Sanjit Bahra

As conversations surrounding diversity continue to grow across the lighting design industry, Sanjit Bahra, Founder and Director of DesignPlusLight opens up on the lack of representation he has felt throughout his career.

Over the past 12 months, the topic of representation and diversity has been ever-present within the lighting industry. From our own interviews, to panel discussions, to wider conversations, there is a continuous examination of privilege, and how we can make this community more diverse, more equitable and more accessible.

These conversations have been warmly welcomed by Sanjit Bahra, Founder and Director of DesignPlusLight, who, as a gay man of colour, has felt that since he first entered lighting in the mid 90s, there needs to be greater representation within the industry.

“When I started in lighting, there was hardly any male persons of colour in the industry”, he told arc. “I’d walk into award ceremonies and be confronted by a sea of white faces. It’s something I have become used to in life. However, It’s exhausting feeling like I have to jump through hoops, overly compensate or adjust myself to suit the narrative before me. It might be a feeling or a perception, but it’s a perception that has been nurtured over the years.”

Growing up, Bahra recalled going to school in England the early 80s “where in a school of 350 there were only two brown faces and no black kids. From an early age I was constantly reminded that I was different. 

“Every person of colour knows that they have to work twice as hard to get the same opportunities, generally, in the west,” he added. “When you have that awareness, it’s like you have to turn up the dial, you never quite relax. The continual experience of ‘otherness’ creates a layer of hyper vigilance, performance and adaptation. A survival mode that can follow throughout life.

“That’s why representation and the conversations around privilege are so important – it makes you feel like you are being seen. When you see yourself being reflected back when you enter a room, switch on the TV or open a magazine you are being told that there is a place for you in this world, in this industry, in the space that you inhabit – unedited, unfiltered, just as you are.”

These conversations have inspired Bahra to step forward and put himself out there, to give emerging designers the figurehead that he never had. “I never saw anyone like me when I entered the lighting design industry, but I’m no longer the young kid on the block. I’m approaching 50, I have my own successful lighting business.  I need to be the one standing up and saying ‘here I am’ to people who look like me and say ‘you can do it too’. 

“I know that within my culture, for Asian men, the career stream is often the well-trodden doctor/lawyer/finance route, or architect/engineer if it’s within the design field. Lighting is such an obscure niche and I feel that if the younger me could have said ‘hey I want to be a lighting designer’ and pointed to another ‘me’ that had made a success of it, my path would have been easier. As an Indian man who runs my own lighting design business in London, I would like to say to my culture and to the wider world that there is a place for you here, this is a viable avenue.”

As for his own entry into lighting design, like many in this field, Bahra says he “just fell into it and it all makes sense retrospectively”. “The charm of the industry is that everybody comes from different angles and backgrounds, so you get a very mixed team. Diversity is already inherent within the industry and that does make for a wider and more accepting perspective,” he said.

Bahra’s background was originally in medicine, as he trained to be a doctor, before leaving in his fourth year of studies. He explained: “I got through school on an art scholarship, but because I was also good at sciences, I went to the sort of schools and come from the kind of background where academia is promoted over art. So medicine seemed like the obvious choice. I was in an environment that believed that art was ‘more of a hobby’ if you could do something else. When I decided to leave medicine, I thought ‘if I’m going to do it, I better leave properly and go in completely the opposite direction’. So, I left to do something artistic, with more of a dream than a plan. 

“But rather than requalifying and starting from scratch, I did a Master’s in Ergonomics at UCL – whilst I was studying medicine, I got a BSc in Psychology there. So I felt this was a way that I could bridge the gap into something a little more creative without having to do a foundation in art as it was building on my current degree.

“During my Master’s there was a module in lighting that was taught by Kevin Mansfield from the Bartlett School of Architecture. That was the only thing that really excited me and I went on to complete a thesis with the Bartlett. That’s how I found out about lighting.”

After completing his Master’s, Bahra recalls sending his CV out far and wide to lighting design and architecture practices. “I probably could have wallpapered my bedroom with the amount of rejection letters that came through,” he said.

“The whole reason for me leaving medicine at the age that I did and not finishing was because I was young enough and stupid enough to do it. The longer that you leave things in life, the harder it gets to make a change. I knew that I was gung-ho enough to do it. I think the sheer hutzpah of it all meant that people would even entertain me. 

