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MONDO ARC

JK Yao

issue 44 August / September 2008


From being the first lighting designer in Taiwan in 1992 to winning the IALD Radiance Award in 2004, JK Yao's rise in his field has been a meteoric one. But he's never forgotten his roots. Jimmie Wing reports from Taipei.

JK Yao first came to the major attention of mondo*arc in 2002 with his mammoth Core Pacific City mall lighting project. Before then and since, he has completed so many projects and won so many awards, that he didn’t mention the mall when interviewed for this article.
Over two decades ago he decided to study in the USA after five years working as an interior designer in Taipei and moonlighting as a singer in a rock band, for which he also won awards. His original idea was to improve his professional expertise in the interior design field. The interior design school in New York that he attended had about 50 students in one class and most were from foreign countries. It wasn’t easy to learn anything in such a large class and didn’t help improve his English. “I felt an urge to leave after the first semester to find another school to attend, maybe with a smaller class,” he explained.
One day, in the summer of ‘86, he dropped by the Parsons School of Design and met with the Dean of the Design Department. He reviewed Yao’s folio and informed him that they had an undergraduate program in interior design but not the Master’s program he was pursuing. The Dean told him that, in view of his background, he would be over-qualified for the undergraduate program. He suggested considering a new program - a Master’s in Architectural Lighting Design. “What?” exclaimed Yao, “A Master’s Degree in designing ceilings?”
The Dean was kind enough to allow him to stay in the room without kicking him out. “Back then in the ‘80s, interior design was focused on the plan, furniture, walls etc.,” said Yao, “There hadn’t been too much focus on what happened on the ceiling. Actually, in my experience at that time, lighting design only involved two types of lights, rectangles and circles. The rectangular lights were 2 x 4 fluorescents with opal acrylic or (in high end design) prismatic lenses. Circles were A-lamp down-lights with a white colour cone. It was all the knowledge I needed to know about lighting and that was that. We didn’t even do the lighting design that was normally done by the electricians!”
It transpired that this was only the program’s third year but in retrospect JK Yao realised how amazing that faculty had been. Among them were lighting pioneers such as James L. Nuckolls, Jeffrey A. Milham, Noel Florence, Mark Stanley and Sy Mayerson. “I learned so much from them and even today still apply what they taught me.”
Among the 12 students in the program, he was the only one to graduate two years later. After graduation, he still wasn’t sure whether to go into the lighting design field or go back to architectural / interior design. He had received job offers from two lighting design firms, one interior and one architectural firm. Lighting design pay was only about half of the others but after consulting with the Dean, he accepted the job in what was then Jules Fisher & Paul Marantz, in New York City.
“I learned so much in the practical lighting field and understanding of its operation from my years with JFPM. It was fascinating working on projects designed by many prominent architects such as Skidmore Owing & Merrill, Kohn Pederson & Fox, I.M. Pei, KMJR, Murphy / Jahn, Richard Meier and James Stewart Polshek. I spent lots of time studying their architecture drawings and enjoyed it so much that, at one point, I was seriously contemplating quitting my lighting job and going back to architecture design school.”

MOVING HOME
“I can no longer remember what the reasons were, but I decided to drop everything I had in the US and return to Taipei to start my own practice. Again, I was wavering between doing lighting only or lighting together with interior design. At the time, in 1992, there were no lighting design businesses in Taiwan and all the interior design firms were turnkeys. I thought having both an interior and lighting design service could at least guarantee my living if I fell on my face in the lighting design business. I went to consult my oldest brother Eric about my dilemma. He was then the most famous interior designer in Taiwan, and he told me to forget about interior and focus solely on lighting, reminding me that if I did both, designers would be concerned about the conflict of interest and would not require my service. If I did only lighting, every architect and interior designer would be my potential clients. I took Eric’s advice but still with some doubt.”
Yao secured a loan of around US$65,000 from a friend to start his business, chroma33 Architectural Lighting Design, in May of 1992 and got enough business to pay back the debt in the first year. As of today, chroma33 has participated in more than 950 projects.

LIGHTING DESIGN FOR EVERYBODY
“After my years practicing in glamorous New York City and working on the most prestigious projects with the most outstanding architects, I decided to devote my professional knowledge to the less architecturally developed world.”
He considered that lighting design should not be the sole prerogative of top-notch projects. “Less important projects need lighting design as well. They might not need fancy lighting but they do deserve good lighting. This in itself requires all my expertise in lighting.”
He also thought that lighting design should not serve only high-end projects, it should be affordable for everyone. “In retrospect, Taiwan at that time was perfect for me. I did a lobby with an area of 200 sq-ft, a conference room of 500 sq-ft. I recall the lowest fee for a project was US$600 and the cheque took 6 months to clear! In the beginning, I usually had a 16 hour workday, seven days a week. Since being in New York City for a long time, Taipei had become a little unfamiliar to me. I rarely went out except for meetings and site visits. Luckily the projects just kept coming in. Among the 950+ projects, there was only one project in which I’d made a phone call to a client who did not know who I was. The rest of the projects just came by themselves.”

