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Michael DiBlasi

Issue 62 Aug / Sep 2011

The entertainment world has child prodigies who have gone on to careers as starring performers, but Michael DiBlasi may be the only practicing international lighting designer who first lit up a stage when he was nine. Vilma Barr reports.

Michael DiBlasi became involved with lighting design when he was still in school. Not college, nor high school, nor even junior high school. No, DiBlasi first debuted as a theatrical lighting designer for his grammar school’s play when he was in fourth grade in Great Neck, New York, at age nine. By the time he was in senior high school, he was doing lighting for off-off Broadway in New York City. Unless proven otherwise, DiBlasi is the only current practitioner of lighting design in the U.S. to score a professional success in the field before his age hit double digits.

His initial achievement was the start of a diverse and busy lighting design career path leading to his current position as a partner in the theatrical and architectural lighting firm of Schuler Shook, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. The 40-person firm maintains four offices: the original Minneapolis office, now under DiBlasi’s direction; Chicago, with partners Bob Shook, Todd Hensley, and Jim Baney; and Dallas, opened ten years ago, directed by Jack Hagler. A small office in Melbourne, Australia that was originally established for the Melbourne Arts Center project, is managed by Jim Hultquist.

“My early training in New York City was incredible exposure,” DiBlasi recalls. “I was fascinated with lighting as a mixture of art and a craft, and very technical as well.” Following graduation from Boston University with a major in theatrical lighting design, he relocated to Minneapolis to work at the Guthrie Theater for two years. There he met Duane Schuler, the principal of his own theatrical lighting consulting firm, D.H. Schuler Associates, and accepted his offer to join him. Shortly after, Robert Shook’s individual practice in Chicago for theatrical and architectural lighting joined their talents to create Schuler Shook.

“There we were, three people with two offices,” DiBlasi says, “and we had to build it up from there. At the beginning, we spent a lot of the time convincing folks that they needed a lighting designer and describing what we could bring to the table. It was up to us to explain in a nice way that neither their electrical engineer nor the in-house facilities person had the breadth of knowledge sufficient for the tasks the client wanted to accomplish,” DiBlasi indicates. “We started out with some small things…a little retail shop in the Merchandise Mart, a few projects for the Chicago Zoo.

“There were some high-end design firms in Minneapolis who were looking to break out of the traditional design box practice and not just do standard architecture,” DiBlasi points out. “One of these firms was Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, and we started working with them for a Herman Miller showroom. It went very well, and from there we began to build our resume pretty quickly. We’re still working with these architects today. Our repeat work with many clients has been the foundation of our business, and allows us the luxury of working quickly and furthering design ideas. We know each other so well that we can take some short cuts and still achieve what we both want,” he says.

Metropolitan Minneapolis/St. Paul with its 2.2 million population was a solid place for the young firm to grow its business. A diversified local economic base includes such organizations as Target, Best Buy, 3M, Honeywell, General Mills, Pillsbury, Medtronics, and The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “There is a quality of life in the region that spins off to higher expectations for what people do and experience,” DiBlasi believes. “Innovators are out there are looking for the next big thing, and that’s very positive for our firm. There’s a major art scene with museums and galleries, and more theatres there per capita than anywhere in the country other than New York City.”

For Schuler Shook, achieving the quarter-century mark has meant maintaining financial stability for the business during the inevitable downshifts in domestic and international business cycles. “What do we do to weather the recessions? It’s partly a matter of having built a strong reputation in the design community and the relationships we’ve formed over the years. We look out for each other. A few years ago, 40 percent of the architects in Minneapolis were out of work. I tried to help by connecting the dots for people when I heard of something opening up for an architect or designer in the area.”

DiBlasi adds that his firm tightened up on expenses and was able to keep all of its employees on the payroll. “These are really important people to us; we are like a family. We cut some benefits but we didn’t lay anybody off. Our operative was: we’ll hang on and make it work, and it did.”

Schuler Shook’s practice successfully straddles its two specialties: architectural lighting design and theatre planning. “Theatre planning remained strong during the recession,” DiBlasi indicates. “Theatre projects typically take several years from beginning to end. But once the ball gets rolling and the funding stream is in place, they move right along to completion.

“Ninety-nine percent of the theatres for which we design the theatrical lighting we also do the architectural lighting. It’s fun to set the mood of the audience chamber ahead of when the audience will actually view the performance. The lighting of the lobby and public spaces and the theatre interior before the performance begins visually supports their theatre-going experience,” DiBlasi believes. One example he gives is the historic c. 1928 Boston Opera House, for which he directed the restoration of the building’s exterior and interior lighting, as well as all of the theatre planning. “It’s one of the prettiest opera houses in existence anywhere today, an incredibly beautiful hall.”

Schuler Shook is introducing contemporary lighting strategies into the renovation of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, a 1970s structure that the firm has been upgrading with lighting and rigging for over 20 years. According to DiBlasi, plans include ceiling illumination utilising Color Kinetics LED RGBAW that uplights the ceiling cubes and wraps down the wall behind the orchestra.

“We chose LED downlights to account for the varying ceiling heights in the lobby and for their ability to adjust the intensities, as well as to flash the lights for the audience to take their seats. There’s a lot of glass in the lobby, so photocell solar sensors will be installed so the lights won’t be in operation when they are not needed.”

LEDs will also be installed in the performance areas. “This is a large hall, currently illuminated with incandescent and quartz fixtures. The director of facilities was thrilled when he totaled the estimated savings in energy and cooling bills,” DiBlasi reports. “He says that 70 percent of his electric bill is just for the hall.” Construction is expected to begin in 2012 and be completed in 2013.

A major architectural lighting project with which DiBlasi and his team have been involved with for many years is the State of Minnesota state capitol complex in St. Paul. Its scope includes the analysis of eleven buildings, and seven parking garages. “Building owners have been more conscious in the past decade of the real costs of maintenance and energy saving,” he observes. For the eighteen buildings analysed, energy was substantially reduced and exceeded the client’s original goal.

“For each project we do, we work to improve the lighting quality and the energy it takes to light the spaces. We look carefully at payback. Like anything else in life, there is a lot of common sense to it. The timeline has to be something the client can grasp as realistic. Some simpler approaches, like new ballasting, relamping, newer technologies for existing fixtures, have proven to be acceptable options.”

DiBlasi believes that LED lighting that figures into many of Schuler Shooks current and forthcoming projects is a great tool offering valuable functions. “It is not, however, the silver bullet or cure-all for every need,” he says. “The right lighting and the right approach for each task is as important now as it was pre-LED. LEDs aren’t a shoo-in specification for every project you are working on.”

In between logging in over 100,000 miles annually for Schuler Shook, DiBlasi has taught architectural lighting to theatre lighting students at North Carolina School for the Arts. “It broadens their spectrum. One of the students now works for us,” he says. He also spends time introducing the world of lighting to his two sons, Edison, 13, and Lucas, age 11. Have the lighting design genes been passed along? “They’ve both shown interest, so we’ll just have to see where it may lead,” DiBlasi concludes.


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