Victor Palacio

23rd April 2018

Firstly, a lighting designer and now former IALD President, Victor Palacio reminisced on his childhood days working for his father, whilst humbly looking back at his successful career in the lighting industry and where it has carried him to today.

As with many career paths, Palacio did not originally set out to be part of the lighting industry. Instead, when taking the typical school tests to determine which field of work to head towards at aged ten, young Palacio dreamed of being an Olympian by the age of 20. Much to his dismay, he has not exercised a day since… Progressing on from those early aspirations, he then determined he wanted to be a scientist, which explains his continuous interest in technology and attentiveness to the science of light.

A clear personality trait Palacio carries is that of a caring mentor. This attribute came to the forefront during his time in college when he began teaching computer technology classes to high school students during the early 1980s, when computers were the latest boom in technology.

After leaving college, Palacio worked in a flux metre manufacturing company as an electronics specialist before moving on to work with Fuji Film, just at the beginning of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Fuji Film was one of the official sponsors of the games and gave Palacio an unforgettable experience: “It was amazing! I was learning about photography and was involved in the installation of the mini developing labs. I learnt a lot – even about the science of light – related to photography and film printing and was lucky enough to be part of the World Cup team.”

Shortly after, Palacio moved on due to a nationwide employment collapse, which affected a lot of the Mexican population. This was the moment when Victor’s father saw a gap in the market and decided, along with his business partner, to establish his own commercial business in lighting. During expansion, his father decided to open a projects department, so the company wasn’t solely working in sales. This led to bringing an architect on board who, in turn, suggested Palacio was brought in to make up the electronics drawings. Immediately hooking Palacio’s interest in the lighting industry, he was taken on board to work on a museum lighting project, which would determine his passion for lighting design and historic preservation for years to come.

Just like other creative minds, Palacio has always had an interest in differing subject matters. During his time at University, gaining qualifications in electronics, he also opted into studying humanities modules, such as Art History. This sparked his interests in the design world, which was evident in later jobs he picked post-graduation. After completing various technical courses throughout his early career, he began to delve into the study of light and the technical attributes of a lighting engineer. Becoming, what he referred to, as the ultimate “geek”, he heavily studied the IES Lighting handbook whilst making calculations on computers before Windows was widely available.

Once he commenced work inside some of Mexico’s most renowned museums, Palacio began to pay close attention to the impact lighting was having on the many historic artifacts, as well as the buildings themselves, as many museums are situated in historically sensitive buildings. This required particular attention to be paid to the preservation properties and the artworks they housed. As a result, Palacio undertook a brief course at the National School of Preservation, at the National Institute of Anthropology and History. This led to pairing another fellow teacher, who specialised in preservation, with Palacio’s experience in exhibitions, to develop a course in museum lighting. After taking full control of this course after a time, Palacio decided to complete a postgraduate course in Architectural Preservation – again, claiming himself to be the “geek in the corner of the room making lesson plans on architecture from the fifteenth century!”.

“We were getting complaints from those in charge of looking after the care and preservation of the site of the museum project we were working on at the time, about both the artwork and the architecture. “So for me, it was much better to learn about it all from the very beginning, and develop a design that considered what they deemed important,” Palacio explained.

When discussing his philosophy and approach to lighting design nowadays, it is clear Palacio is very conscious about this idea of preservation. At the beginning of his lighting career, with his technical hat on, he was more focused on the light levels and colour renderings. But he now finds it far more compelling to “explore the impact of lighting on the aesthetics and, I think, that’s something that happens to a lot of lighting designers,” he claimed.

“Highlighting architecture, façades and features were what we focused on originally as a firm. Then I began to think, as did my colleagues, that even though it’s an important factor to architectural lighting, it’s not the main goal we are striving to achieve. We began to consider other factors related to the functions of places, for example the working place, to the productivity in residential spaces, to relaxation and commercial places to experience shopping. All of which, to some of us, came intuitively and to others in a knowledgeable way; we started focusing on peoples’ experiences.”

As many lighting designers and professionals in the industry began to notice, the non-visual impacts of lighting, the use of lighting on energy supplies, impacts on the environment and concerns of light pollution, are predominantly hot topics of consideration when working on new lighting projects, as well as being big matters of discussion during world conferences. “I think that’s going to be relevant for the profession of lighting design and for practitioners to become aware of. These are all side effects of lighting, which in the end sometimes don’t become the side effects but the main effects of lighting,” commented Palacio.

