Sharon Stammers

13th May 2019

Editorial Assistant Sarah Cullen sat down with Sharon Stammers of Light Collective, to discuss her professional history and the conception of Women In Lighting.

For our first instalment of the Women in Lighting feature, we thought it only appropriate to begin with the woman at the front of this initiative, Sharon Stammers. arc sat down with her to discuss her career history, her place as a woman in the lighting industry, and how Women in Lighting came about. 

Stammers began her studies in Wales, completing a degree in Theatre Studies. Wanting to stay out of the spotlight (a trait that has followed her throughout her education and career), Stammers opted to focus her studies behind the scenes, in particular on sound, set design and lighting. 

“I used to daydream about lighting up large things like mountains, valleys or bridges, but never dreamt there was a job out there where people did these things (pre-internet days)!” Stammers reminisced.

“I attempted a few mini light interventions of my own – waving a large projector out of a window to project images onto the buildings opposite – but my plans were a bit too ambitious for Aberystwyth!”

From the very beginning, Stammers has had a love for literature and telling a story. Imagining she would follow a career in something book or theatre-related, a continuous theme following her was to tell a story or follow a narrative. 

“One of the main things that I have learnt from working with light is that design is driven by narrative. The best lighting schemes, the best events, the best installations or campaigns all have a story that underpins every element and therefore my desire to tell stories gets fulfilled using the medium of light.” 

After graduating, Stammers moved to London to begin work in the theatres. Not an unusual job per say, but perhaps for a woman at the time, she started work as a stage electrician. “My first day at work consisted of sorting out coloured gels in a cupboard. I spent a lot of time up a ladder and didn’t really know what I was doing. I used to hide fittings that I couldn’t fix and was shouted at in public during a concert for dropping the follow-spot. I was also once fired from another job due to the lack of expertise in programming a lighting desk. 

“I love the fact I was told I would never work in lighting again, and here I am, nearly 30 years on!”

Aspiring to be a Theatre Lighting Designer, Stammers quickly became unsatisfied with working on the fringes. “Hardly anyone came to see the shows, you had to take all the lights down once the show was over and only the actors got to fully experience the lighting,” reflected Stammers. 

Taking all of her experience in the theatre, Stammers went on to complete a City & Guilds Electricians qualification that gave her the confidence to persevere in the then male dominated industry, where she became the Technical Director at a venue in Brixton. 

“Once I discovered there was a real job where lighting was permanently installed in places where people lived and worked, I decided to apply to the MSc course at the Bartlett, UCL.

“I did the course part time in 1995 and started work at the now legendary Lighting Design Partnership. Nearly everyone worked there at some point – Barry Hannaford, Gary Campbell, Mark Major etc.”

Entering an industry very different to that of the theatre, it didn’t take long for Stammers to find her feet and “graduate from photocopying spec sheets and sending faxes to running projects”.  This expanse in knowledge brought confidence and she began inheriting larger lighting projects as designers moved on from the company, some of which included the London Coliseum and Somerset House. 

Stammers was initially inspired to become a Lighting Designer and create the kind of schemes she would see in magazines, but after having her first child, it quickly became more difficult to work full time. 

“I looked for an alternative way to be a part of the industry and found a role as the UK Co-ordinator for the PLDA, which no longer exists, when I became pregnant with my second child.

“This role meant travelling to other lighting events and talking to other designers in the UK and abroad, and learning about other aspects of the profession that I had not previously considered. I later learnt that my now business partner had recommended me for that role!”

During her time at PLDA was also when she met Martin Lupton. “It turns out he had never liked me previously, but we realised we were very good at coming up with creative ideas to promote the association and that we didn’t mind speaking out together on issues that others shied away from,” she explained. 

In 2008, the pair started Light Collective, a lighting consultancy that embodies an array of lighting-based work. “We really struggle to categorise ourselves given that our body of work is so diverse.

“Our creative portfolio of work houses more than architectural lighting design and has grown to encompass many innovative projects that include marketing campaigns, competitions, curated exhibitions, lighting awards, branding, trade stands and shows, epic parties, pop-up events, guerrilla lighting, community projects, light education and light art installations.

“Our clients have ranged from the small scale to the large: designing for a school in Glasgow where the brief was set by the kids themselves, to a shopping mall in Kuwait, lighting an exhibition at the Museum of London, to starting a campaign for promoting Women in Lighting. We like to describe ourselves as lighting evangelists and light activists.”

Reinforcing their self-dubbed title of light activists, Light Collective continued on the Guerrilla Lighting initiative, originally set up by Lupton and his colleague Laura Bayliss when working at BDP. Other initiatives include co-founding the Social Light Movement and helping organise the Noche Zero event in Chile with Paulina Villalobos.  

Stammers and Lupton have worked hard to promote the lighting industry across the world, tailoring their choices of projects to include many designers as their creative collaborators. 

Another passion the two share is documenting light. Using film as their method of documentation, they established Light Collective TV on YouTube to capture and record their journeys and projects over the years, presenting a visual diary of Light Collective. 

When asked about the changes in the industry over her career to date, Stammers explained the shifts in both technology and personnel: “Technically, it’s an unrecognisable landscape. When I started, there were many light sources – metal halide, tungsten, fluorescent etc., and you chose your source according to the task. Today, in the majority of cases, LED has supplanted all of these light sources. This observation was the inspiration behind making the Perfect Light project. This was a film looking at our ubiquitous use of LED that we made with the kind support of Citizen LEDs. We wish we had made it five years earlier and maybe two versions that would have allowed us to document the changes, with a third one in another five years time!

