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Michael Dunk

Issue 83 January / February 2015

From the days of spotlights and Par lamps to the modern day lighting we see today Michael Dunk has experienced it all. Today, he remains at the core of his family run business Lucent, which recently partnered with the darc awards, and sees no reason to call it a day anytime soon.
Words by Jill Entwistle.

Lighting has become an awful lot more complicated since Michael Dunk started out as a salesman with Concord Lighting in 1972. “With the exception of Derek Philips there were no lighting designers in the UK back then,” he said. Everybody used a spotlight or a downlight and chose a Par lamp with a certain beam spread. That was it.”

Any expertise resided with manufacturers. Dunk likens calling in on leading designers such as Fitch, to a doctor’s consultation: “We would advise on lighting. There were no lighting designers and lighting wasn’t a big consideration.”

But behind the scenes were the seeds of the lighting design profession as we know it today. Barry Hannaford and Maurice Brill, to name just two nascent talents, were in Concord’s schemes department carrying out the plotting and lighting design on drawing boards (no CAD yet, of course). Dunk, and Lucent, the company he founded in 1990, have followed the development trajectory of the modern lighting profession every step of the way.

Rising to national Sales Manager at Concord in 1978, Dunk left in 1984 to become Managing Director of a start-up lighting company called Lighting Workshop, partially backed by Concord and based in Covent Garden, London. The aim was to be a design and supply company, with Maurice Brill running the design side. The company quickly became associated with what was then a new source, low voltage, tungsten halogen.

“I quickly saw the opportunity for low voltage lighting,” said Dunk. “The only people to do it properly were the French at the time, and the first company to do it properly was Mole Richardson, the stage lighting specialist. They teamed up with GE early on, the first company to bring out the dichroic lamp, and quickly came out with a range of downlights.”

Having put together an English range from French products, and subsequently US products, LW rapidly made a name in retail, supplying the likes of department stores House of Fraser and Debenhams, along with Bodyshop. LV sources had a bit of a bumpy ride in the early days and Dunk sees a lot of parallels with some of the issues surrounding LEDs as they now bed in as a mainstream source.

“There were a lot of challenges in low voltage - contractors running bell wire from the transformer to the fixture, or running ten fittings from one transformer. And like LEDs, heat was another issue.”

Crucially at this time, Dunk began making regular marketing visits to the US. As well as sourcing product, the aim was to grow the company’s customer base of North American lighting consultants. Independent lighting design was firmly established and recognised in the US, unlike the UK, where it had only begun to develop in the early to mid-80s, when Jonathan Speirs set up Lighting Design Partnership with Andre Tammes, and consultancies such as Lighting Design International and Equation came into being.

With Lighting Workshop acquired by Courtney Pope in 1988 Dunk decided to strike out on his own in 1990 to set up Lucent Lighting. Although manufacturers still designed the lion’s share of lighting schemes, his experience in the US had left him with the firm conviction that he only wanted to deal directly with lighting designers, and that the new company would steer clear of the design and supply route.

“I focussed on this area because lighting designers do quality work,” Dunk said. “I was also very conscious that to be different to my competitors, I would have to have an edge and that edge would be dealing with lighting designers, particularly those who were working internationally. My aim with Lucent was to cultivate the contacts I’d made in the States, especially New York when at Lighting Workshop.”

In the early years Lucent acted as a UK distributor for German and US lighting companies such as RZB, RSL, Hess and Ardee, but also designed and began manufacturing a limited range of low voltage and metal halide downlights, the product area that has always been at its core.

Initially the company became particularly involved with shopping centre projects, specified by LDP and LDI among others. The breakthrough came with what turned out to be a long association with New York-based lighting designer Theo Kondos, who specified Lucent for a series of malls in Spain and Portugal. 

“He was the guy who helped us in business, in a big way. He recognised in Lucent our ability to recreate his ideas. We did a shopping centre in Spain with him in 1991 - a year after we’d started the business followed rapidly by two more. We then did around five a year for eighteen years with both Theo and other consultants. Before the recession in Europe we completed nearly 100 projects.”

Another seminal figure was Dallas-based Craig Roberts Associates - Dunk having by now ventured further afield in the States - whom they first worked with on the Tommy Hilfiger store in London’s Bond Street. It was the association with CRA that led Lucent to switch from distribution to manufacturing with the launch of the first ProSpex lockable, tiltable downlights in 2007. The initial product range was designed specifically to win The Atlantis Palm hotel project in Dubai, (pictured above) with some 10,000 fixtures supplied.

