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Paul Gregory

Issue 69 Oct / Nov 2012

According to Paul Gregory, his life is about creating an emotion in the viewer. He admits to looking at each project as an opportunity to produce something wonderful for the owner and to create, with his design colleagues, an immersive environment that engenders a sincere emotional response from the user. Vilma Barr reports.

A visitor to the new Focus Lighting headquarters building in the Harlem section of New York City will notice a sign with the same message posted throughout the two-level building: ‘Why is this project going to be great?’ “It’s in my office and on every studio wall,” says founder and chief designer Paul Gregory.

“Abe Feder and I were friends for almost 20 years. He once told me, ‘Never fear heroic failure’.’’ Paul Gregory admits he keeps this in mind as he continues to pursue the application of a mix of art and physics to lighting. Neither fear nor heroic failure has surfaced in Focus Lighting’s 25-year history.

Trained in theatrical lighting at the Goodman Theater School, part of the Art Institute of Chicago, his instructors emphasized that lighting for a stage performance heightens the emotion that the actors were creating.

“When the clock strikes eight, the lighting better be ready to contribute to the experience that audience is there for—to the emotions each will feel and take home with them. Every live performance is an opportunity to create something wonderful. It’s the same thing with architectural lighting: How can it be wonderful, special, great? It’s a big challenge,” Gregory admits.

He compares the basis of an audience’s emotional response to a theatrical event to that of a shopper in a retail store or a museum visitor. “The store owners and architects are responsible for the design, traffic patterns and the use of the space. It is up to the lighting designer to reveal the beauty of the space and its contents,” he says. “Imagine a person’s emotional reaction to the beauty surrounding them as they stand in a forest with the light hitting the trees and the sound of a waterfall in the background. They will always remember that image. It’s the same thing with lighting the built environment—how does it contribute to the emotions that users feel when experiencing the exterior or interior of a structure? What are they going to see? What will they remember? When an image is linked to an emotion it makes the memory that much stronger.”

“The question is: how do we, as lighting designers, help create a successful project by creating emotions?” he asks. “At Focus Lighting, our planning process involves considerable analysis, identifying the emotions we want to create in the user.”

He believes that all members of the design team must articulate and agree upon what emotions the space will evoke and which moods will be created. “When the architect, interior designer, owner, and lighting designer all work together to create one feeling in the viewer, that’s the recipe for success,” Gregory explains. “Specifically, the lighting design must support and enhance this vision by controlling the light that is reflected off the surfaces and forms. With light, we reveal—i.e., paint with light—what the viewer ultimately sees,” he says.

Gregory recounts three examples of applying his insights into creating moods and human emotions to three projects: Toys ‘R’ Us and the Frye Company stores in New York, and the Science Storms exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

“For the Times Square Toys ‘R’ Us in Manhattan, the store front serves as a big billboard to clearly communicate the store’s message of fun and excitement. The interior light from the full-height glass windows has to draw shoppers into the store, to freeze-frame the image when they are deciding to go inside. What would move them to enter? To see for ourselves, the design team got into a cab and rode down Broadway to the intersection where the store would be located. The effect was similar to looking at an ad in a magazine; we had three to four seconds to decide if there was a reason, if we were to become shoppers in Toys ‘R’ Us, to look further. It became obvious, that if the interior brightness level inside the store was high enough to hold its own, surrounded by the mega-signs and pulsating environment of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and was clearly visible, it would succeed in drawing traffic into the store. We went back to the office and pushed the footcandle level to a point where the interior light level clearly communicated the store’s dynamic environment to passers-by.”

The lighting objective or the Frye Company flagship store in New York City’s historic SoHo district was much more subtle than Toys ‘R’ Us. For the 149-year-old company, it was the first retail outlet for the footwear and leather accessory manufacturer that built its reputation on the quality of materials and the superior construction of its products.

