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Georges Berne

Issue 36 : Apr / May 2007

Robert Such talks to Georges Berne, the innovative French lighting designer, who has lit the works of Picasso, Van Gogh and da Vinci in an illustrious career...

French lighting designer Georges Berne is a world traveller and nomad at heart. And as an ardent advocate of teamwork, he believes that fellow professionals should work together to improve what he calls ‘ordinary’ lighting, as well as create more artistic and theatrical lighting, sensitive to people’s varied needs.
Working in the field of lighting over the past two decades, Berne has lit many notable interiors and exteriors across the globe. His annual itinerary can read like place names on a stack of travel agent’s brochures.
In France, step into a major museum and your eyes will, in all likelihood, take in the lighting of Observatoire 1, the company Berne set up in 1992. As an observer – “seeing and watching people living in lit surroundings and learning about light, space and people,” he says – Berne works out of his Paris-based Observatory.
Recently, the 50-something lighting designer teamed up with Grandeur Nature’s Francois Migeon, designer of the French National Assembly interior lighting, to found the firm 8’ 18” (eight minutes and eighteen seconds refers to the approximate time it takes for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth). This joint venture will enable the duo to “share [financial and other] means and clients,” says Berne. Combining forces will allow them to take on larger projects. The door is also open to other potential associates.
Berne’s interest in lighting started at the beginning of the eighties. After finishing a course in applied arts in Paris and completing his national service, he worked under sculptor and lighting designer, Philippe de Bozzi, at the Compagnie des Lampes (Mazda). Bozzi influenced his appreciation of the pluridisciplinary approach to projects. To this day, Berne prefers the “shared system” of working.
His big break came in 1985, when architect Roland Simounet, commissioned him to light the Picasso Museum – “Working with [Simounet] opened doors around the world,” says Berne.
It was during his freelancing days – from the mid-eighties until he set up Observatoire 1 – that he met Hervé Descottes, who had “returned to France, looking for work, after living in Los Angeles, working for a Beverley Hills lighting designer,” says Berne. A year after starting up Observatoire 1, he and Descottes decided to explore the US market.
With the help of existing US-based contacts, like Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica, architectural firm behind the Bank of Luxemburg – which Berne describes as a “sumptuous work” – the new business overseas slowly began to take off. Nevertheless, it was still “very hard,” he says, “then some of my first works, like the Picasso Museum, got going and we were introduced to well known architects like Steven Holl.”
Observatoire International went into operation in 1993, and in the first few years Berne and Descottes worked closely together. Since then they have gradually gone their separate ways. They are nevertheless still mutual shareholders in the two companies.
In terms of the role of light, Berne sees light as a “revealer of space, forms, materials and colours,” and his own role is about “guaranteeing visual comfort” in harmony with the activity in the space. But, he points out, it is important that lighting designers “do not depart from the original purpose of lighting.” The well-being of people comes first. Critical of the media attention given to catchy visual ‘sound bites’, he believes professionals in the field need “to make a stand, and to continue to carry out work which may look simple, but which in fact is not simple at all,” he says.
Although Berne appreciates artistic lightworks – lighting heroes include Yann Kersalé, James Turrell and Olafur Eliassen – he believes in the need for research into the visual and psychological requirements of different members of the population, such as the elderly and claustrophobia sufferers, and how their needs can be integrated into everyday lighting schemes. Continued attention also needs to be given to improving security and general lighting conditions for people travelling and working underground, for example on transport networks.
In fact, just how a space can be well lit for everyone is an issue that Berne has been dealing with at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Although the luminaries are in place, he is currently tweaking their settings to improve the visual comfort of the elderly and children, while maintaining the low-lighting required for architect Jean Nouvel’s overall aesthetic concept.
The push towards greener living and the knock-on effect for the profession is another of his key concerns. Berne believes care should be taken to avoid watching the bottom line too closely. Along with sustainable development, both “cost cutting and energy saving,” he says, “are not an excuse for creating dull surroundings.”
There is also a further challenge to overcome, but Berne suggests a way forward. Lighting designers should continue to “work together to set up larger firms to tackle lighting projects that are today,” he says, “through owners’ lack of knowledge or interest, still too often exclusive to big bureaux d’études [technical research organizations], which are more interested in engineering, commerce and profits.”

Perhaps Berne’s latest business venture, 8’ 18”, will snowball and help to steer the profession in the right direction. Perhaps, too, he may also manage to find that enlightened hospital or housing scheme client that has so far eluded him all these years, despite his world travels.

Any projects he would like to change?

Most of the time, although my work appears finished to other people, it rarely is to me. I think, however, you really have to resign yourself to accepting the public’s view and leave it.
A completed work lasts from fifteen to twenty years, and one day, I happened to see one that had been destroyed. I was crossing the entrance hall to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Everything was on the floor. I think, leave it, you have to.

Memorable jobs
One of the brightest moments in his career was the lighting of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The thrill of installing a fibre optic network around the famous artwork was matched only by the frisson of excitement he felt when standing close to da Vinci’s work, with the glass display case open, his “light meter [held] a few millimetres away, almost caressing her smile!” he recalls.

Lighting hero
Philippe de Bozzi – director of the Compagnie des Lampes (Mazda) and lecturer at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – made a big impression on me and taught me about this art [of lighting]. It wasn’t his lighting works that impressed me, but rather his knowledge, open-mindedness, way of teaching, talks, writing and work within a team.

Projects he likes and dislikes
Shanghai fascinates me. It’s not about one project, but a thousand projects side-by-side, which in my opinion illustrate life, energy, human illusions, hopes, humanity, winning, struggling and survival. Paris is a museum-like city. It’s a city of light, but the lights are too outdated.

Notable projects
Museums and other cultural projects: His long list of museum lighting projects include the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre and the Picasso Museum in Paris; the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; the Contemporary Art Museum, Helsinki; and the American Museum of the Moving Image, New York. In 2005 he lit the interior of the Philharmonic Hall in Luxemburg (below).

Transport: Météor line, the French capital’s first driverless metro line, and the Gare du Nord in Paris.

Plus: La Villette Park on the north east fringe of Paris; Saint Pierre Cathedral, town hall, city ramparts and other landmarks in Angoulême in France

Current projects

The Jussieu University campus and Radio France’s headquarters, Maison de la Radio France, in Paris; the Saint Jean high-speed train station in Bordeaux, France. He is also working on the lighting for the Arts and Civilisations Museum in his home town of Marseille, and on the interior lighting of the future Pompidou Centre in Metz.

Projects abroad include lighting a future bridge over the Arno River in the Italian city of Florence: “It’s a Cor-ten [steel] bridge, and an ochre light will match the tonality of the bridge, and won’t disturb the ecosystem - the birds, the frogs.” At Luxembourg Airport, he is illuminating the long haul terminal.

Transport: Météor line, the French capital’s first driverless metro line, and the Gare du Nord in Paris.
Plus: La Villette Park on the north east fringe of Paris; Saint Pierre Cathedral, town hall, city ramparts and other landmarks in Angoulême in France.


Georges Berne
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