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Tino Kwan

Issue 81 October / November 2014

Following a recent presentation at iGuzzini where Tino Kwan explained his lighting design principles, we caught up with him to get the lowdown on his career and his philosophy. Words by Robert Such.

From an early age Hong Kong-based lighting designer Tino Kwan wanted to work for himself. At the age of 29 he reached his goal - one year earlier than he’d planned. Since then his firm, Tino Kwan Lighting Consultants, has lit buildings and interiors in twenty countries, and the total number of projects he has worked on has already passed the one thousand mark.

Winner of numerous awards, including three awards for The Peninsula Tokyo hotel lighting alone, his trademark minimal lighting schemes can be seen in international deluxe hotels and casinos, office buildings, shopping malls, luxury retail outlets, private residences, resorts and urban landscapes across an area of the globe stretching east-west from Tokyo to Dubai, and north-south from Beijing to Indonesia.

Driven by the governing principle of less is more, he always uses “minimum lighting equipment to achieve maximum lighting effect,” he says. “The worst illuminated places are always overly designed.”
He attributes the latter to a lighting designer’s lack of confidence.

Kwan’s approach to fulfilling a brief also involves spending a lot of time “getting into the head of the architect,” he says. “In order to come up with the most perfect lighting solution, I normally spend 80% of my design time studying their designs in terms of form, space, materials, details and functions,” he says. After that “the rest is easy to have my lighting design integrated with theirs.”

Over the years his way of lighting has changed little. He doesn’t do flashy. He’s not interested in making a building look like a twinkling Christmas tree. Kwan is much more interested in washing walls with white light - he rarely uses coloured lights - to emphasise materials and textures on hard and soft surfaces, like rock sculptures and fabrics. He also prefers to bounce light off walls to create indirect light, to illuminate architectural features selectively, and where interiors are concerned to fill them with an overall glowing effect.

Referring to what he calls “layers of light”, Kwan’s technique also involves “playing around with horizontal and vertical illumination, and with different intensities, which result in many layers and points of focus,” he says.

Not afraid to use strong contrast in spaces where only table tops and counters stand out against the backdrop of a deeply shadowed room, Kwan’s “design philosophy or principle remains the same,” he says. “I really like simplicity. I think it’s more powerful. It doesn’t have to be very complicated.”

Depending on the required corporate brand image and architectural character of the building or interior, the lighting can vary accordingly. It can be bright and cheerful, dramatic, with a touch of the theatrical, and “if it is a very serious bank building,” he says, “I would treat it very solemnly.” But if a client, the owner of a building say, still wants flashy, Kwan will walk away and suggest they find someone else for the job.
That’s not to say that his designs haven’t matured in the four decades he has been in business. He points out that his work is continually improving and he is “always trying to do something a different way,” he says. Avoiding repetition has helped to keep his interest in lighting alive.

Back at the beginning of his career, Kwan did not immediately see himself as a lighting designer though. In fact he trained as a product designer, majoring in Interior and Industrial Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (known as PolyU), but his interest in design had begun long before that.

As a teenager, he had worked during his school summer holidays at the interior design office of his uncle, Robert Mui. His duties included doing tracing, odd jobs and delivering drawings to architects’ offices, but the experience left a strong impression on him. “I became fascinated with design work,” he says, “and also the beauty of making something beautiful. That interested me.”

Soon after graduating from PolyU, that same uncle told him that a lighting company was in town and hiring. Kwan attended the interview believing that the job involved designing light fittings. As it turned out, the company was The Spatial Light Environments Limited (TSLE), and the position would entail doing more light planning than anything else.
Impressed by his portfolio and background in design, however, the firm offered him the position, despite the fact that Kwan had never done any light planning before. Understanding he could still design light fittings, too, he thought he would “give it a try,” he says.

Learning on the job, Kwan gained valuable experience and knowledge about lighting from TSLE head, John Marsteller. “John inspired my interest in lighting design,” he says, “which I soon turned into my lifetime career.”

