newsletter link
mondo arc

Kevin Theobald

Issue 79 June / July 2014

Pennie Varvarides talks to IALD immediate past president Kevin Theobald about juggling, travelling and getting lighting designers on projects from the get-go.

“It was always a pride thing,” explains former IALD president Kevin Theobald about his presidency. “I’d already been on the board of directors for four years and spent a year as president elect; so I already had an idea of the job. Though, I couldn’t have predicted quite how much time it was going to take out of my life.”

Theobald spent two years as president of the International Association of Lighting Designers – an organisation set up in 1969 to help promote and advance independent lighting designers around the world.
Balancing presidential tasks, his full time job as associate director at GIA Equation, and real life was a struggle: “I didn’t have a lot of real life,” he jokes. “Lots of late night phone calls, lots of conference calls after work. Lots of travel.”

One of his main tasks was the association’s global expansion plan. The head office is in America but as an international organisation it’s important to serve members globally. “What they want to do in Australia or Japan or Europe might be different,” he explains. “So we’ve set up a regional chapter structure.” So far they’ve formally set up IALD Japan, Australia, Mexico and UK, Dubai and Greater China with IALD Europe on the way. These IALD regional groups run local events and interact with local organisations or government bodies, giving a localised voice to professionals in the area.

The other big project Theobald oversaw, which is still ongoing, was the certified lighting designer programme. The IALD has spent the last four years working on creating a credentialing system for professional lighting designers that defines the architectural lighting design profession by identifying core competencies and domains of practice. The programme aims to establish a validated method for assessing the competency of designers, raising the visibility and standing of the profession. Theobald says “there are various things that vaguely acknowledge lighting designers” out there; but nothing like this. “The idea is to have an international recognition, where people will submit a portfolio based on a number of set criteria that must be fulfilled to prove your competence.”

Having something like this is really important, particularly to those lighting designers in the early stages of their careers. Theobald reckons his generation probably won’t bother because they’re already established. “But I think this will be very important to the new generation,” he adds. “The people in their 20s now, who really have to prove themselves.”

Theobald has some friendly advice for future presidents: “You need to have a very understanding partner, a very understanding employer and very understanding clients.

“I don’t want to put anyone off. That’s probably why they didn’t give me the whole truth. Everybody said it would be hard work, but you don’t realise quite how much time it’s going to take out of your life. I think I was crossing the Atlantic at least once a month. Not so good for the carbon footprint, I must say. I shall be planting a few trees!”

So now it’s somebody else’s turn. Theobald is still on the board, with the new title of ‘immediate past president’ up until December, when he’ll roll off the board – unless he chooses to run for another position, that is. “That’s very unlikely,” he jokes. “I think I’ve done my time.”
Now he’s concentrating back on the real work of being a lighting designer. There are lots of exciting things happening at GIA Equation. “I’ve got a great team here,” he says. “We’re working on the Russian Impressionism Museum in Moscow, which is a really interesting project. It’s an oligarch who owns his own collection, so he’s actually building a building to house all the paintings, which will be open to the public.”
Theobald got started in lighting at the tender age of eleven doing fit-ups and get-outs at the local theatre. “I think it was insidious,” he explains. “It gets into you. It’s fun. I met lots of nice people and the local theatre had a very good chief electrician, who was also a lighting designer; he mentored me.”

When Theobald finished school it was a toss up between college or joining the theatre full time. “It’s interesting,” he says, “the discussion people have now about the academic way into the profession before you start learning about light. I started the other way around: I learnt about light first. I learnt what light did, then I learnt the academic side of it.”
By seventeen or eighteen he was working at the theatre full time, which soon lead to him doing trade shows and working on temporary lighting schemes. From there moving into museum lighting seemed a natural progression. “My first architectural lighting job was on the National Theatre back in 1996/7. I was the project designer.”

He loved the on-site problem solving. “No matter how well drawn out and planned a project is, there are always things you can’t predict once you get on site. Learning to resolve those in a good way and keep the integrity of the design is important.” 