“Our objective was to provide customers with a rustic, and at the same time, chic environment that coincides with Frye’s design aesthetic. Every stitch contributes to the product’s style and Frye’s signature meticulous craftsmanship, and this is what the company wants customers to appreciate,” says Gregory. “The architect designed the store with dark finishes to blend with the rich leather tones of the shoes accessories. Yet, the details of construction had to be clearly visible to the shopper. The lighting had to be placed close to the products on the front edge of the shelving, to isolate the space where the items were being examined, thus creating a one-on-one relationship. We mocked up and tested this concept and then spent time carefully explaining to the contractor the installation details needed to make it work. The resulting display unit design is both subtle and functional,” he observes.

At Science Storms in the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Gregory worked with the museum’s curators and designers to build the illuminated environment from a young visitor’s point of view.

“The target market was identified as the inquisitive, bright-eyed 10-year old, or an adult who can imagine themselves as they were at ten,” Gregory says. “Where would they go to experiment with making things? The image that come into my mind would be their grandfather’s garage as if their grandfather was the inventor from the movie Back to the Future. What would the garage look like and how would this translate to a 26,000 square-foot museum exhibit?  So we presented our ideas for a space that would awaken a sense of wonder in visitors, starting with the 10-year-olds. We proposed a big blue illuminated wrapper that would be the background for the planned 50 science experiments. The Museum people approved, and Science Storm has proven very popular since the day it opened.”

Gregory enjoyed a long friendship with the late Jonathan Speirs. “We were always looking for ideas and travelled to places all over: world’s fairs, to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, to Boston to see neon artists, to Marfa, Texas to see Dan Flavin’s last exhibit, to Las Vegas. It was an on-going education for both of us.”
Speirs and Gregory were visiting lecturers at Texas Christian University; Theatre Institute in Bochum, Germany; University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem; and in Florence for Targetti.

Focus Lighting now employs 30 designers and technical support staff in its new headquarters. “It’s like a family. I take a lot of time training each one. They all share the passion to work hard. Final lighting solutions for one of our projects don’t necessarily have to be mine. If one or two of the designers wants to submit an alternative plan, we would all discuss and critique it. If it is agreed to be a better idea, that’s the one that goes to the job,” Gregory points out.

Gregory estimates that he has given lectures and workshops at 20 different schools over the years, in addition to those with Jonathan Speirs, including Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Parsons School of Design in New York. “At each school, there were always a couple of students who want more answers. They pose questions like: How does the eye respond to intense colours? Is there only one correct way to light a space? Is there really a difference in the way you light international projects as opposed to U.S. projects. It’s been those students who have inspired me.”

“I believe that great strides have been made in lighting education,” Gregory says. “Up until about 1970, lighting was part of the teaching curriculum for building systems, along with heating and air conditioning. Then, more types and styles of lighting fixtures began to come onto the market. There were choices that could be made to relate to the design of the space, not just deciding where to put the holes in the ceiling for the overhead lights. That revolutionised everything. Now the design team has to go into the project planning phase with an open mind to collaborate and share ideas. That’s where greatness comes from: collaboration,” he believes.

“When I was starting out in the profession, many people helped me by taking their time to explain aspects of their practice, and to offer their guidance. I believe that by having accepted their help I now have an obligation to contribute to the future of those who are training for a career in lighting design. I have been a member of the IALD Education Trust and am now on the board of the Nuckolls Fund for Lighting Education. The Nuckolls Fund does a great deal to advance the quality of lighting education by seeking proposals from colleges and universities for innovative educational ideas to integrate light in architecture. Since its establishment in 1988, $775,000 has been distributed to support many college-level lighting programs that promote students’ education and appreciation of lighting and design,” he notes.

“Each project brings with it the dual tasks of creating innovative design and relevant application of lighting technology,” he states. “People appreciate a beautiful design today more than ever before. Great design works; just look at the success of the iPhone. Of course, the lighting designer’s awareness of the efficiency and quality of light sources and the whole green movement is an ever-challenging aspect of the profession. To create a fabulous interior at 1 watt/sq.ft. requires ingenuity and creativity. Strict energy codes or low maintenance needs have driven us to many unique solutions.”

Gregory concludes with his long-range vision of the lighting designer’s role: “The lighting designer is the curator of the visual image. It’s a responsibility that we all have to accept.”


Pic: Juan Pablo Lira
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