Thomas Mika

Reflexion is a leading design practice in Zurich, Switzerland. Helen Fletcher spoke with founder and lighting designer Thomas Mika to discover how this team of architects, interior designers, lighting designers and electrical engineers come together to offer a diverse mix of knowledge and capabilities.

Reflexion is a leading design practice in Zurich, Switzerland. Founded by lighting designer Thomas Mika in 2001, and now owned by Amstein Walthert Holding Group, the team of architects, interior designers, lighting designers and electrical engineers come together to offer a diverse mix of knowledge and capabilities. At Reflexion, extensive expertise and years of experience combine under one roof, with cross-divisional exchange and continuous training ensuring the practice keeps in line with the latest developments and technologies. Attaching great importance to project presentations and design workshops, the practice’s core competence is light.

With a degree in Economics, having graduated from the University of Zurich in 1995, Mika has somewhat of a unique perspective on the ‘business’ of lighting. Today, a member of the IALD and Swiss Lighting Association, it was time spent at a lighting manufacturer in order to earn some extra cash while studying, that ignited his passion for lighting. “It was never a natural progression or decision to be a lighting designer,” he tells mondo*arc, “it was a very simple start at a small company that supplied fixtures for places such as dentists, shops and other small projects – this was my first experience of working with light.

“A lot of my friends from university were heading into the banking business but this wasn’t for me, even though I had studied economics at university. I remember wondering what the value was in being a banker? If you provide a service, produce something or work in an industry then you can really say you’re contributing something to society, there’s an economic logic behind it.”

And so, Mika enlisted on Postgraduate courses in Lighting Technology and Photometry at the Technical University of Berlin; various courses at the German Institute of Applied Lighting Technology, Ludenscheid; and Digital Light Simulation, San Jose, USA.

“I was at university at a time when the world was open to anything,” continues Mika, “and honestly, my career in the industry started when I looked around and realised there was a real lack of lighting design in Switzerland. Because of my education background I am interested in both an economic and aesthetic approach – two extremes perhaps and very different perspectives – but you’ll see from my sketch book, this is what I love to do.”

For Mika, this passion for experimenting with different ideas through sketching at the initial design stage is something he is keen to instil in his growing workforce, which currently stands at 25, explaining to mondo*arc, that while 3D modelling might be involved later down the line, there always has to be a creative design stage.

“When I began to learn about the complexity of lighting it really started to intrigue me,” Mika says. “I wanted to be able to understand it and work with it. You can enter a room where you’ve placed the light in a certain position and you can feel the atmosphere, the quality of the room – the aesthetic of the room is apparent. There is so much behind lighting that it is important when working on projects to try and make sure your client understands the light and what it can do before you install it – this needs a certain capacity or vocabulary, otherwise you’ll never be able to explain the drama of light or equally, what you can produce with it, so it is imperative you have that knowledge in order to hand over the ideas and concepts.”

When Reflexion was established it was very much linked to a clear business mission from Mika, asking himself: “What do we really need?” “What is an architect asking for when it comes to lighting?”

“In the early days I was on a mission, selling my product, my brand and wouldn’t accept it when someone told me a lighting designer wasn’t needed…. But today, more and more, I respect when an architect says they don’t need a lighting designer. The more you learn about the language of light in architecture, the more you discover that it can be very simple and still very good. However, sometimes you require more and that’s when you have to be ready to emphasise all of your talent in the project, this is what makes you successful.

“If you end up trying to convince someone they need a new lighting system when they don’t, you’ll spend years getting nowhere. You have to consider the right projects – jewellery for example, it’s about getting the right light for the diamonds – once the client understands how complicated it is, it can make a huge difference to how good the items on show look, so it is about investing your knowledge in the right places.

“I think if you’re involved in a project then there is always a need for a certain amount of ambition. You have to question it, look at things in a different way and free yourself of previous ideas. Start with the task at hand and then open the field up to the design and technical elements, then make a decision and review. It is our philosophy at the practice to interact in a strategic way.”

When looking at the relationship between architects and lighting designers, it can be a mixed experience – with lighting design a fairly new industry, for Mika, the struggles he faced in the early days are not something that have entirely disappeared, as he explains: “It comes in waves… Sometimes it goes in the direction that lighting design is needed, but then there are small waves depending on the project and the architect, where you face an anti reaction against lighting designers, so there are sometimes opposite tendencies.

“So, in general, yes lighting design is becoming more and more established but sometimes we still face opposition – in terms of budgets, complexity and competition from electrical engineers. Then as well as this, you have the big lighting companies that have their own lighting design departments.”

Commenting on independent lighting designers that have since turned to work for a manufacturer, Mika continues: “Is this a trend that will continue? Yes and no… Sometimes it feels like the industry is heading in a certain direction. There was a time that the lighting industry didn’t use lighting designers so much, but this has since changed and manufacturers have realised we should work together. So everything took on a new direction… Today, they see that the job is more established and consider, well should we have them on board? It’s always an economical decision.”

Looking at some of Reflexion’s most notable projects, St Moritz indoor pool combines memorable architecture with a modern and efficient infrastructure, despite the unconventional appearence in the landscape and environment. Specifically with this project, Reflexion developed ceiling lamps that merged with the architecture and emphasised the lighting character of the building.

As part of overall renovation plans, Sacred Heart Church in Samedan saw Reflexion revise the lighting concept and optimally adapt to the interior of the Romanesque Church. The round shape of the direct / indirect luminaires connect harmoniously into the overall picture of the church. Through this project, religious, historical architecture and the latest lighting technology have been brought together and let the church shine in a new light.

Mika tells mondo*arc that when entering a project, there are many aspects that have to be taken into consideration: “If we’re working for an institutional client we have to look at the philosophy of the company and the job or the product itself. There are certain standards that come with certain businesses. Also, if you’re looking at a specific industry with set needs it is about understanding this and treating the project accordingly. How can you address them through your own perspective to give them the right light? Who is going to be using the space? What kind of people are going to be there? What are their backgrounds and their expectations of the architecture? It is about digging deep and asking these fundamental questions.”

One of the lighting practice’s most notable exterior projects is the Harbour of Lachen, Lake Zurich. The town of Lachen is 20 minutes outside of Zurich and reopened its harbour area in 2007. Reflexion was responsible for illuminating the dock and surrounding area in order to encourage the people of Lachen to dwell.

Moving forward, as a leader in the Swiss market, for the team at Reflexion it will be a case of maintaining its position while continuing to evolve as lighting designers working with new technologies, new markets and new demands from the world around them.

“The technical background of lighting has changed a lot,” concludes Mika. “Take the incandescent lamp, we had more than 100 years to develop chandeliers and so on, that work well with the lamp, however industry today has not yet learned how to handle a traditional function – such as providing light – with a new technology using existing design approaches. We have to work on a good combination between LED and lighting fixtures and there is still some work to be done. Lighting is a phenomenon that is very difficult to control.”