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Susan Brady

Issue 78 April / May 2014

Susan Brady applies her personal brand of energy and enthusiasm to bear on mega-projects for offices, performing arts, museums, education, and healthcare. Vilma Barr finds out about Brady’s principle of thinking big.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

Lighting designer Susan Brady was not in the audience when renowned architect Daniel Burnham made his memorable observation. Its essence, has however, been the operating style she has established for her lighting design consulting firm, SBLD Studio, New York. “I really do like to be involved with large-scale projects, with their scope and complexity,” she says.

Now celebrating her twentieth year in private practice, SBLD Studio (formerly Susan Brady Lighting Design) has grown to an 11-person staff. She and her team have created the lighting for numerous projects in a variety of building types around the U.S., from lawyers’ offices to airport terminal buildings.

SBLD handles 50-60 projects in an average year. “My career preference from the start has been to be involved in many lighting assignments at the same time,” Brady says. To accomplish this work ethic, she and co-principal Attila Uysal have adhered to a management style that spreads project development and design responsibility among their senior staff.

Her design training at Parsons School of Design earned her a BFA degree in Environmental Design with an emphasis on architectural design and history. “There was no major at that time as part of the environmental design program, although a lighting course was a requirement for graduation,” Brady recalls. She decided to pursue her initial introduction to the field of lighting by applying to the International Association of Lighting Designers for a summer internship grant. “I was really thrilled to get it,” she recalls. “Diana Mesh, who, at that time was a lighting designer and the instructor of my lighting class at Parsons, advised me that the architectural lighting design firm, Fisher Marantz, was looking to bring a new designer on board. In less than a week, I was interviewed for the position by Richard Renfrew, formerly of Fisher Marantz. Within days, they called and told me that I had the job. I was astounded! It was the start of my involvement in this industry, and the whirlwind hasn’t stopped yet.”

Brady had planned to work for a couple of years for Fisher Marantz, and then would move on to join an architectural firm, “I’d be able to offer an understanding of lighting and could better contribute to the firm’s design output. My perspective then was that I’d be able to offer workable solutions to the user’s lighting needs and be a better designer.” As she gained more experience, she also gained self-assurance that she could successfully direct her career to specialise in lighting, and eventually established Susan Brady Lighting Design in 1994 with offices in downtown Manhattan.

Overall responsibility at SBLD is shared by Brady with Attila, and the pair work during concept and project planning phases. “We both subscribe to the practice of giving our staff a good deal of responsibility to run a project successfully,” Brady says. “They assume a role of ownership of the project, from beginning to end. We check in regularly, with the project team, of course. But our management objective is to give the younger staff members the opportunity to learn how a project comes together, is developed, and is then seen through to completion. “

Designers at SBLD come from diverse backgrounds, Brady indicates. “Some have architectural or interior design training, or have previously worked for other design firms, while others bring their theatrical lighting experience to our practice.” Over the last few years, many of the firm’s designers have earned their MFA Lighting Design degrees from Parsons The New School of Design in New York.

In her almost 30 years as a lighting professional, Brady has witnessed a shift in client appreciation of lighting’s contribution to their investment in the built environment. “They understand that there are technical issues and energy codes to be complied with,” she acknowledges. “Now, they also accept that a lighting plan is more than wattage limits, but that the light level has to be sufficiently bright for users to perform their tasks. In our experience, showing the clients images of similar concepts that we pull from many diverse sources to explain the techniques we are considering,” she reports. “Then, with the architect’s rendering of the spaces, we can relate the light level calculations and demonstrate the conceptual solution we propose,” she says. “It’s important that we show how the lighting scheme will respond to the proposed surface finishes and how the layering of the light sources we suggest will contribute to the final illuminated finished space. It’s a story that unfolds as a collaborative approach between the architect and SBLD,” she recounts.

Brady credits establishing a close working relationship with the design architects from a project’s outset as the springboard for her team’s conceptual lighting process. “When I started in practice, there were only two-dimensional visualisation formats available from which the architect and the lighting designer could generate and share ideas. It was an intellectual process that is far different from how we go about organising our tasks today. Rendering from a three dimensional perspective from the beginning has established an accelerated creative process for the designers and introduced a method for the client to contribute to the final product.”

Now, she says, face-to-face meetings bring her team together with the architect and the interior designer to generate ideas that lay the groundwork for establishing the project’s parameters. “Then, the initial lighting program and phased timetable are communicated to the engineers to coordinate with my team on such aspects as energy use, code reviews, LEED requirements and controls,” Brady explains.