He’s been at GIA Equation for almost two years now, and rates his team highly. He reckons each director and senior designer must look after between six to ten projects each a year. “They’re all at different stages – you’d hope. Just occasionally things sync up. It’s quite hard trying to finish lots of projects at the same time.”

They’re just finishing off a project in Knightsbridge, which they’ve been working on for a while. “We’ve done the façade between Harvey Nicks and Harrods,” he says. “It looks really cool! I wasn’t involved in the beginning, so I can’t claim the design; but I’ve been looking after it. We commissioned most of it before Christmas, but there are two listed buildings we’ve been waiting for.

“Dealing with listed buildings is quite tricky. You need to work out what planners will accept, and to try and keep things as discrete as possible. You have to provide an incredible amount of detail. They want to know where every nut, bolt and cable will go. And they want to see pictures. See visualisations, see drawings; everything. It’s so complicated.”
Theobald credits advances in technology, such as the slimline nature of LEDs, for helping in such situations. Small packages make it easier to hide sources. And hiding sources is always ideal.

Theobald says it was tough to convince people to even put a lighting designer on a project in the early days of his career. “I’m not saying it’s easy now,” he adds. “But people are starting to accept designers.” He reckons people are more aware of what good lighting can do for them nowadays, and it’s getting better all the time. “The profession has been slowly growing up. It takes a while. There weren’t really lighting designers before the 1980s; it’s still a very new profession.” This is where the IALD credentialing programme will come in. Theobald goes as far as to say that “as time goes on, [lighting designers] will eventually be up there with architects” and be employed right from the start of the project.


Projects that you would like to change:

Any historical façades which are overlit and use large visible fixtures. St Paul’s Cathedral is a prime example although I gather the City of London have future plans to improve this. We now have the tools to revisit projects and to reveal the architecture in a subtle and controlled manner.  

Projects you admire:
Stadel Museum Berlin by LKL. The combined use of daylight and electric lighting with integrated mounting locations for spotlighting make this a beautiful and flexible gallery space.
Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which demonstrates how far LED technology has developed. All of the colours in the paintings are rendered beautifully.

Projects you dislike:

Any projects that use coloured light indiscriminately. Guangzhou in Southern China was particularly bad until the Asian Games took place. The local authority saw how good well-designed and controlled lighting can be and outlawed some of the worst culprits of colour misuse. As designers we have a responsibility to ensure that buildings are displayed to their best, whilst acknowledging branding and commercial pressures. 

Lighting Hero:
Kaoru Mende. His lighting schemes are some of the most attractive in the world. He also spends a lot of his time educating the future leaders of our profession as well as providing an Asian perspective to the IALD board.

Notable projects:

Burj al Arab. In addition to design of some of the guest suites, I was fortunate enough to be responsible for lighting design of Al Mahara ‘underwater’ restaurant and Al Muntaha restaurant  at the top of the tower which features some of the best views in Dubai.
Finsbury Avenue Square. I was proud to be part of the team on this IALD Award winning project which has stood the test of time and is as impressive today as when it was installed.

Most memorable project:

National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Being involved in the construction of a new museum was really exciting. The project had so many different facets from a traditional museum gallery, to a ‘daylit’ gallery featuring real boats suspended from the ceiling to an interactive multimedia experience telling the stories of some of the boats and people associated with them. Designing for flexibility of future exhibitions was a particular challenge.

Current projects:

Russian Impressionism Museum (new purpose built gallery to house privately owned art collection), South Bank Tower (repurposing of existing office tower into residential and mixed use development), Battersea Power Station Phase 1 (initial development of 840 luxury apartments and associated public realm), Embassy Gardens (major residential development adjacent to the new American Embassy in Nine Elms).


Related Articles


Follow us on…

Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Twitter Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Facebook Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Linked In

mondo arc india

darc awards DWLF IALD PLDC LRO