Shortly after he was named as Head of Light Bureau, arc sat down with Paul Traynor to discuss the career journey that led to this point.
The turn of the year saw the news break that Paul Traynor had been named as Head of Light Bureau, returning to the top of the studio that he founded 22 years ago.
Established by Traynor in February 1999, Light Bureau merged with Scandinavian lighting design consultants ÅF Lighting in 2017 – the culmination of a journey that saw the practice grow from a small, three-man team operating out of Battersea, UK, to an international studio of more than 100 designers.
It has been a long journey for Traynor, who despite not forming Light Bureau until the age of 32, has always held a fascination with light, dating back to when he was a child.
“I’ve always loved light. I remember I had a dartboard in my bedroom and it was really important to me to have the right light fitting, with the right lamp source to illuminate it,” he said. “My dad was qualified in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, and when we were at home, he was always in the garage fixing stuff, making stuff. So, inspired by him, I would take bits that were broken or thrown out, and make new things, and I made lights out of recycled things.
“I didn’t imagine a career in designing lighting in an architectural sense, but I certainly felt that there was something that you could do creatively with light as a product.”
Indeed it wasn’t until his early 20s when Traynor, then working in Electrical Engineering, became aware that lighting design was a career he could pursue after speaking to someone studying lighting at the Bartlett School of Architecture at a Concord Marlin showroom party.
Before this, Traynor left school at 16 and took up an apprenticeship at the project design office of Pfizer, where he worked as a draughtsman. “It was a really fantastic time, the people in the project office were very enlightened and very culturally aware,” Traynor recalled. “I felt a really good connection with them, they were really inspiring and fun, and I realised when I was doing that, that it was an environment where I could imagine spending more of my time.”
Following his apprenticeship, a 20-year-old Traynor looked to pursue his other passion – photography – by applying for a Diploma in Photography at Medway College of Design. However, the course was full, so instead he moved to London, where he planned on working as a draughtsman for a year before applying the following year.
It was a decision that proved providential, as it was during this time that Traynor became more interested in lighting as a career path, leading to that fateful night at Concord’s showroom.
“Working in Electrical Engineering, I became really interested in the lighting aspects of it, to the point that I always wanted to do the lighting, I wasn’t so interested in the other parts of the job,” he said. “So I took a job at architects RMJM – Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall. I specialised in lighting working there, and I did a little project at Earls Court, and had a lot of smaller landscape projects as well. So I developed my skillset there.”
During this time, Traynor also enrolled in a four-year, part-time course at South Bank University, studying Energy Engineering. This gave him the chance to gain a decent qualification, and expand on his knowledge and skillset further.
“It was a fantastic course,” Traynor elaborated. “There was quite a lot about lighting on it, and I was able to make a lot of my final year about lighting too. But more than anything, it prepared me very well for becoming self-employed, because you have to be very resourceful to juggle a full-time job with part-time study, and like any degree course, you’ve got to structure your time and your work really carefully. So that gave me a lot of confidence in terms of how I could tackle my work.”
By the time Traynor finished his degree at South Bank University, he was working as a lighting specialist at Aukett, an architect-led multidisciplinary office. While he became involved in a lot more projects here, he was also getting calls from former colleagues to consult on lighting projects – a bonus for him, but a potential conflict of interest for his employers. This, coupled with Traynor meeting his future wife, who also worked at the company as an interior designer, led to him leaving Aukett to look for a role at a dedicated lighting firm.
“I did the rounds and was offered at least three good jobs, but only one of them was actually offering some sort of significant career path to an equity or partnership level, so I took that.” He said. “But within a few months, it became clear that I had different limitations and obstacles placed in front of me, because they were mainly active as design and supply. Working as a fee-based lighting designer was quite hard, so for that reason I decided I was going to have to go.
“But I had already done the rounds 10 months before, trying other practices and seeing what they had to offer. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have changed that much, so I decided the only realistic opportunity was to set up on my own, so that’s what I did.”
And so, Light Bureau was born. From its inception, Traynor was quickly able to build up a strong portfolio of projects through relationships that he had built up with architects over the years. This included projects such as Accenture’s headquarters in London, Sun Microsystems, BT in Sevenoaks, and a large ad agency at Greater London House.
Despite this head start, Traynor said that his ambitions when establishing Light Bureau remained relatively modest: “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I set up. There wasn’t a grand plan, it was pretty much ‘I wonder whether if I set this up, will people give me work? If I need someone to help me, how will I do that?’ It was just a case of setting something up with an ambition for staying in business more than three months or six months.”
However, after just two weeks, Traynor had to employ his first member of staff due to the rapidly growing workload. “At the time, you start off as a generalist, so you’re designing, you’re the entrepreneur, you’re doing the invoicing, doing CAD, Photoshop and all of that,” he said. “But after a while you realise that’s an issue. If you want to service your clients well, you need to get some help.”
This led to Traynor first recruiting a former lighting design colleague, and then his stepbrother, a graphic designer, and eventually another up and coming lighting designer by the name of Paul Nulty.