A DAY IN THE LIFE
Since then that rigorous pace hasn’t much let up for JK Yao. His ever hectic schedule requires frequent trips to China and the US. A typical 36 hour trip to Shanghai involves the following:
Wake up at 3:30AM in Taipei to reach Taoyaun Airport by 5:30AM for a 6:20AM flight to Hong Kong to make a 10:00AM connecting flight to Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. 2:00PM hotel check in, 3:30PM to10:00PM attending up to four meetings. 11:00PM our weary lighting designer returns to hotel for a hopefully relaxing spa.12:00PM to1:30AM is spent replying to email / design issues from Taipei H.Q. and queries from frantic journalists with impending deadlines. 2:00AM~5:00AM he sleeps (if possible) and arises at 5:00AM. Having had a spa just a few hours before, the bathroom is virtually untouched and he checks out at 6:00AM to make the 8:15AM flight back to HK for the 12:20PM connecting flight back to Taiwan, where, instead of going home, he goes straight to the office, arriving around 3:30PM.
On an even crazier one day journey to China, he arises in Taipei in the same wee hours of the morning, follows the same route to attend a one hour afternoon meeting in Shanghai and gets home in Taipei by midnight that same day. On his trips to LA, he zips back and forth so fast “...there’s not even enough time to get jet-lag!”

IALD AWARDS
Yao states that compared with projects in the US, Europe and Japan, the projects chroma33 have worked on in Asia have been, in general, less attractive in their architecture and interior design. However, they were able to submit projects with wonderful lighting solutions and received recognition from the IALD four times. A Radiance Award (2004), two Awards of Excellence (1999 & 2004), one Award of Merit (2003), and one listing in the Compendium of Good Practice(2001). JK Yao was also invited to be an award judge in 2002.
For him the most memorable incident among this international recognition was the 2004 awards. chroma33’s CKS International Airport Terminal One Renovation project won the Radiance Award and Award of Excellence. As he said in his Award Ceremony speech, all the other projects’ images shown in the award were much more attractive and beautiful than the CKS project. This was because the CKS project was just a ceiling renovation project and everything below the ceiling was untouched, old and not appealing in the picture. The IALD award panel did not judge the project by beautiful images but rather by its content and approach. “I respect IALD for this reason, not because we won, but because I feel it is important for the industry organisation to evaluate design by its essence and not just the look.”

IN RETROSPECT

“It has been difficult to operate a lighting design business in Taiwan and China,” Yao reveals. “In the US, lighting designers just do what they’re supposed to do professionally and the project will get built 90% or more according to the design. This is because the industry is much more mature in the US and countries like it. Here in Asia, in most cases, every party on the project team is comparably less sophisticated. In order to achieve a good lighting effect, we’ve come to realise that extra effort has to be devoted to the project. We often need to work on issues that normally are not required or not performed by a lighting designer if it had been in the US. I’ve always joked about this discrepancy by telling people ‘When in NY, I spent 90% of my work day solely dealing with lighting design related issues and 10% of my time fooling around playing paper baseball with colleagues when the boss wasn’t around. Here in Taiwan, I spend 10% of my time in design and 90% of it fighting (not literally but close) with people (and) arguing to protect my design’! As the years went by, I was fortunate enough to increase the design time and even more lucky to do less fighting.” Nevertheless, JK Yao remains the Hands On lighting designer.
“The experience in Taiwan has actually equipped me to deal with less sophisticated project management,” Yao adds. “We can anticipate when and where the problem will occur, and who would not be doing what they should that might affect our design quality. Literally baby-sitting throughout the project. It is the only way to achieve good design at the end. I’ve always said our business is like piling up glass bottles to form a beautiful pyramid and stand in front of it (design phase); people start throwing stones at the pyramid and you have to block it (construction phase), at the end of construction you turn around and see how much is left, how much of your idea got built. In the first few years, when I turned around I would see not much that was intact. As the years went by, we have been getting better and better at blocking the stones, sometimes we can throw the stones back. The results that we are getting are at least 90% or more intact.
“After 16 years of practice in Asia, there are two things that I am particularly proud of: one is maintaining the integrity of being an independent lighting designer and second: our internal lighting work. There is no need to explain the first one because everyone knows what that means and it has not been easy to maintain, especially in this part of the world. Our lighting simulation study has been so successful that we believe not too many lighting design firms in the world are capable of doing it with the speed and frequency we do. We have developed our own lighting simulation program - OMDB and DETAIL - for our work. Our internal efficiency makes our mass work volume possible. At any given moment, we have over 100 projects in operation.
“Although I still feel that I am capable of doing architecture and interior design, I have only kept on these interests in doing my own house. I have felt that it is not doing what you want but doing what you get to do and doing it right that is important. I like to work with competent architects or interior designers (nice owners don’t hurt either) and watch from the side and also leave the hassle to them. I can sleep better this way.”

HANDS ON
Just spending a day in Taiwan with JK Yao, one realises not only how busy he is, but why he declares that construction workers are his “Lighting Heroes” and also why this man is the “Hands On” lighting designer. The respect he gives those workers is openly reciprocated. Not uncommon in Taiwan’s egalitarian society where millionaires and street vendors communicate on the same level.
And for those detractors who have recently questioned the validity of lighting designers, they have only to view Taichung’s evening skyline where Yao’s elegant creations grace the newest towering residential apartments right alongside others that are just as new, but obviously devised by engineers and electricians who decided there was no need for a lighting designer. Where do you want to live?

 

JK Yao JK Yao
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