“And so, right place right time, Lighting Design International had an opening. I went to them, spoke to Sally Storey and said, ‘I am a blank slate, I’ll learn and work hard’. She took me on, and I started from ground zero. 

“It was interesting because I hardly knew anything about the world of architecture and interiors. I was sitting in meetings not knowing what a pilaster was, but I would nod and make notes and then do the research. I bought a book on architectural terminology, because there was no Google in the 90s, and found out about corbels and lintels and credenzas. I kept my mouth shut, my ears open and I grafted hard. Timing is everything and this was a good time and place to learn.” 

From this entry point, Bahra spent 12 years with Lighting Design International, rising to the position of Associate Designer, before making the decision in 2008 to leave and establish his own studio, DesignPlusLight.

“I set up my business because I wanted to be involved in the majority of my projects, and having the company be the size that it is means that I can do this and pick and choose the type of work we want to do,” he explained. “One of the first jobs that I did was Les Ambassadeurs casino, which was a phenomenal job to start out with. Starting a business just before a huge financial crisis was not the easiest thing to do. However, there have been so many ‘unprecedented circumstances’ in the past 14 years that I am so well versed in thinking ‘ok so what’s coming next?’”

Since establishing DesignPlusLight in 2008, Bahra’s aim for the studio has been to “bring tasteful, discrete, beautifully-designed lighting to all projects”, but he explained that his wider mantra has been “just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should”.

“I think the quiet space is very important,” he continued. “Once you know how to be a lighting designer, you can put lights anywhere and everywhere, and certainly that’s possible with the technology that we have now. For us, it isn’t about ‘can we light a space?’ – we can. What separates us is the quiet space, the bits that we don’t light.

“Being a good lighting designer, you have to take your ego out of it, because it’s not about you, it’s about the client; the same space would be lit differently depending on who the client or the interior designer is. It’s about what is right for the client and that process is like divining for water. It’s an art, a kind of dark magic art where you feel your way through the process. That’s what keeps us excited.”

Throughout DesignPlusLight’s portfolio of projects, the firm has worked on an extensive range of hospitality and high-end residential projects. While Bahra doesn’t have a favourite project, there are areas that he particularly enjoys working on. “I love spas, I always have, because you can’t get away with anything in spas,” he said. “In a restaurant or a hotel, you have a lot of ambient noise, be it visually or acoustic. If things don’t go quite as planned there are always last minute tricks that you can use to overcome or disguise the problem. Whereas in spas, there’s very little interior design softness that you can bring into a space. There’s a hardscape of interiors, and the senses are so magnified that you’ve got to get the journey right, the acoustics right and the lighting right. If something isn’t on-point then you notice it immediately. That’s where the magic of lighting design really shines through. 

“I love gardens as well, because what you get during the day and what you get at night are two different experiences. And that takes careful consideration – too little lighting and a garden can feel disjointed and sparse at night. A tad too much and you slip into ‘gauche’, which is so often done. I find on high-end residential projects, working with the budgets and high calibre interior designers, that kind of design is unparalleled – you really get to stretch your wings and create the sublime. We aim take that experience and deliver it across the rest of our range of work.”

While parallels could be drawn between Bahra’s interest in spas and wellness, and his educational background in medicine, he is unsure whether this more scientific-based entryway into lighting has shaped his approach. “I don’t know because you don’t know anything other than yourself,” he said. “I always wondered how it would all make sense in the end, and what’s interesting is the wellness aspect of lighting. The science and physics of it all is becoming more prevalent, and there isn’t an aspect of it that I don’t fully understand. When we talk about the melanopsin receptors in the eye, I know the anatomy of the eye inside out, I know how rods and cones work, I know about the neocortex and the trigeminal nerve, because I had to learn all of that. For me, it’s just another string to my bow, and I feel very privileged to have had that knowledge – the anatomy, the biochemistry, the physics – and then to have had a career in the more creative aspect. It creates a unique and well-rounded perspective.”