TSLE eventually sent him to work in the firm’s new office in Athens. He left Greece two and a half years later, heading for London to set up a lighting design department for Dale Keller, interior designer of luxury hotel interiors. At that time, TSLE and Keller worked closely on projects together.

Following the Middle Eastern economic boom, work slowed down at Dale Keller & Associates. As a result, the office was scaled down and the lighting department closed. For Kwan, it was time to start his own practice and realise that long-held goal. Since he was already living in London, he felt it was natural for him to set up his first office there.
As well as working for his own clients, Kwan also took on the residential and hotel projects sub-contracted out to him by Keller.

Something that the newly self-employed Kwan enjoyed was the greater chance of meeting different designers. “Because if you work in-house in a company,” he says, “you work for one design company and you don’t get to meet all the other talents all over the world.”

A year later, in 1980, while on a summer holiday to see his family back in Hong Kong, he met up with Joe D’Urso, a US interior designer who was scouting for a lighting professional with whom he could work on a private club called the I Club.

Now closed, the I Club was where Kwan designed not only the lighting scheme but also various fittings - pendant lights, wall lamps and spotlights - for the then new MR16 lamp.
Seeing more opportunities for work in Hong Kong, he decided to leave London.

Since then, Kwan’s interest in lighting has been helped by the advances made in lighting technology. They have also helped him to become a better designer. The ability to achieve lighting effects that would not have been possible at the start of his career has resulted from the invention of new light fittings and sources.

“Imagine if I was still using the power lamps and there was no other new light source, the limitations of the lighting design that will come out or the effect will always look very similar. Once this changed to halogen, the look was different. The atmosphere was different. Now we have changed to LED and again it’s different.”

Well-placed to have observed other changes, Kwan has watched the lighting design profession develop over the decades.Where there were only “a handful of recognised lighting designers worldwide in the ‘70s,” he says, it has now grown into “a large community of talented lighting professionals in every city. I am so happy that lighting design has been steadily recognised by the public who realised how it can help to improve the quality of our lives.”



Projects that you would like to change:

The ICC (International Commerce Centre) which is the tallest (484m) and most prestigious building in Hong Kong, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in association with Wong & Ouyang, has been totally ruined by its façade lighting. Not only has the lighting design failed to reflect or enhance its architecture in the evening, it completely ignores the building features and turns the facades into the biggest billboards in Hong Kong by constantly flashing meaningless images and messages with LED light all night long. I would like to see this building become an iconic symbol of Hong Kong with concealed lighting illuminating the architectural features and at the same time expressing its unique tallness to achieve a timeless solution. 

Projects you admire:

The Louvre in Paris designed by Claude Engle. I like the way he brought out the transparency of the pyramid and was able to balance the overall lighting in the courtyard of The Louvre.

Projects you dislike:

I dislike projects using LED light excessively with the totally wrong idea that LED saves energy. How can one save energy for the sake of using LED light, and over using it? 

Lighting Hero:

I would not say any lighting designer can be a Lighting Hero. I think I vote for the light source inventors / manufacturers who constantly develop new light sources for us, which in result allow us to come up with many innovative design solutions for our projects.

Notable projects:

I was so happy to read in the first issue of Monocle magazine that the best hotel lighting in the world was the Tokyo Peninsula Hotel which I designed and received design awards from IESNA in North America, JALDA in Japan and APDA  in Hong Kong.

Most memorable project:

I still remember the first time I went to Pudong in Shanghai to have an interview with the client for the Grand Hyatt Shanghai Hotel project. Pudong was a piece of rural farm land which, after a few years, had turned into an international business district and the hotel atrium lighting that I designed had become a talking point in the hotel industry.

Current projects:

Libosa Palace Casino Project, Macau; Studio City Casino Project, Macau; Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul; St Regis Hotel, Lijiang; Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, Hong Kong; Grand Hyatt Hotel, Xian; VietinBank, Vietnam.


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