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Bernhard Bstieler

Issue 58 Dec / Jan 2010-11

Bernhard Bstieler’s lighting journey has taken him from Austria to the UK and to Thailand, picking up accolades and awards every step of the way. Jimmie Wing caught up with him in Bangkok.

Many are familiar with tales of talented professionals who sacrifice their careers to move to a distant country to be with someone they love, and conversely, those who ruthlessly place their careers over family obligations. It is the rare individual who can follow their heart and achieve professional acclaim. Bernhard Bstieler is one such person.

Despite moving to Thailand to be with his wife (also a lighting designer) whom he met in London while studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Bstieler is UK Lighting Designer of the Year in addition to achieving numerous other awards and accolades, such as Overall Winner of the 2000 City-People-Light Conceptual Design Competition; winner of the 2007 Residential Projects Lighting Design Award UK; 2010 Lighting Design Award UK, International Projects Winner; and the 2010 Bar and Restaurant Design UK, Lighting Design Winner.

So how did he get into lighting design? Perhaps there was no ‘defining moment’ but his interest in creative lighting was first piqued in the mid/late ‘70s when he came across the work of Munich based artist, Ingo Maurer, who originated the idea of low voltage hanging light sculptures and whose winged light bulb became a lighting icon of the late 20th century. At the time, Maurer’s work with light was very innovative and Bstieler wanted to understand more about how it was done.

An Austrian, Bstieler grew up in Innsbruck and studied electrical engineering at Technical College for Electrical Engineering (HTL Innsbruck). Then he did something completely different; he got a business degree in economics at the University of Innsbruck.
During the course of these diverse studies he joined Bartenbach, a lighting engineering office that later changed its name to Bartenbach LichtLabor. These were probably his formative years.

Declared Bstieler: “I was greatly inspired and encouraged by the founder Christian Bartenbach. Even though he’s an engineer his approach in studying human reaction to natural and artificial light was extensive.”

Bartenbach’s experiments included acclaimed research into how people respond to different lighting conditions both consciously and subconsciously. Bstieler was fascinated but after four or five years “I found my interest in integrating lighting into the architecture, after learning about technically perfect solutions, I felt that lighting should really be a part of the design of the architecture and not a separate element and I wanted to study more about architecture and light.”
Consequently in 1998, he went to London to The Bartlett Graduate School (Bartlett School of Architecture) to get a Masters degree in Light & Lighting.

Next he joined the London based lighting design company Isometrix, then and still one of the leading lighting design companies in the UK. Just two years later Bstieler started his own company while freelancing for award-winning Campbell Design (now merged with DPA). Bstieler’s company took somewhat longer to take off because he was doing so much freelancing. After five years, he decided to team up with another two colleagues, Filip and Onur, and founded Inverse in 2006. Many years earlier they had taken part in a competition for urban lighting which they won, but it wasn’t until the founding of Inverse that they got back together as a professional working team.

It was a gradual process. Bstieler was at first the only full time participant but they made transitional targets for the others who later became full time. By 2007 they had already submitted and achieved first prize in the Residential category of the UK Lighting Design Awards.

These days, Bstieler flits between China, India, Dubai, the UK and Thailand. How are things different in Thailand?

“The main difference about working in Thailand,” he says, “is that most of the time it has to be very low cost so it’s not easy to maintain quality of projects... suppliers offer several brands starting with the most expensive. As soon as the budget gets lower they downgrade and of course the quality suffers. The design process is also different. They use lighting design information for construction without doing shop drawings, so a lot of important details that should have been integrated into the initial design, get lost. This occurs particularly in Thailand. Even in India and China this problem isn’t so prevalent. So the designer has to spend a lot of time physically on site. Here, we don’t know until it’s built whether the planned result will be achieved or not.”

But, “The profession is still quite young here,” he continues. “Despite several new lighting design companies, with Vision Lighting Design (headed by La-orchai Boonpiti) still being the longest in the business here, most lighting design is still done by the suppliers.”

This particular dilemma is not peculiar to Thailand; what does he think about lighting suppliers providing design services?

“That’s a tricky one. I personally don’t see it as a threat because at the end of the day they will end up with a scheme where they (the suppliers) use only their own products. So, I get approached by clients who say ‘We want an independent designer to create something unique and choose the right product for the job’.  As a result, very often costs are saved for the client because the lighting designers come up with original ideas and offset their creative fees with cost efficient solutions.”

Bernhard Bstieler has a reputation for not shying away from low budget projects, he sees it as a challenge and an opportunity to come up with creative solutions. Some examples are: a refurbishment of a period house in Notting Hill with Sanei-Hopkins Architects; the East-Central Gallery in London by Filip Vermeiren, another partner in the London office, which received a commendation for its low-cost solution (UK Lighting Design Award 2010 – Special projects).

A very recent article in The Economist stated “ ... for those who truly wish to reduce the amount of energy expended on lighting the answer may not be to ban old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, as is the current trend, but to make them compulsory”. How does Bstieler feel about this controversial issue? “It’s too simplistic to just ban all incandescents. When I first came to Thailand, the first thing I have noticed was that the colour of the light in domestic homes, shops etc is much cooler than used in Europe or the US, even the MIddle East. So it’s not much of an issue here; replacing incandescent with fluorescent, because it’s already happened.

“I feel traditionally there is a lot to discover about the lighting preference in different cultures, but very often it is not so easy to back track. In temples they now use lots of fluorescent light whereas in the past they relied on much more ambient lighting compared to times when there was less use of fluorescents. These days natural light is starting to play a lesser role because it’s so easily taken over by artificial light. I think the older way is more sympathetic to ambience and is done in much more subtle ways than bare fluorescents but, because fluorescents are so prevalent now, we’re no longer able to see the subtleties of how they used to do it.

“External illumination is much more affordable in Thailand because they don’t mind using floodlighting instead of trying to enhance and highlight the architecture of the building with the more expensive specialised lighting used in Europe. Although this could still could be done with much less light and still be just as, if not more, effective.”

Despite having achieved international acclaim, Bernhard Bstieler is not one to rest upon his laurels; these days he starts early, stops late, and his day is filled with meetings, site visits, time spent making mock ups, as well as customising and developing luminaires. Then he flies off to the next destination in his ever busy schedule.

His wife is now lecturer of Interior Architecture and Lighting Design at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Thailand. Do they often collaborate?

“As she is a full-time lecturer and involved in lighting research projects, we mainly collaborate on the conceptual design. We often discuss design solutions that are sympathetic to cultural context as well as energy-efficient approaches such as the most recent Rattana Museum and USAID office in Bangkok. I also help out when she and her colleagues organise lighting workshops and lighting installations for local communities in Thailand as I find the local culture is so fascinating and unique.”

And proving beyond any doubt that following his heart has only added to Bernhard Bstieler’s professional success.


Pic: Jimmie Wing

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