From there things grew relatively organically for Light Bureau, with the team expanding gradually as the firm gained more momentum and won more projects, eventually reaching 12 people in 2006, which Traynor feels “has been quite a good fighting weight for us since then”.
Indeed it was in 2006 when Traynor began to feel that he, and Light Bureau, had really “arrived” on the scene. He recalled: “I was on a riverboat cruise on some lighting industry thing and I was talking to Mark Major, and he was asking how many people we had. I said 12 people, and he said ‘well, you’re about the same size as us in London’. I thought ‘wow, that’s incredible’. I hadn’t expected that would be the case.
“We also started getting big international projects around 2006. We won a big master plan project in Moscow with KPF Architects and Lovejoy, which was a really significant project that for me was a great prize for having developed the business and developed a reputation. We also won the NATO headquarters in 2006 with SOM, which was another massive international project.”
Despite winning these larger projects, Traynor doesn’t believe that there was one particular, stand-out project that put Light Bureau on the map – instead he feels that the studio’s consistent output of user-focused projects, regardless of size, is what has helped them to stand out.
“I wouldn’t say that there was a groundswell and there was one project that did it for us,” he said. “There have been significant projects, like NATO’s headquarters, but the kind of projects that we want to talk about and are proud of, sometimes, are the really small ones, but ones where we’ve managed to bring our values very much to bear.
“For instance, a project that we talk about a lot is the Yellow Pavilion, which we did with Hall McKnight in 2016. It was only there for a month, but the design experience of that project, and how we translated our design ethics into the lit result were things that we really enjoyed about that project. And then recently the Maggie’s Centre in Leeds – again, it’s quite simple, it’s quite small, and the reason for designing the building that way, and why we designed our lighting in a corresponding way, was because of the user. So for us, that’s an important project because it’s a community project.”
This focus on community-oriented projects has led Traynor, and Light Bureau as a whole, to enjoy public realm projects that can be enjoyed by many. Traynor cited the master plan of the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle as a particularly interesting public realm project for him. “It was a very unique site where you couldn’t take the principles of the master plan of another public realm scheme as with the local conditions, it was very specific, so we had to design principles around that specific case,” he explained.
When it comes to public realm projects, Traynor added: “We want to play to a wider audience. It’s all very well working on an amazing private residential project, but it’s going to be one person or one family who gets to enjoy that. For us, if we want to play to a wider audience, the public realm projects are the ones that we probably like doing the most.”
That being said, Traynor added that throughout Light Bureau’s tenure, the overriding philosophy has consistently been to use lighting as a tool for the architecture, rather than light for light’s sake.
“As a core philosophy, it was never about making something that just looked good as a concept, it was always about how rigorously it was detailed. I think because of my background in engineering, resolving designs and working things out in a high level of detail, that was always really important to me.
“Light as craft, as we say, and that very much comes out of not just having a nice idea, but coming up with something that is essentially quite interesting. And I think our approach has remained quite consistent. We don’t want to make lighting the thing about the project. Instead we use lighting to find the thing about the project that deserves to be lit, that should be lit. We’re very much about supporting the architectural and interior design objectives, coming up with something that is simple but beautiful, something that is really measured and considered, but not making it into a statement in its own right.”
This considered approach no doubt contributed enormously to Light Bureau becoming one of the most well-established, highly regarded lighting design practices in the UK, until October 2017, when it was announced that the firm was merging with Scandinavian lighting design consultants ÅF Lighting.
Traynor explained further how this merger came about: “I met Kai Piippo [ÅF Lighting’s Head of Design] about 24 years ago at a PLDA meeting in Prague. He had set his business up shortly before. We became good friends, and when we met at lighting events, we would always compare notes, and he had the same pain points as me – things like managing staff and salaries, accounts and billing, management and admin, which is not really what you sign up for when you start a design practice. He struggled in the same way that I did, so he sold his business to ÅF in 2013, which I was really surprised about.
“I saw him at PLDC in Copenhagen and asked him about it, he said how frustrated he was. He said ‘I had the best lighting design business in Sweden, one of the best in Scandinavia, but I felt like a sports car sitting at a traffic light next to a Ford Mondeo. The lights go green and I put my foot down but my wheels are just spinning while this Ford Mondeo sails past me’. He wanted to be somewhere where he got the structure and support, and was allowed to focus on the creative part of the business and on design.
“Every time I saw him after that he was looking increasingly relaxed and fulfilled, and in 2016 he said that they were thinking of acquiring a business in the UK, because they felt that it was a good way of getting into international business. I was interested for the same reasons as Kai. I thought ‘if it’s worked for him, then this looks like something that I could get involved with.’”
Since the merger, which was finalised in October 2017 and eventually saw ÅF Lighting rebrand to Light Bureau in 2019, Traynor feels that he has noticed a difference, saying: “there’s something very comforting about being part of a big organisation – there are more responsibilities, but a lot of the things that I was hoping would improve did improve.” And while the UK office remained relatively separate to the rest of the ÅF team – operating as a self-sufficient, separate business for the past three years, there has been a strong sense of collaboration across the offices.
“We want to go international, but we are doing it in a limited way. What has been good is that there’s been a strong cooperation between the offices,” he explained.