“Our philosophy of working is to create the visual experience of spaces. When we talk about visual, we relate it to lighting, experience is related to people, the spaces are related to the places where people perform activities, whether they’re recreational or commercial, interiors and exteriors; we focus our design ideas on that. When we are defining what lighting will be in a place, we will contribute in an important way to the experiences people will have in that space.”

When analysing the Mexican market and its general attitudes towards lighting design, some have regarded it as falling behind some of the bigger competitors such as North America and Europe. Palacio observed: “I think that unfortunately in Mexico the market has a very strong commercial component on the design side. That means a lot of commercial firms are getting into the design area, which makes it more difficult for lighting designers to develop their work, because they have this strong competition. I’m aware I may sound a little controversial saying this, but I guess lighting designers in Mexico haven’t made a clear decision to devote to lighting design.”

As we have seen in recent topical discussions in the lighting community, it is evident the role of the lighting designer is a blurred one. Palacio notes it is important we understand that the majority of us live in an upper market. For those that exist in a closed market, the situation is very different. Not to be mistaken for complaining, Palacio reinforces his point that he is not criticising the role of the manufacturer for offering the same services as a lighting designer; “I know I can provide better design services than they do!

“If I started designing products and tried to manufacture them, I know they would do a better job than I could,” he added.

Palacio has observed that a lot of potential problems could be a result of a lack of marketing from the lighting designers themselves. In order to be better as independent designers selling their skill set as their business, Palacio believes it is key to highlight the value of marketing yourself as a lighting designer.

“It’s up to us, the lighting designer, to stand out and speak for ourselves, have a louder voice and be better at convincing clients that they really need a lighting designer in their team,” he commented.

“I have heard some say manufacturers or commercial firms should stop offering design services, but I don’t agree! It is all healthy competition.”

During a time when Palacio was working with his father, he realised he had more of a passion to work on the design side, but was constantly blocked by people telling him it was a difficult profession to chase and there’s not a big enough market to be successful in it. But luckily he found the opposite to be true, and did find a market for lighting design and clients that appreciated him offering an independent service, which included specifications without being commercialised.

It is evident across Palacio’s portfolio that he has had a successful career in lighting and has validated his decisions to branch off and work independently, away from his father’s packaged approach.

Looking back, one of Palacio’s first and most notable projects was with the Mexican Museum of Anthropology between 1998-2001. Working with precise halogen lamps, the installations replaced the old theatrical fittings from the 1960s that highlighted numerous ancient artifacts, including pieces of the Aztec Calendar. Originally the ten theatrical luminaires aimed up to 15,000 watts into one stone, but were replaced with six fixtures using a combination of 35 and 70 watts aimed at the stone.

“At the time, the best tools we had were these metal and ceramic power lamps with very precise optics, low power and nice colour renderings,” Palacio explained.

The Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City is another notable project Palacio and his team at Ideas en Luz, has worked on. This time, focusing on the exterior of the building, they designed an entirely LED based scheme for their first exterior project. Completed only three years ago, the lighting design included fixtures from multiple manufacturers in order to find the perfect fit for each specific need. The main façade has throws of up to 70 metres high reaching two metre high sculptures at the top. It also proved to be a great opportunity for designers and contractors to collaborate on the field with the local firm Avantgarde Illuminacion.

One of the first corporate projects Palacio’s team worked on was with the IBM headquarters in Mexico City. Wanting to use indirect lighting was made easier through the strong collaborative relationship with the architect, who took that idea and designed the ceilings in the shape of the holds in order for the building to take advantage of the indirect lighting.

After establishing himself as a talented and respected lighting designer in Mexico and internationally, Palacio moved on to new heights when he stepped up as the IALD President. “Jeff Miller, who is a past president of IALD, thought, along with the board, that they needed to highlight the ‘I’ of IALD [International], because as it stood it was mainly a US centric membership. So one of the first steps out of the US was Mexico. I was lucky enough that the board had got in contact with many of my colleagues and myself at this time. I began to volunteer with the IALD and witnessed the efforts made to make the IALD a global organisation from the very beginning,” he reflected.

