in the UK lighting design community. Under his leadership, the practice, Nulty, has grown from a one-man band operating from his dining room table to a global company with offices in the UK, US, Middle East and Asia, as well as two spinoff brands, Studio N and Nulty Bespoke.
With a background in theatre and set design, and having graduated from Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, it was here that Nulty ‘discovered’ the wider world of lighting design.
“In the theatrical work that I was doing, I became more and more interested in using light to define the space. I was designing fewer sets and just using light to tell the story,” he recalled. “I then had this epiphany about the power of light beyond the world of theatre.
“The line ‘if all the world’s a stage, I want better lighting’ is such a cliché, but I wanted to apply what I was doing to the real world. I started exploring other areas in the lighting sector and realised that there’s a whole fascinating industry of architectural lighting that I didn’t even know existed.”
Keen to be a part of this industry, Nulty sent his CV out far and wide, before landing a job at the Lighting Design Partnership (LDP). After a year there, he moved on to join Paul Traynor at Light Bureau – then known as Indigo Light Planning.
“I was the junior there, and God was I a junior,” he joked. “Naivety is a wonderful thing – you never know what you don’t know until you know it.
“I look back and think how pushy and opinionated I was, and to Paul Traynor’s credit, and patience, he allowed me to flourish. I was with Paul for 11 and a half years, and I owe him an awful lot.”
Traynor was a key figure in Nulty’s burgeoning career, and he was quick to cite him as one of his lighting role models when starting out. He also reserved special praise for LDP and its incredible track record of nurturing young talent that have since gone on to become leaders in the lighting industry: “We are so fortunate to work in an industry that has such an amazing history and a rich tapestry of talent.”
After 11 years of being an employee, soaking up as much knowledge as possible, Nulty had what he calls his “Jerry Maguire moment”, where he decided to leave the relative comfort of the practice and go out on his own.
“I always had a lot of frustration with the industry and that there were only a handful of really well-run professional practices in the UK. I had this moment where I thought that there’s got to be a different way of doing this. It’s not just about creating great lighting design, it’s about delivering a brand with exceptional marketing and PR. The business of lighting design fascinated me.
“So, I left and started up on my own. I had zero savings – I bought my first Mac, printer, and camera on an interest-free credit card, taught myself HTML and how to programme my first website. I rang up a few people, who sent me a bit of work here and there. Luckily, one of those projects was the Nike store for Manchester United, which was a turning point for us.”
An early partnership with engineering practice E+M Tecnica, whereby they invested in some equity in Nulty’s self-titled studio, allowed the firm to “springboard very quickly”, he explained, growing to six people by the end of year one, and doubling to 12 by the end of year two. By the end of year three, Nulty was in a position to buy back the equity sold to E+M Tecnica, by which point, he said, they “were off and running, and we haven’t looked back since”.
When considering the early years of running his own practice, Nulty reflected that there were two key lessons that he learned: “Number one is it’s OK to make it up as you go along, and number two: say ‘yes’ and then worry about how you do it afterwards. There was a bit of winging it; there’s no denying that. I had a very clear strategy though, and a very clear mission statement, which has been crucial to our success. I was very clear about what I wanted to achieve, and I knew roughly how it should be achieved. Because I came at it from a very strategic perspective, I think that made growing the business a lot easier.
“One of the biggest challenges was building a perception that we were credible. We were a brand-new start-up, very small, with a limited portfolio and trading history, so trying to convince people to take a chance on us was challenging. I think the solution to it was making sure that our story and narrative as a practice was crystal clear so that people could understand our authenticity as a brand and come along for the ride.”
On top of this, Nulty added that he has consistently looked to build strong working relationships throughout his career – a trait that proved beneficial when starting out on his own.
“I’ve always tried to be polite, kind and respectful to people in the industry,” he said. “I’ve always thought that we’re only as good as the service that we get. So if you have created good relationships with people, then they’ll hopefully want to build upon those relationships.