“I owe a lot to Craig Roberts. He basically couldn’t find any European fixtures that had features that compared to American products. At the time he was probably right. Everything here was very stylised. With the Americans it was the Edison Price ethos - dark light reflectors, adjustability, locking on the fixtures and locking rotation so they could focus a job properly. He couldn’t find any European company that was doing that so we started building fixtures for his international work.”

From this point the company created an international distributor network and now has a presence in more than 40 countries. Lucent also developed its second major range, ProSpex Plus square pyramidal and round conical downlights, as a result of CRA, which was specifying for 22 hotels in Mecca (the Jebal Omar development). It meant a huge investment in tooling. 

“Once again he couldn’t find any European fixtures with the square pyramidal look and with lockable tilt and lockable rotation built in. So we did it. We’ve completed five of those 22 hotels already - around 16,000 downlights. We have to build all the adjustability into the downlight itself and enable it to be installed from below. That’s the challenge.”

Lucent also has a long-term relationship with New York-based Schwinghammer Lighting. “The first designers ever to design a gimbal slot system in the ceiling, which they created in the late 1980s,” said Dunk. “We started building gimbal fixtures to Amercian specifications.” The company also developed its pinhole downlight for Schwinghammer. Again it was US consultants highlighting the deficiencies of European fixtures and driving improvements.

“Europeans at the time weren’t conscious of glare control, lamps were very close to the bottom of fixtures and very apparent to the eye,” said Dunk. “Additionally there was no provision for adding louvres and media accessories. The Americans also don’t like anything that projects down below the ceiling like pull-down downlights. They taught us how to do trimless fixtures.

“I would say 70-80 per cent of our range is American driven - all our gimbal fixtures, pinhole downlights, the whole range of square and round downlights,” Dunk continued. “We owe the American influence a lot and its particularly rewarding that the UK and international lighting designers have also taken to the fixture designs.”

Dunk likes doing quality projects and seems to positively relish being pushed by the most discerning lighting designers to get it as perfect as possible. “I like to work with lighting designers who are very exacting, those who will focus the job themselves at the end and appreciate the features and benefits we have built in. 

“Our products are of a quality and appearance to satisfy the high-end market. I much prefer to supply this area globally because we are less subjected to the ups and downs of the economy.”

At 68, you might think Dunk was contemplating putting his feet up but he and his wife Valerie are as involved as ever in growing the business, whose turnover is currently growing around ten per cent a year.

In 2014 Lucent moved to bigger offices with a showroom in north London and a larger warehouse and technical offices in Enfield, expanding from 330 sq metres to more than 1,100 sq metres. The company also invested heavily in creating its own photometric facility, with further upgrades to come, and has IES files for the majority of its luminaires. Most ambitiously of all, last year it launched its fittings into the US market.

“It was never my intention to start selling products in the US because there are so many companies there already,” said Dunk. “However, in my experience the high-end retailers typically want one manufacturer to supply all their requirements globally. So 18 months ago we bit the bullet and put the majority of our downlights into testing and got ETL [proof of compliance with North American safety standards]. We delivered our first light fittings in February 2014 and we have already exceeded all our expectations.”

Lucent recently also supplied the Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan (pictured above) and several Mulberry, Tiffany’s and Dior outlets. “So we’re starting to appear on their radar,” continued Dunk. “The lighting designers who’ve used us internationally are starting to use us there as well. We’re probably the only UK company that’s really concentrated on the US market for so long. Around 60 per cent of our business now comes out of the States.”

A fair number of lighting companies have fallen by the wayside over the 25 years of Lucent’s existence, and family businesses are notoriously prone to staleness and stagnation. The company’s winning formula is straightforward - remaining true to its founding principles, constant reinvestment, dedicated staff and an excellent management team, a vigorous approach to innovation and business opportunities, and the willingness to consistently go the extra mile - lighting designers are an exacting bunch when it comes to getting a precise specification backed up by highly responsive service. Some 40 per cent of the fixtures Lucent supplies are standard products that have been customised. “You have to be flexible,” said Dunk.

When Lucent started out there were just four people. There are now 45 in the UK alone. Dunk is quick to pay tribute to the backing and support he’s received over the past 25 years from his wife Valerie. “She has been the ying to my yang. Constantly making me think about and consider decisions and directions we have taken, she and has certainly been a great partner.

“I’m pleased with the way it’s going but you have to bear in mind we are still a family business, it’s our own money. We enjoy what we are doing. While we’re still actively running the business and enjoying it, we’ll carry on.”


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