Adherence to this schedule was important in keeping two recently completed major projects on track to completion: The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, and the John Jay College for Criminal Justice. “Every one of the lighting fixtures for the Smith Center was custom designed and detailed by us,” Brady states. “I virtually invested my life in that project for two years. It was the largest budget we had ever worked with. Fortunately our fixture manufacturer, Creative Light Source, was headquartered in Las Vegas, and they specialise in large-scale signature fixtures. David Schwarz was the design architect and we had consulted with his firm before, so we were familiar with each other’s working style.” The building’s overall design theme is a sleek updated version of Art Deco, which the architect described as an interpretation of the design of nearby Hoover Dam, opened in 1936. The dramatic trio of fan-topped chandeliers in the main lobby, luminous expressions of opal, textured and art glass, establish the facility’s grand scale.

For the 58,000m² John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York City, there was an eight-year gap between the initial design in 2003 and completion in 2011. Brady had to track the viability of the design as numerous fixtures that were part of SBLD’s first set of lighting specifications were discontinued or revised by the manufacturers. Metal halide and fluorescent were the primary lamp sources on the final specifications. “If we were designing this building today,” says Brady, “we would certainly be using LEDs.”

Like other successful female lighting designers, Brady juggles personal and family responsibilities with professional priorities. Her husband is an architect and she has accompanied him on his international travels. Their son, Taner, now a high school senior planning for college, is a competitive downhill racer. “When he was young, I wanted to be with him and still develop the business,” she relates. ”With the assistance of Attilia, we built the senior staff so that I could set aside time to be home and still feel confident that things were moving smoothly at the office.” Starting with the eighth grade, Taner transferred to a boarding school in Vermont. “We drove up every weekend to see him,” she adds.
Brady has memberships in both IALD and IES. As her schedule allows, she participates in the activities of the local New York City chapters and encourages her designers to attend the professional events staged regularly at venues around the city.

SBLD’s workload currently includes a new group of major, high-profile projects in the U.S. and overseas. “Regardless of the project type; sports arena or airport, hospital or law firm, my mission is to transform the space with light in a subtle but effective manner,” Brady says. “In my mind, the most successful projects are those where the lighting is not immediately noticed. Instead, the spaces are lively, animated and comfortable. They just ‘feel right’,” she concludes.



Projects that you would like to change:
I miss the concepts and solutions that were value engineered out of a project to save money. We originally designed the Changi Airport Terminal in Singapore to have blue accent light on the exterior wall and white lighting to highlight the intricate interior ceiling. But the layering, depth, and hierarchy of the architecture that I envisioned were all lost when the blue filters where deleted.  

Projects you admire:
There are certainly many current projects that I admire but I find I am most inspired when I travel. It takes me out of my comfort zone, so there’s time to really absorb my surroundings.
I love the European piazzas, especially in Italy and France, where they provide beautiful (and often minimal) decorative fixtures mounted to the perimeter buildings, sometimes with an illuminated fountain in the centre. It makes for such a warm and inviting experience; being wrapped in the glow of the beautiful buildings. In the U.S., we often have to provide 5FC minimum in a public plaza. It’s so unnecessary, to turn a beautiful outdoor space into something that feels more like a parking lot. I wish our local authorities had the sensitivity and restraint to understand the perception of light and brightness rather than being dictated by the metrics of horizontal footcandles only.
My favourite lighting experience is Paris, with its beautiful illuminated bridges, and of course the iconic Eiffel Tower. I just love the way the structure of the Tower is illuminated and the strobe effect of the sparkle light feature is exciting to watch. The choreography of the patterns not only marks time and place, it makes people happy. It’s that sublime nature of lighting that I find so inspiring.

Projects you dislike:
I generally dislike designing residential projects, and have done very few. My preference is to work directly with another design professional, as opposed to an owner who who does not understand design. Once again, my love of large-scale work comes into play here. 

Lighting Hero:

Paul Marantz is a fantastic lighting designer who taught me so much. Not necessarily the technical aspects, but how to see the light when beginning a new project. We discussed how light could transform and enhance the space as well as how to respect the project’s architectural integrity. I also respect the work of Paul Gregory and the late Jonathan Speirs.

Notable projects:
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Las Vegas; Schermerhorn Symphony Hall and the Frist Visual Arts Center, both in Nashville; JFK Airport, New York City, Terminal 4 Expansion.

Most memorable project:
From 2000 to 2004, we developed a master plan for the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. We had to survey the rooms at night, and then document our observations. Unfortunately, the work was never implemented because of a reduction in the Government’s budget. It would have been very exciting to see the transformation had the design been completed.

Current projects:
Renovations to the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, and to the U.S. Tennis Association in Forest Hills, N.Y., involving a new stadium and upgrades to the grounds and facilities. Offices of the International Monetary Fund, and for numerous law firms in Washington, D.C. We are the lighting consultants for the Shanghai Tower Exhibition & Special Events Center. And, for my own firm, a new website.


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