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Rhomney Forbes-Gray

Issue 65 Feb / Mar 2012

Rhomney Forbes-Gray could qualify as a latter-day female Canadian pioneer, not by venturing into previously uncharted territorial expanses, but by establishing the country’s second woman-owned lighting consultancy a dozen years ago, Lightbrigade Architectural Lighting Design. Vilma Barr reports.

“During my first year of studying to be an actor at York University, I was exposed to the backstage life of the theatre. I immediately switched direction to the world of theatrical lighting... architectural lighting came later as a result of taking an IES ED100 course.

“I started thinking about starting my own firm in 2000. But at that time, there was only one other woman lighting designer running her own private practice in Canada, Suzanne Powadiuk. So I contacted her to see what she could tell me about the opportunities out there. She urged me to go ahead with my idea. ‘That’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘There’s enough work out there for all of us.’”

So Rhomney Forbes-Gray redirected her career path from the fantasy world of the stage to the realities of competitive commercial architectural lighting design. After earning her BFA in Theatre, she worked as part of stage crews, first as a spotlight operator and moving on to designing lighting for small shows and then on to larger productions in such theatres as the St. Lawrence Center, Toronto, and for the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on–the-Lake, Ontario. “Out of interest, I took the IES ED100 course which happened to coincide with the expansion of the lighting department at the consulting engineering firm of H.H. Angus. The director, Ken Loach, was in the process of convincing company management that there was too much work coming in and that it was time to expand the department to include someone from another avenue of lighting design. I joined the firm in 1988. Angus was the first Canadian engineering firm in Canada to have a professional lighting department.”

During her time with H.H. Angus, she worked on such major projects as the special function rooms at the Skydome Hotel in Toronto. “We integrated colour with changing lights and theatrical effects at a time when this type of installation was uncommon,” Forbes-Gray points out. It has won an IESNA/IIDA commendation, her first professional award program recognition.

Most of her other assignments were for health care facilities and more utilitarian buildings. “I became interested in a greater variety of lighting projects than I was designing. My inner artist was feeling unfulfilled,” she says. “At that time there was a real stigma that because you were affiliated with an engineering firm you weren’t creative. It was assumed that you were all about numbers and came up short on the creative side.” In 1999 and after nearly eleven years at H.H. Angus, Forbes-Gray established Lightbrigade Architectural Lighting Design in Toronto to maintain technical excellence while developing a diversified roster of creative services.

“There wasn’t much of a market then, and it was a tough haul to convince architects they needed a lighting design consultant, and to be added to the project’s budget as another design line item,” she says. With a population, now at 34.1 million, living in the world’s second largest country at 3.85 million square miles (Russia is the biggest), Forbes-Gray estimates there were less than ten full-time lighting designers in Canada when she opened her office. She is optimistic that within the next few years there will be an increasing number of architects and interior designers who will include their role at the time of bidding on a project. Her experience has been that it is difficult to market directly to an owner, as most require a push from the other members of the design team.

Forbes-Gray stresses the ‘light’ in the number of the members of her ‘brigade’. “We are a small office of three - a busy three,” she indicates. “Jesse Blonstein has been practicing lighting design for fourteen years. Julia Vandergraaf comes from a twelve-year theatrical background before joining Lightbrigade five years ago, and continues to design small theatre productions. Our firm takes on assignments of different sizes with different schedules, from two weeks to four years, with six months the meaty part of the process,” she says.

The project that jump-started Lightbrigade was the St. Bruno location of the La Maison Simons, a family-owned, Québec-only department store chain. It won commendations from IESNA, GE, and the Prix Lumiere Award in 2002 and 2003. Lightbrigade was also responsible for the Laval and Sainte-Foy locations of this retailer and is currently working on the new West Edmonton Mall location. Other award-winning retail projects include Holt Renfrew’s Toronto flagship store for the designer’s floor and the main floor, and the Murale prototype beauty boutique in Ottawa, later rolled out to other units in the chain.

“The new energy restrictions, not to mention those to come, will require lighting specialists to keep on top of the technologies and requirements in a much more in-depth manner than previously,” she believes. “Our role is becoming not only a design team member but also that of a researcher and mathematician.” Construction market activity has turned around from the recent downturn, Forbes-Gray observes. “Canada was not as severely impacted as the US. There’s currently a building boom in Toronto, mostly condos along the waterfront. We are presently working on two condos, a restaurant, art gallery, a university, a hospital, two retirement residences, a casino, a residential sub-division and two residences.”

“These are exciting times to be a lighting designer, albeit challenging” she says. “No past lighting technology has evolved at the rate of LEDs. Most of our clients start out wanting to use LEDs on their projects. We have to explain the energy load options to them of LED, metal halide, and fluorescent and let them make the decision if they want to invest in an LED system.” She notes that new LED lamps that are being developed may be a better alternative to the incandescent lamp than the previous attempt at compact fluorescent. “The colour quality will be closer to incandescent and they fit existing fixtures much better.”

Canada’s ban on the retail sale of incandescent lamps goes into effect in 2012. “As someone who makes a living creating atmospheric spaces, I lament the ban of the incandescent. Although I appreciate the inefficiency of the source, particularly for commercial applications, I have always felt that there was never the proper marketing of dimmers to the residential sector. Dimmers can reduce loads by half, extend the life of the lamp, and significantly reduce landfill waste,” Forbes-Gray states. “Even a $6 line-voltage dimmer is still considered by many homeowners as an upscale, high-tech product. Our firm was recently interviewed by a reporter from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) who asked if we bought into the rumours that the banning of the incandescent was backed by a cartel of lamp manufacturers to sell higher priced CFL and LED bulbs. I could only wish that there was that much thought or intelligence in the decisions revolving around energy and light source technology.”

Lighting education for design students is part of Lightbrigade’s professional outreach efforts. “We have taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design for the past few years,” Forbes-Gray reports. “Typically, the course is mandatory for students in the environmental design department. Most have never heard of a lighting designer. They come into the class with no idea about why the class has been imposed on them. We describe and demonstrate why the course is important to their studies and introduce lighting techniques that will enhance the structures they design. By the end of the program, many are quite interested in the profession. Several of our students have gone on to become talented lighting designers.”



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