“We worked with some amazing people back then, won some great work and took on some really fantastic employees. It’s been a runaway train ever since.”
Over the course of the past decade, Nulty’s practice has grown to become one of the most well-known within the lighting design community, working on a broad scope of projects from retail and hospitality to workspaces, museums, and exhibition spaces.
And while there is always a wide variety of projects on the go for Nulty and his team, he explained that there isn’t one sector that he prefers over others. “I love that we have such a variety of projects – we’re probably one of the broadest spread practices in terms of sectors in the industry,” he said. “You’re always learning on a project, and what you learn in one sector, you often airlift and apply to another; I love the cross fertilisation of ideas and technologies. I also enjoy the fact that you can be working on a project that’s going to take 12 years, whilst working at the same time on a project that’s going to take 12 weeks. Retail for example turns around very quickly and the learning curve on these projects can be steep, whereas some projects take a lot longer, and it’s more about the finer detailing.”
Amongst the studio’s vast portfolio of projects, which has seen them work with the likes of Nike, Harrods, the Ritz-Carlton, J.P. Morgan, Hard Rock Hotels, BP, Google and Estée Lauder (to name a few), Nulty doesn’t have one specific ‘favourite’ project, but rather those that have a long-lasting impact. “I love projects where you really get to make a difference, that are challenging and really push boundaries. My least favourite projects are those where you’re basically a marriage counsellor between a husband and wife agreeing on how their house should be illuminted,” he joked.
Across this spread of work, Nulty explained that he has always aimed to instil the same ethos and approach in everything that the practice does. “If it’s good enough, it’s not good enough,” he said. “We can always do better. We should be striving for excellence in everything we do, whether that’s writing a single email or delivering an entire project. Everything we do should be excellent. I think that’s the ethos that then pushes everybody to evolve and grow.”
Another key facet of Nulty’s approach has been consistently giving opportunities to the next generation of lighting designers. This can be seen from the presence of junior and intermediate designers at events, in feature articles, and taking part in a myriad of speaking engagements.
Nulty explained that this was a conscious decision from the moment he set out on his own. “I came into this thinking of what frustrated me as a young designer. I want my staff to have complete ownership over their work, I want them to love it and be passionate about it, and that passion comes from having accountability and responsibility.
“I don’t shy away from employing people that are more talented than I am. It’s absolutely my intention to employ people who I think are better than me, as it strengthens the team, and inspires me. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for everybody that has come and gone through the life of our practice. Success is about teamwork and I’m incredibly grateful to my team.
“I’ve always described us as a merry band of pirates (which my team hates!). If you look at a pirate ship, you have hierarchy, you have structure, you have teamwork. But you can also make your own rules and plough your own furrows, you can go your own way and if you want to go against the grain, you can do that collectively, as a team. So Nulty is the pirate ship that we’re all aboard. I might be the captain of the ship, but I don’t tell everybody where we’re going – I would actually describe myself more as the rudder: you tell me where you want to go, and I’ll help steer us there.
“We have a young and energetic team. I owe so much of our success to people like our MD, Ellie Coombs, Creative Director Dan Blaker and Associate Lighting Designer Phil Copland. They are powerhouses of ideas and creativity. When they talk, I listen.”
Alongside teamwork, Nulty stressed the importance of other, often under-recognised sides of running a successful business, areas such as an effective PR and marketing strategy. “I wouldn’t profess to be the greatest lighting designer in the world, but I think I’m a pretty good designer,” he said. “I also have a clear understanding of marketing and PR, and I believe that unless you celebrate your company achievements, no one is going to know how you are progressing. So, success is borne out of doing great work, delivering great service, and being passionate about what we do, but also about being able to tell the story.”
