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Kathy Abernathy

Issue 54 Apr / May 2010

As the new president of the International Association of Lighting Designers, Katherine Abernathy is collaborating with the organisation’s leadership to mount an aggressive programme of communications, grow public policy, and develop the grassroots network within each region and chapter. Vilma Barr met with Kathy during a reception held by IALD’s Philadelphia section.

Collaboration is the key to success.

Kathy Abernathy says that this has always been a favourite phrase since she entered the world of lighting as a theatrical lighting designer. She was once told theatrical lighting designers were not artists. “We do not design in a closet and then open the door and say ‘Ta da!’ and hope for the best,” she recalls. “No; we are true collaborators, with a design sense and an understanding and knowledge of the scientific and technical aspects of lighting. ‘True collaborators’ is a phrase which has continued to be the philosophy of my lighting practice to this day,” she states.

“Our office is run on a collaboration basis and so are our projects. We collaborate with clients, owners, architects, exhibit designers, interior designers, engineers, electrical contractors, manufacturers, manufacturers’ representatives, fabricators and sometime even other lighting designers, just to name a few,” she points out. This passion for collaboration, Kathy indicates, is necessary to carry out her activities and leadership role as president of the International Association of Lighting Designers.

Kathy’s career in lighting began when she was a theatre design student at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. As an undergraduate in a conservatory program, she tried designing props, costume, and sound for many shows. “But I found my passion in lighting design,” she affirms. With fellow lighting design students, they toured the St. Louis lighting studio of HOK Architects. “This initial encounter with the practice of architectural lighting was informative and intriguing,” she recalls.

After receiving her B.F.A. from Webster, she continued her lighting design studies at Croydon College in London. Upon returning to the U.S., to St. Louis, she pursued freelance theatrical lighting design and met her now-husband, Chris, also a freelance lighting and set designer.“When we had our son Sean, 21 years ago, it became tough for both of us to continue the crazy schedules that are presented when you freelance in theatre,” she admits .“Then I was fortunate to see an ad in the local IES newsletter that Randy Burkett Lighting Design was looking for a technical support person. Randy was working on an amusement park in Europe at the time and saw the benefit of my knowledge of theatrical lighting tools to apply to this project. Randy became a wonderful mentor. He taught me all about the architectural world and the tools available to create environments in architecture,” Kathy relates.

“Lighting has continued to grow and evolve since the first day that I began my architectural lighting career. More theatrical tools are being used in architecture. Certainly, the use of colour — whether red, blue, green colour mixing that we see so much of now with LEDs — or just experimenting with colour temperatures of lamps, a technique which has intrigued designers and their audiences,” Kathy indicates. She notes that drama can be created in a space with the use of colour angles of light, and taking advantage of how the light bounces off of the architecture.

In her 20-plus years in the practice of professional lighting design, Kathy has seen technology changing at an increasingly rapid pace. “Keeping up to date with all the changes is paramount if you want to maintain your image as a relevant lighting designer. There are many ways for lighting designers to continue to educate themselves,” she indicates. “1) Attend lighting manufacturer’s seminars; 2) keep up with your local manufacturer representatives and ask them to stop by and show your their latest offering; 3) attend trade shows such as Lightfair to learn how these tools are being implemented, and to network; 4) become an active member of the International Association of Lighting Designers.”

“The IALD has a great deal to offer,” she says. “Annually, IALD is a partner in presenting Lightfair to the industry, and also stages Enlighten America with a sister conference in London called Enlighten Europe. Both are great places to meet with your colleagues and discuss what’s happening in each other’s world.” Kathy emphasises. An important IALD wing called the Lighting Resource Council is composed of lighting manufacturers who attend all of these conferences. These relationships, she feels, are an invaluable part of the working collaboration process. She has found that when manufacturers collaborate with the designer from the beginning of the specification, the chances are greatly improved that the specification will hold and the designer will be able to deliver the best possible finished product.

Kathy has been a member of the IALD’s Board of Directors for the past eight years. “Every other year, we adopt a strategic plan to keep the IALD focused and on track,” she reports. The organisation’s public policy consultant, who facilitates our presence in the public policy environment, is part of IALD’s strategic planning process. She also points to creating educational tracks for other organisations like the AIA (American Institute of Architects) and the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) as well as instituting the Speaker Bureau program for the IALD members.

High on Kathy’s priority list is communication. “Communication to our members is a hard nut to crack,” she admits. “My mission is to get out there to as many locations as I can and talk to our members. The IALD has received numerous awards lately for its social media campaigns, in particular ‘We Messed with Texas’ which received the 2009 Association Trends Publisher’s Choice Award.”

She finds that a direct presentation by her to the membership has produced positive results. “I have made presentations to two different chapters, standing in front of our members and telling them exactly what is going on,” she describes. “They are always impressed and leave with a much better understanding.”

She points out that the IALD is on Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, Linkedin and YouTube, plus Reflections, an electronic newsletter transmitted to members every two weeks. “But still you cannot replace face-to-face contact,” she believes. “At the last board meeting, I asked the board members to do the same thing... attend the regional meetings and give their own update. Our regional coordinators also have been asked to do the same. It only takes five to ten minutes and it is worth a million!”
Membership growth in the US as well as internationally is another important objective. Kathy would like to create more international regional groups and institute operational improvements at the current regional level. “Internationally, we are currently supporting the IALD UK, and IALD Australia, working from their models we hope to continue to grow,” Kathy notes. “My president-selected director, Peter Raynham of the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, will be applying his educational background to our programs and also his extensive background in code writing in the UK.” (Each president of the IALD appoints one person to the Board of Directors. This person, who does not have to be a member of the organisation, has experience in a field that would be helpful in furthering the IALD mission during the time of that president’s two-year term.)

Kathy has set a packed agenda for her term in office. “It’s my opportunity to give something back to an industry that is still evolving and expanding.” She stresses the challenge of keeping the ‘D’ in IALD. “We can achieve quality lit spaces that are energy-efficient, while still focusing on human needs, economics, and the environment as well as architecture and other building-related issues.”

“It’s a very exciting time to be in the world of lighting design. For the IALD, I want to see it become stronger each year, and continue the development of additional programmes that will support its members’ professional success,” she concludes.


Kathy Abernathy
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