Many in the industry will be familiar with Palacio’s metaphor for the IALD’s globalisation and the fostering of memberships; instead of chasing butterflies and catching them in a net, it’s better to build a beautiful garden that will attract all the butterflies. The IALD have carried this approach forward in order to engage and nurture these memberships instead of increasing numbers for the sake of it. Originally, designers and practitioners were sceptical of the IALD, especially in Europe, and it wasn’t until the attractive garden was built, that some of the higher profile names in the industry became members, which in turn encouraged many more to follow.

Furthermore, during his time as president, Palacio was proud to witness the first steps on the field of the international certification of lighting designers, (CLD). Not wanting to enforce a lighting programme into universities, Palacio believed it was better to formulate an internationally recognised certification through the association instead.

“I was lucky enough to be part of the task force group, which started off testing the waters to see if it was feasible to develop the certification, and then be there at the time when it was officially developed with specialists into a certification programme,” Palacio explained.

Additionally, developing further on the globalisation, the IALD has worked hard to establish relationships with the IES for decades in the United States, as well as focusing on building friendships and collaborations with other lighting design associations internationally. For example in Brazil (ASBAI), France (ACE), the Spanish Lighting association and most recently, Palacio announced: “We will be forming a new collaboration with the Italian lighting design association”.

When initially in the nomination stage of obtaining presidency, Palacio had to complete a questionnaire that asked what he expected the IALD would achieve after his three years in term (one year as president-elect and two for presidency), and it is clear his main objectives were successfully achieved; building international bridges and fostering consistency through maintaining a ‘steady ship,’ so to speak. He believes when you have more people interested in bringing their perspective, you need to be very careful to be consistent in all the layers involved in every single action, strategy and with precision: “These are important because it’s a continuous effort that needs to be kept flowing, but still have someone chairing with a thoughtful mindset. You’re building something that needs to be bold and strong otherwise it will fall down sooner or later.”

Passing on the baton to David Ghatan, Palacio is filled with confidence that he possesses the necessary characteristics needed for the role; “I really admire him as a young professional; he is able to be sensitive to what’s going on around him. He’s a very good listener and is very good at synthesising peoples’ ideas. I have seen how he has embraced the role, the family feeling and sense of community that comes with the lighting industry, and think he will make a very strong contribution to the IALD…it takes up a lot of your time, mind and emotional strength but I see he has all of that under control. I am very happy to see him taking over and for me to take some rest!”

It is evident through Palacio’s nurturing nature; he has gained a lot of knowledge and experience from the industry and has earned the respect of many. For future generations of lighting designers, his two cents of advice would be when determining careers, to ensure you are moving in a clear direction and make definitive decisions. No graduate is going to land their dream role as principle designer for a firm such as Spiers + Major; it takes hard work and perseverance. “I have seen it in Mexico, we have one special lighting course at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, but when I speak to some students, they say they have been unsuccessful in becoming a lighting designer so they now work somewhere different,” Palacio remarks with disappointment.

“They have put a lot of passion into it, but there is a lack of courage. Of course it’s not easy, as it is in any profession, but you need to work hard, learn and be part of the community. This is not a profession for lone riders, it’s for teams.”

When asking who inspired and still inspires him in the industry, Palacio found it difficult to narrow down names, but did refer to Kaoru Mende from Japan for the cultural influences in his work, Mark Major and Jonathon Spiers for their portfolio of work that he used to cut out of magazines as a young designer himself to show off to his then students, and Barbara Horton, a fellow former IALD President and influential female lighting designer and businesswoman. In South America; Monica Luz Lobo, Pascal Chautard, Douglas Leonard, brand development by Fisher Marantz Stone, and Spanish designer Rafael Gallego. Fianlly, not to leave out the leadership of Gustavo Aviles in Mexico and the personal inspiration brought by his wife Liliana, as a professional supporter.

“All of them are people who have embraced the profession in a great way and they have brought their talents into the industry, and there are many more I have not mentioned still. Each professional has a special contribution!”

So much for taking some time to gather his thoughts and put his feet up, Palacio and his lighting team are moving swiftly into the New Year with more project proposal requests than ever before and focusing on establishing international collaborations – not allowing geographical locations to be limitations.

Pic: Sarah Cullen