Essay | Claudia Paz - A Lighting Designer Out of the Box

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20/03/2024 - Claudia Paz has recently published a book a bilingual work in English and Spanish that spans two decades of achievements and creativity. She very kindly asked Mark Major to contribute to the book and we've shared his essay below:

Circle of Light

I have often reflected that working with light four things are critical: Observation, inspiration, expression, and interpretation.

‘Observation’ in that the language of light that exists in both the natural world and our man-made environment informs our deep understanding of the medium. ‘Inspiration’ in that nothing is original, and no creative person can work in a vacuum; we draw upon the past to help shape the present and the future, learning from both those who have gone before us and who we work alongside. And working with light can be a means of ‘Expression’. Some artists work with paint, others with stone. Others act, dance, or sing. As lighting designers, we chose to work with an ephemeral medium to create beauty and convey visual messages. And that is where ‘Interpretation’ comes in: As we use light to change the way we live we not only to help people see but also make them feel. We tell stories. We re-imagine our world after dark.

This short article is about just one of these things – ‘inspiration’. It shows how two lighting designers meeting, talking, and sharing a love of light can become catalyst for change and how such an exchange can create a feedback loop that brings things full circle.

I first met Claudia Paz in 2010 when she came to our studio in London to interview me for a magazine – A+LUZ. The aim of the publication was to help inspire and inform the emerging lighting profession in her native country Peru. On meeting Claudia, she informed me that the idea of independent lighting design in that country was almost entirely unknown, with most lighting schemes for major buildings and public spaces being conceived and delivered by engineers, contractors, and lighting manufacturers, rather than professional designers with a creative training.

Whilst of course there are always exceptions to the rule, from what she told me it seemed that lighting design in much of South America at that time mirrored the development of the world: One in which the art of lighting was often forgotten, overlooked or set aside in favour of ‘numbers’ or ‘profit’. ‘Numbers’ in so far that many lighting schemes were simply conceived to meet target levels of horizontal or vertical illuminance and ‘profit’ such that so-called ‘free’ design services offered by suppliers and manufacturers were often a means of selling luminaires in quantities or ways that didn’t always benefit the client, society, or the environment.

As a pioneer of independent lighting design in her country it was clear to me when I first met Claudia that she was both passionate about light and driven by her wish to help play her part in bringing about a change to this paradigm. It was therefore a pleasure not only to meet her and exchange ideas, but also contribute to her mission in a small way. Less than four years later I found myself on a flight to Lima having been invited to speak at a conference organised by her to an audience that was keen to learn how the lighting design profession could be better developed to become one of the key groups that illuminate the built environment in that country. For me that development – from a brief personal meeting and interview in London to a full-blown conference in Peru - was the first arc of a journey where ‘inspiration’ proved to be the guiding force.

At our first meeting Claudia also shared with me that one of her motivations for pursuing her dream of becoming a lighting designer was a book that myself, my late partner Jonathan Spiers and an academic colleague Anthony Tischauser published back in 2005 – ‘Made of Light – The Art of Light and Architecture’. Part of an educational project that included a travelling exhibition and lecture series ‘Made of Light’ celebrated the tradition of integrating artificial light into the building projects to elevate them to become ‘light architecture’. Namely, light that creates an experience for people after dark through providing new interpretations of the built environment. It has been long agreed that good lighting design can not only meet our practical needs such as a wide variety of visual tasks, help keep us safe and secure, find our way, etc., but also deliver a wide range of benefits including creating a strong identity and character, contributing to place-making, telling stories and producing a sense of joy. Whilst it is recognised that lighting design is both an art as well as a science, it is the former that often brings beauty to our lives, directly contributing to our sense of enjoyment and well-being at night.

Whilst ‘Made of Light’ was only one of many sources of inspiration for Claudia, we are reminded by both the meeting and the conference how education and communication can help provide a cultural shift. For there is no doubt that whilst both her passion and her projects have encouraged developers, planners, architects, landscape designers, engineers, and students in Peru to realise the possibilities offered by the creative use of light, her reaching out to other practising lighting designers elsewhere in the world has also helped provide her with impetus.

And this for me is the second arc of the circle; the intellectual eco-system and shared sense of purpose that exists between lighting designers, both as friends and colleagues, who work hard together to improve the nightscape. A movement that is created by one lighting designer in one part of the world inspiring another to achieve even greater things in their own. They in turn provide leadership and direction to others, who in turn develop and influence those that follow on.

Of course, we can reflect that is (and always has been) what education is about – one generation informing the next through what it has learned. What in some circles might simply be referred to as ‘wisdom’. But what is common wisdom in the field of lighting? Is it the passing on of knowledge about the universal properties of light, history, theory, language, communication of ideas, technique, technology? Is it about the way we practice and perform? Or is it about the process we go through when conceiving and delivering lighting solutions? For me it is all of these things and more. So, when one lighting designer from Peru takes the time to ask another from the UK some searching questions – it is both parties that benefit from such a dialogue. The former gains new insights into where they need to take things whilst the latter is challenged and reminded as to why it is they do what they do.   

And now the final part of the arc has been realised through the production of this beautiful book. A book which can live in studios across the world to help inspire the next generation of young lighting designers to achieve even greater things.  It certainly inspires me to think about why I love light and lighting: I certainly see magic at play in her work. For light is such a special medium: With the quick flick of a switch, or the raising or lowering of a dimmer, we can not only reveal the form, texture, and colour of our world after dark but make spaces feel bigger, smaller, wider, longer, warmer, cooler, brighter or darker. We can add glow, glitter, sparkle and glisten alongside reflection, refraction, diffusion, and absorption. We can help make people feel happy, healthy, optimistic, and excited or contemplative, relaxed and calm. We can highlight or conceal, add light or retain darkness, create shadow and texture. We can celebrate beauty or even make ugly things look a little better. Above all we can help people to work, rest, play, learn, care and support after dark, not only enabling them to socially interact but also generate wealth.  And whilst we know we must work in a responsible way against the background of living and working in a world that is facing serious challenges, including the climate emergency, the fact that we can do all that with a medium that you can’t see, touch, taste or smell quite frankly is just amazing! Certainly, what has gone around has come around in that ‘A Lighting Designer Out of the Box’ now provides a clear source of inspiration for me and many others. In so doing it helps close the loop on our shared ‘Circle of Light’.