However, for all of the successes that Nulty has had as a lighting designer, it almost never happened, as he revealed that growing up, he had aspirations of another career entirely. “I wanted to be a doctor. When I look back at my old Record of Achievement from school, it’s all about wanting to be a doctor,” he said. “But I had an unmotivating science teacher in my final year of school when I was doing my GCSEs, who said ‘you’re going to fail your exams; you’d better not go to college and apply for science’.
“So, I thought ‘what else am I good at?’ I was good at drama, so I thought I’d go and be an actor – I went to college to do a BTEC in Performing Arts and off the back of that, got into set design. The rest is now history.
“Although for the record, I actually proved her wrong, I left with an A,” he added.
“I realise now was it wasn’t so much medicine that I was interested in – I wanted a career that had a bit of science; a bit of sociology because I’ve always loved the power of people and how they interact; I was always interested in psychology; I was pretty good at engineering; and then I was really passionate about the creative arts too. It’s amazing that I’ve ended up living a life that encompasses all of the things that I was passionate about.
“I feel very privileged that unless NASA come calling, or Liverpool want to sign me as a professional footballer, then I don’t think I could have a better career – I love what I do, because our industry and our work affects people in such an amazing way.
“When you get it right, lighting brings a space to life and even to this day, I can walk into a space and get goosebumps. There’s nothing better than turning all the lights off and slowly bringing the circuits on one at a time to balance and compose the light within a space. It’s one of those breath-taking moments seeing a space come to life.”
As the company celebrates its 10th anniversary, Nulty can look back on a decade that has seen the firm expand into new markets, with studios in Dubai (run by Mark Vowles), most recently Bangkok (run by Spencer Baxter) and Miami, and spinoff ventures, with the launch of Nulty Bespoke and Studio N. However, he says he never expected to be in such a position after just 10 years.
“I always thought that it was possible to grow a business to 20 people and work across the world and be respected for it. A lot of people were doubtful and said it’s not possible, and I think part of my motivation was about proving people wrong. But I never thought it would be like this. It’s amazing to think of what we have achieved in such a short space of time.
“Part of that is coming from genuine hard work, not just by myself but by the whole team, and a key factor is recognising when opportunities arise and taking those opportunities.
“We’ve always been entrepreneurial, and I’ve always had the attitude that you have to at least try out ideas, just in case it leads to something amazing. We’ve always tried new things – some fail, but some have worked out well for us. It’s good, and it constantly challenges me as well.”
Looking to the future and what the next 10 years might bring, Nulty explained that he has a couple of bold ambitions that he is yet to meet in his career: “My grand aim is twofold: I would love us as lighting designers and as a profession, to be taken as seriously as architects and interior designers – I think we’re still a long way off from that.
“My other goal is that at the end of my career, I would love to look back and find that we’ve had a positive effect on the lives and careers of talented lighting designers. I’d like to think that we’re creating a legacy and that future lighting practices and successful designers made their start at Nulty. I take great pride in developing good designers through the business and giving them great opportunities – if anything it’s one of the most satisfying things about the last 10 years.”
As for lighting design as a whole, Nulty predicts big challenges ahead with the ever-changing technology on offer, and the growing impetus placed on sustainable approaches, even if the actual core aspect of lighting design remains the same.
“At its most basic level, lighting design hasn’t changed. You’re still breathing life into a space and emotionally connecting people with that environment, whatever it is.
“I do think that the next 10 years are probably going to be more challenging than the last, because of the way technology is going, the way sustainability and green thinking is going, and because of the understanding that people have of human psychology, and how that’s also evolving. I think lighting is going to become even more scientific, psychological and sociological, as well as creative. There will be more and more layers of complexity than there ever used to be. The need for lighting design is going to grow, so it’s important that we evolve with it.
“But at the same time, when it comes to light itself, it has been the same since the dawn of time; it will continue to be the same and it will affect people emotionally in many different ways. I think the beauty of light, lighting and lighting design is that we get to impact those emotions. To me, that’s why I do what I do. I love the impact that we can have on people’s lives.”