Sally Storey

20th December 2021

Following the release of her new book, Inspired by Light: A design guide to transforming the home, Sally Storey sits down with arc to look back on her career to date and what led to the release of the book.

Over the past 30 years, Sally Storey has worked on a series of high-profile projects as both Founding Director of Lighting Design International and Creative Director of John Cullen Lighting.

Establishing LDI in the mid-80s, at the dawn of the lighting design movement in the UK, Storey is one of the pioneers of the UK lighting design community, but her appreciation for the power of light only began in earnest during her studies.

“I read architecture at Bristol University, and what really fascinated me about architecture was the way that natural light modulated a building, not only from the outside but also how it penetrated inside,” she said. “Then I realised that we weren’t being taught anything about how to light a building inside, so that ended up being the focus of my dissertation.”

It was during her second year at university, as her passion for lighting was burgeoning, that she met the late John Cullen, himself just branching out as a sole trader having come from working as a light technician for the BBC before moving into the world of residential lighting.

“He said that I could work for him during my holidays and learn about light,” Storey continued. “The first thing that I did for him was to design his showroom on Smith Street – I had to say yes and then worry about it later. I designed it as an interactive lighting pod where you could transform the space to give different impressions of wallwashing, uplighting, downlighting, spotlighting, cold light, warm light. For my thesis, I then used this space to analyse people’s perception of the light and what the mood was.”

From there, Storey was hooked, shifting her focus from architecture to lighting design and joining John Cullen Lighting permanently. It’s an obsession that remains today. “I had the option to go back into architecture, but I was obsessed by then, and I still am. I still love every bit of it. I love design, I love historical design and contemporary design, and working with light, you become a master of a tool, the fourth dimension of architecture, and you can apply that mastery in a number of different ways to solve different problems.

“The solutions that you have for a classical project are very different to a contemporary project, but you still find a solution, whether its ambient, task or feature lighting, but the solution was different.”

Working alongside John Cullen in the advent of the “Halogen Revolution” (what Storey refers to as the first lighting revolution of her career), the company was primarily focused on residential lighting and creating architectural lighting products for the home. “It was interesting at the time, because very little was available,” Storey explained. “There was either very glary halogen downlights, or rather large dark light fixtures, but there wasn’t anything in between, so that’s how the John Cullen downlight range and the first Polespring developed.

“It was very much concentrating on residential design, so we ended up finding or developing a product to support the design for a house, which would be something that I’d want in my own house, rather than the big, industrial things that you’d find in a hotel. It was almost like trying to bring the museum quality light to the home, on a miniature scale.”

As John Cullen Lighting began to grow, so too did the understanding and acknowledgement of lighting design as a profession. It was this growing understanding that led Storey to establish Lighting Design International in the mid-80s. She explained: “At the time, there weren’t that many lighting consultancies, and that’s why John Cullen Lighting, particularly for residential projects, was making lights and providing a simple service.

“But then in 1986, Chase Manhattan Bank came, and they were willing to pay for design. I then realised that there was an opportunity to have an independent lighting consultancy and charge a proper fee for the work that we were doing.”

From working with Chase Manhattan Bank and later Goldman Sachs’ offices on Fleet Street, the newly-formed design practice expanded its reach into hotels, shopping centres and building exteriors, growing organically to the position it is in today as one of the UK’s leading design studios.

“We come from an architectural background where we think that light should be seen if it’s decorative, and if it isn’t decorative, it should be concealed, yet reveal the architecture,” Storey said of LDI’s design approach.

“As we expanded, the team came from product design, interior design, theatre design – in the early days there wasn’t a degree or an MA in lighting. Nowadays though, a lot of the people you employ will have a degree in lighting, and it’s exciting to know that there is diversity in the team because we come from different backgrounds. The passion that brings us together is light, but what we bring to the team is very different, so our inspiration comes from different points.

“I would say that I’m an intuitive designer, I go into a space and have a gut feeling about how it should be lit, whereas other people will design in different ways.”

The lack of any real education or understanding about the importance of light in the wider design world was a particular driver for Storey in the early days of LDI, alongside her ambition to make the world “a better lit place”. “What I was so appalled by at the time was that people didn’t understand light,” she said.

“You weren’t taught it at university, one of the things that displays the building so much. The one thing I was taught was potentially doing a lux grid with fluorescents for the office, and that was it.