Despite entering the world of lighting from a medical background, rather than from a formal design education, Bahra feels that the best way to effectively learn about lighting design is through hands-on experience. “You can’t just study lighting,” he said. “I mean, you can (and I did) but a lot of people come into lighting thinking they know it all because they have a degree in it. It really helps to know the theory of lighting, but you can only learn lighting and interior design by grafting. You need to put the time in. I feel very lucky that I’ve had that time. The reason I left my previous profession at the age I did, was because I knew I needed time to learn and graft and get the notches on the bedpost.

“You cannot shortcut it. It takes a while to really understand, eat, feel, breathe and master a skill. Be it lighting or interior design or anything else. I think they call it the 10,000 hours rule.”

Now that Bahra has more than 25 years’ experience within lighting design and is beginning to consider himself an “elder” amongst the community, he is hoping that he can use his position as a prominent business owner to boost the profile of people of colour within the industry – a decision that came to him after speaking with Nishi Shah, Creative Director at Lighting Design International and former colleague.

“I spoke with Nishi after she spoke at the Women in Lighting Global Gathering. She said it’s not the kind of thing that she would normally do, but she realised that she had to represent,” Bahra recalled. “She said to me ‘there are quite a lot of women of colour and Asian women in the industry, but not many of you’. I realised that she’s right – I then asked myself why.

“I think there is a cultural perception that women can enter into more ‘fun’ jobs and that perhaps design is not perceived to be that ‘masculine or serious’ a job unless you’re an architect. Putting all generalisations and presumptions aside, all I really want to say is that there are other avenues. By putting my best foot forward, it educates people about this. 

“It’s not necessarily about colour, it’s about representing the industry as a whole, showing all the different feathers in the industry, like Nishi has done, and like Sally Storey did – she was one of the first women in lighting, and I am sure it was tough for her. In the mid 90s the only two people of colour in the industry at the time were myself and Nishi – a woman and a gay man. We just have to keep putting ourselves forward, showing up and saying that there is space for everyone. 

“Being a lighting designer means you traverse and mingle the full gamut of the built environment, from getting mucky on site with contractors, being technical and all ‘physics-y’ with electricians, to being all high level inspirational with designers and clients. It takes a great deal of skill and confidence to see a project through and across all of those elements – each of them bringing their own set of challenges. That’s why representation matters – it helps to navigate all of that without feeling ‘othered’ – that you are accepted and respected. That applies to a whole range of categories: colour, sexuality, gender. That’s why no one person can claim the whole narrative – it takes many to fully represent. 

“Some of the reasons why I kept my head below the parapet were those reasons of not being represented, and it can be exhausting and isolating. Unless we talk about these things, you sometimes think that you’re on your own but there is a commonality, and you can ask for help. I come from a generation and a time where you did things on your own, but you don’t need to anymore. In a post-pandemic world, you can ask for help and lean on people a bit more. There’s a community and support there if you ask.”

However, Bahra added that he has always felt a level of support from his peers. “The lighting design industry has always been a bit more aware of difference and we’re a very accepting bunch. I think that’s because we fit in between every other discipline. I’ve never felt that as a gay man I couldn’t be myself within the profession. There is an awareness and an acceptance, we just need to talk about it more.

“A really wonderful and heart-warming recent moment was when we led the talk about diversity and representation at [d]arc sessions in Mykonos last year. A cis, straight, white, 50-year-old man entered the conversation and said some really amazing and impactful things in that forum. I really loved that, and I love that we’re in a world where issues like toxic masculinity and stress and diversity can be discussed. We’re lucky that the profession supports this. We just have to keep at it, keep raising the profile for all the different minorities within the industry.”

Going forward, Bahra is hoping that he can continue to add to the dialogue, and maybe serve as the mentor that he wishes he had. “I always ask myself ‘what value am I bringing?’ I don’t want to be another person chatting for the sake of it. What can I do to help the industry with my experience, to make it better and easier for other people? Even if it’s being an ambassador to teach the wider design industry about lighting. If the availability of lighting to the wider industry is raised, then we all win.

“The future is collaboration,” he concluded. “I think it would be wonderful if teams of designers come together rather than grow apart. Collaboration rather than big overarching companies doing everything, is how you keep the design fresh and how you keep your narrative current. The future can be exciting. There is so much beauty, elegance and serenity that humans are capable of creating and it’s such a privilege to be a part of that.”

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