“For instance, we were overrun with work in the UK in the summer, but there was not so much happening in Stockholm, so we were giving parts of the project to Stockholm, just to deliver the background work on that. We’ve also taken on projects from Oslo when they were overrun. Sharing work between the offices and off-handing work to others has been very successful.
“But the plan now is to fully embrace that one business kind of culture and start to find big international opportunities. It’s all about the whole company objective.”
Another area of ÅF Lighting that stood out to Traynor at the time of the merger was its educational avenue, the ÅF Academy. “I’m formally knowledge sharing already on the Hochschule Wismar course, and do an occasional lecture at KTH in Stockholm too, so for me, knowledge sharing was a really important thing for my future,” he explained.
“One of the reasons that I was keen to get involved with AFRY was that, getting into my 50s, I didn’t know if I wanted my role to remain the same as it had for the past 19 years. I wanted to develop, and it was important to me for the sake of succession within the business that other people could come through without me being a blockage. It was also important to me that I could develop my role into something that was more central, and the ÅF Academy seemed like a good way of doing that.
“We implemented that at the end of 2018, and I started to travel around to the different offices, giving lectures and doing design exercises. It was a really good experience, and the feedback has been very positive.”
In a move to take the ÅF Academy further, Light Bureau recruited KTH Programme Director Rodrigo Muro on a part-time basis to develop and create a strong structure and backbone to the programme. And while the world has been rocked by a global pandemic, and Scandinavia recovers from a recession, Traynor has the ÅF Academy firmly at the forefront of his campaign in his new role as Head of Light Bureau.
The opportunity for this new role, a position previously held by Zlatan Idnert, came about towards the end of last year, as Traynor explained: “I never had any expectations that I would take on the role as Head of Light Bureau overall. But Zlatan Idnert was also running AFRY’s sound and vibrations business, Efterklang, and I think he was finding it difficult to make any meaningful headway with Light Bureau, as well as trying to run his first business, so he flagged me as someone who could take over.
“So I had a meeting, which turned into an interview, and I was surprisingly offered the job. My first reaction was ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to become a manager, I want to carry on working on projects.’ But having got over the initial surprise, I thought that this could be a great opportunity if I wanted to do something that was more central, and it also opens a lot of opportunities for me to tie the cultures together between the offices, something that I think is really important.
“There’s a lot in common between all of our offices and now 100 designers, but there are quite a lot of differences as well. I’m not trying to iron out the local differences, I think it’s good to have local identities and different ways of doing things, but I think an overarching culture is really interesting, so I wanted to start bringing those things together.”
Other aspirations for Traynor include addressing the increasing demand for sustainable solutions as more clients seek to become carbon net zero. “I think we’re in a position now where we need to stop being responsive. We need to take more steps forward so that when clients are asking for these things, we’re not in a situation where we’re having to look into it. We should have these values and this manifesto of our own so that when clients talk to us, they have an understanding of what we can do for them and how we would work, and the things that we regard as important.
“I would also like to see us being more accountable and more responsible in what we do. I would like to see us doing more serious work, something that really has purpose, rather than something that makes someone’s project look pretty.
“I think now, with all the disruption surrounding energy, sustainability, the pandemic and our ways of working, there’s a chance to rewrite the script, and to be able to do that as Head of Light Bureau is a really good opportunity.”
Instilling this strong sense of culture is something that is really important for Traynor going forward, as he believes that a company’s attitude and approach is what it should be judged on, rather than its size.
“A lot of people talk about the scale of the business, but I don’t think that we should ever talk to one another about how many employees we have, and think that we’re important because we’ve got more people – I think that’s wrong. It’s much more important that you’re working in a good way, you’re doing good projects, the culture is really strong, the beliefs are all healthy; it’s much more important to be good than to be big.
“I think because we’re a large organisation, we do want to grow so that we can cover more territories and open the doors to more marketplaces. I think we will grow, but we will only grow once we’ve got a common direction and we’re doing things in a really good way and working really well as a cohesive unit.”
Looking to the future, Traynor believes that lighting design as a profession will continue to gain grounds in terms of its credibility as a standalone profession, or as part of a combined profession. This is thanks, in part, to the significantly increased opportunities available to young designers starting out now.
“When I look at some of the opportunities that were available to me 22 years ago, there weren’t that many places where I could go and work. I think that the lighting industry is in a good position now because it’s become so well established, and I think that is because of the foundation laid by the early protagonists. You take the level of skill and knowledge that we have now, and it’s way higher than it was 20 years ago.
“When I was hiring people 18 years ago, you wouldn’t expect to hire someone with a formal background in lighting education, but now it’s quite unusual that you wouldn’t, because it’s become much more established and people are recognising sooner that lighting design can be a career that they’re getting into earlier. Where I was starting my business at the age of 32 with a fairly crude skill set, I think I probably would have been better by 10 years if I recognised that it was a career opportunity earlier.”
Nevertheless, as the newly appointed Head of Light Bureau, Traynor will hope to use his position to foster a strong culture, healthy environment, and positive approach for the lighting designers of the future.