“I think because it’s technical, people didn’t know how to use it. The evolution of light was practical, rather than aesthetic. If you go back in time, when you had lots of candles and oil lamps, you had a lot more atmospheric environments. You then went to fluorescent tubes and the space was lit but ambience and layering were gone. So, we were then trying to bring back the magic of layers of light. I’m passionate about educating people to understand how important light is in every aspect.

“How do we make an environment better to be in? How do we create a level of contrast that adds to the interest of the space? I think one of the things that we’ve really pioneered and kept on doing is creating that in all the work that we do. I think the best projects are those that people go to, and they just enjoy being there; the lighting is integrated with the architecture, and the environment feels so wonderfully welcoming and good, but you don’t know why. That’s the hidden magic that the lighting designer brings – it doesn’t have to be the hero. The architect and interior designer can remain the hero, because what we’ve done is made the space nicer to be in.”

Over the past 35 years, LDI has a number of landmark, high-profile projects and clients to its name, from the aforementioned Chase Manhattan Bank and Goldman Sachs offices, to hospitality projects such as One Aldwych, the Savoy, Claridge’s, the Corinthia, the Connaught, and many Four Seasons hotels worldwide, to name but a few. More recently, the studio has worked on a series of projects within Harrods.

“We’ve got a track record of really big names, which is a fabulous testament to what we were doing, but they were willing to invest – particularly the hotels,” Storey continued. “They were trying to change the way that people went on holiday, and part of it was all about the experience, and people were beginning to understand that lighting helped the experience.”

Amongst the big names that LDI has worked with, the scope of work has been incredibly diverse, meaning that the studio hasn’t developed a signature style as such, but rather a signature way of approaching projects.

Storey continued: “We’ve been lucky to work recently on lots of projects in Harrods, but what’s been interesting about them is each one is an entirely different retail experience – the technology side is really high tech, but then Harrods Dining Hall is all about historic restoration, and the shoe departments were about dynamic retail lighting.

“Similarly with the hotels, we worked with the Firmdale Group on Ham Yard and the bowling alley there, and then George V in Paris; they’re both in the luxury space but with different interpretations.

“I think we have a signature style, in that I like to feel that the lighting solutions we come up with, we will go on and on to get the perfect results. We believe in detail, we believe in time spent to set it up and make it happen, but we also believe that a lot of the projects that we work on are timeless. An old halogen scheme, for example, might need to be updated to LED now, but you would probably end up doing a similar thing.”

Alongside her role as Founding Director of LDI, Storey is also Creative Director of John Cullen Lighting, taking over the company after John Cullen sadly passed away in 1986. While balancing her time between the two companies may sound like a challenge to some, Storey feels that there is a clear distinction between the two companies – particularly with John Cullen Lighting’s residential focus.

“With LDI, I’m at the forefront of creativity and what is happening in the lighting industry. It means that I’m aware of trends, or creating trends, and I’m aware of what’s available. That experience also gives us inspiration for the product range at John Cullen Lighting,” she said.

“The reason we ended up doing a product range with John Cullen is because nothing existed, and I’d say that it probably inspired lots of other products in the marketplace.

“I’m inspired by what I see, and I see if there’s a little gap. For example, I wanted a small, no-glare downlight to go in a shelf that was only 18mm thick, but most miniature fixtures are glary, so the Minim was developed. There is a design service there, but it’s linked mainly to residential; it’s not designed to fulfil every role in every project.”

Despite her involvement in both companies, LDI and John Cullen Lighting are very much separate entities, with Storey adding “the designers at LDI are passionate about their independence”, but she finds great benefit in being active in both design and manufacture.

“It would be interesting to know where I would be if I started 10 years ago – it might just be design. But what is interesting is being able to be involved in both. I feel it’s a privilege.

“Within design, so often we will look at a product and want to have something slightly adapted. So, somebody might adapt a John Cullen product, and it will become a new product. Likewise, we’ll be working with other people’s products, and they’ll have a new range based on our adaptations.

“What I’ve always believed is that you should use the product that’s best suited for the project. There may be projects that come in that I feel are well suited to John Cullen, but there are other more commercial projects out there that would need the full consultancy advice and other products.

“I think in a way I’m lucky, but it was just being in the industry at the right time that has led to my history of being involved in design and product development resulting this way.”

In amongst Storey’s varied portfolio of projects, the core focus on residential lighting has always remained. “Commercial gives you that excitement, and I think part of that excitement is knowing how to dilute it and bring the right elements into the home,” she said.

This fascination has led to her recently publishing a new book alongside RIBA, titled Inspired by Light: A design guide to transforming the home. The book, which is filled with beautiful examples of residential lighting projects, was conceived as an entry point for interior designers and architects to better understand the impact that good lighting can have on the home.