“In terms of gender equality and being a woman in the industry, the numbers have radically changed – 20 years ago I was often the only woman in a meeting, on a manufacturers trip or giving a talk. Now, there are many more female designers – this balance can only improve things for everyone,” she added. 

Referencing the ILDS (arc’s International Lighting Design Survey), Stammers believes the growth of the profession and the growth in the number of lighting design courses are both testimony to this development in gender balance. 

“If you look at the quality and diversity of the awards entries and the schemes featured in magazines, such as arc, you can see how the quality of lighting design has grown, and this filters down,” elaborated Stammers.

“Through the Women in Lighting project we have discovered that the profession is developing in countries that we were never aware of – Panama and Sudan for example – and this is great news.

“However, there is still a long way to go. There are a lot of good designers and high quality lighting manufacturers in the market now and by showing the world what good lighting looks like and talking about it on as many different forums as possible, we can help.”

Further to this, Stammers has observed an industry-felt fear that lighting designers may get left behind as technology advances at a rapid rate, and light has the potential to become another digital add on. She reinforces that it is important to make sure this doesn’t happen and that lighting designers “don’t get crushed in the rush to add technology to projects or lost within marketing stories”. 

The concept of Women in Lighting originated after a showing of the Perfect Light in New York, when female audience members approached Light Collective to ask why they hadn’t included many women in the film. 

“We were shocked by the observation, as it had never occurred to us that we had mainly interviewed men. I guess we were suffering from the same unconscious bias that exists in many professions,” reflected Stammers. 

After some research, a general trend of a lack of females in conference line-ups, award juries and magazine panels became very apparent. Wanting to redress this imbalance, Light Collective set out to create an online platform where women in the industry can source inspiration, network and share their stories. 

“We would like the website to be a massive database of women in lighting that can create inspiration or enable people to search for a female mentor, designer or speaker,” explained Stammers.

“[For the website] We initially planned to do twelve interviews, but I think by the end of May we will have done 50. We planned to ask 20 women to be ambassadors for the project in their country and help spread the word – today we have 58 women in 58 different countries.”

formalighting has also played a big part in supporting the project, in particular Sharon Magnaghi, who has taken a personal interest in Light Collective’s efforts, and is an ideal supporter as a leading female in the company. 

“We have been critiqued that the project is unnecessary, but this has mainly been from European or American white males!” exclaimed Stammers.

“This project has revealed to us that there are many areas of the world where lighting design is not well established and the women involved are finding it difficult, so now more than ever, we think the project is necessary. It’s easy for us to forget in the UK that women struggle in other countries for general equality, let alone in the lighting industry. If you add into that the unconscious bias we are observing and the overwhelming support we have had from so many women in so many countries, then we are more convinced than ever that this project is necessary.

“There is also a general critique that this is just a feminist agenda – to quote Gloria Steinem (that famous feminist!), ‘A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men’. Women in Lighting is about inclusivity and balance and how this is beneficial to the profession as a whole. Anyone against that must be crazy…”

Something Stammers and Lupton have observed since the launch of Women in Lighting is the need for support. As Lupton notes: “One of the things that has come out of the interviews is that women need more encouragement to step up. They are not as ego driven as the men in the industry who will step forward to promote themselves, but if they see the purpose of stepping up is also to create a positive role model for other women in lighting and their company, then they are really open to it.”

Generally speaking, Stammers has found her time in the lighting industry as a female almost non-problematic. Championing it as a great industry to be a female in, she boasts the fact that women can indulge in both creative and technical aspects of a project and there are no barriers to break through, apart from your own fears, in order to achieve great things. “The fact that we slot into many other industries like engineering and contracting, which are predominantly male, has sometimes been an issue but with good role models – and there are now many female ones – everything is surmountable,” she explained. 

Like Lupton had witnessed, Stammers explained one of the main challenges the women interviewed for Women in Lighting mentioned was confidence, or lack thereof, and how scary it is to stand up and talk about their work. Having a platform and female network that demonstrates public speaking within the industry is now providing the role models for others to follow suit. 

“I can safely say that each and every time I have had to present something or showcase a project, I have been terrified. I still am now even after all this time. However, I feel very strongly that in order for women to feel able to stand up and talk about their work, they need to see other women doing it. Hopefully, in a small way, I may have helped,” admitted Stammers. 

“I have been incredibly lucky to find a work partner that balances me so well. The things that Martin does well, I am not so good at, and vice versa. We have supported each other in the work/family balance (once taking four kids to a meeting), and this has made a lot of things possible that I might not have been able to do otherwise.”

Finding support for Women in Lighting is strongly driven by the females in the industry, but having support from the men is also vital. As Lupton explained, it is a team effort that will create a harmonious balance for the lighting community: “As a man being part of Women in Lighting, I generally feel like a bit of an imposter. But, as the aim is to achieve a gender balance, which is positive for all involved in the industry, then it’s probably appropriate that the project is driven forward by both of us equally!

“I would really like to see more men stand up and support the project. We are working hard to think of ways that can happen; it can be as simple as putting themselves out there saying they support it and also making sure that they ensure there is gender equality in their company, on any conferences they curate or at any other opportunity.

“Working in partnership with Sharon for the past ten years has been, and continues to be, a great experience. Her enthusiasm and professionalism are second to none. There is a well-known phrase used to describe some people, ‘All fluff and no substance’ – Sharon is the total opposite of this, she is all substance and no fluff! She continues to inspire and challenge me on a daily basis to be better at what we do.”  

As a female journalist in a nearly all-male office (aside from Helen Ankers, the editor of darc magazine), it is exciting to be a part of arc as an official media supporter for the initiative. We will be covering an array of professional female designers and projects headed by leading women in the industry, and much more, in upcoming editions of the magazine.