“I felt that too many people that I was talking to – mainly architects and interior designers – didn’t understand LEDs. There wasn’t enough in a technical but layman’s way to explain why it was important that the cheap LED in your home has one effect, and the more expensive product with proper quality has another, and how much had become possible because of LEDs in lighting.”

The book is broken down into three sections; the first covers the more technical aspects, demystifying LEDs and covering the basics of any lighting scheme and how various effects would work before explaining layers of light. “The idea is, just as an architect or interior designer plays with a palette of textures and colours, the lighting designer plays with a vocabulary of layers of light and beam widths and different aspects. And it’s by layering those that you get the richness of the scheme,” Storey explained.

The second section detailed how those techniques could be applied to different rooms, with examples from both classical and contemporary design to show how the solutions could vary. The final section took six case studies from very different projects such as a chalet, a barn conversion, a villa in Dubai and a duplex apartment, to showcase the different results that could be achieved from the various lighting techniques. “You don’t use every idea on every project, it’s about deciding which ideas you use,” Storey said.

“I’d love to think of it as an aspirational book, but also a very usable book, so that an architect who couldn’t afford a lighting designer would be able to learn and get ideas.”

Throughout the book, Storey called on an extensive back catalogue of impressive retail projects, with work from both John Cullen Lighting and LDI featuring. She recalled that collecting the various images was a challenge, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. “A lot of the projects did have my touch on them, but there were others that didn’t, but I loved the image and I thought it needs to be celebrated – particularly when I was trying to get a balance between different styles of projects.

“A lot of books hold together because there’s one photographer, because there is either a continuous photographic style or a continuous design style, but I think by looking at the projects, because the hand of so many designers were involved in terms of architects and interior designers, there’s so much variety that I hope it adds to the richness of it.”

Published in October, Storey said that she has received lots of positive comments about the book since its release. “I can’t say how it has been received, we have to look and find out what other people think, but so far I’ve had lots of lovely comments. The proof will be in the pudding, but so far people say it’s really useful. And I hope, because technology changes all the time, I’ve tried to make it open, so people get the guidelines on things like the technology of LEDs, but it’s also loose enough that as technology changes, some of what I’ve said won’t change.”

While working on the book, there were a number of other areas that Storey was keen to explore, from shelf and art lighting to garden illumination, but was limited by page constraints. As such, she said that she has already started thinking about further books down the line.

“At one time, I was interested in the connection between the home and the hotel, because I’ve found that over the years, homes were influencing hotels, then hotels were very much influencing the home.

“But the good thing about the home is that it’s a good toolbox for those that do hotels and everything else as well because it explains the rationale. Even if you’re designing other things, the rules are the same. It’s just how you apply them.”

With more book ideas in the pipeline, Storey is hoping that she can continue her passion of “spreading the word in lighting,” and raising awareness on the transformative power of light, regardless of the budget. “What I find fascinating is working out how we’re going to light things with less energy, but more effectively,” she said.

“You tend to use light in really amazing, rich spaces, but in places with low budgets, lighting can transform. Think of what you can do in spaces with a low budget to make the mood different. It’s about trying to persuade people that actually, where budgets are tight, you can create very simple environments, but make them very important.”

Alongside this, Storey believes a continued push towards more sustainable, environmentally-conscious lighting solutions is the way forward for the industry. “We’re at an interesting turning point in lighting and the world of sustainability, so what is important for us is looking at how to make all of our schemes more sustainable so that you can still create the layers, but be more conscious. That’s the direction that we’re going in,” she said.

“What I want to do is, at the beginning of the scheme, think of the key elements. What are the key elements that make the project what it is? What do we need and what don’t we need? Could we do it with recycled equipment? One needs to be bringing that to the table earlier on in the project.

“The ultimate aim should always be beauty, but one should also think ‘did we save in creating that beauty?’ You shouldn’t put things in for the sake of it. What is it adding? Do we need it? Is this enough? I think just having those questions is quite interesting.”

Having been involved in the lighting industry for nearly 40 years, Storey has seen a lot of changes in her time, but her love and passion for light still burns as bright as ever.

She concluded: “I still get so excited when you take a space and, out of the darkness, create visual focus. You can change the way people perceive the space, or control a person’s mood by the way it’s lit. I find that really fascinating.”

Inspired by Light is available now on the RIBA Books website.

Sally Storey, Creative Director of John Cullen Lighting