Meet Steve Brown

What path did you take to become a lighting designer?

Like just about everybody in lighting design, an indirect one. Originally an aspiring UWA architecture student forced to find a job in the building industry at short notice, I ‘fell’ into building services drafting, which to my mind was only ever a short-term prospect.

Reading one of the classic textbooks about lighting design from the 1970s turned my head around, and it wasn’t long before I was begging to do the lighting design on every project. There was no such thing as a lighting design industry in Australia back then, so everything was self-learned.

Why does light matter to you? And why should it matter to our clients?

Light is one of the easiest things in building services to specify, but one of the very hardest to get right. Recently I was in a furniture showroom, and noticed they were selling bedheads with integrated lighting. This was without doubt the most inappropriate and unattractive lighting I have ever seen. I would not have bought one in a million years.

There is a big difference between “just add a light there” versus actually considering how it appeals to a typical person’s eye, and therefore their brain.

What’s your career highlight project?

One career highlight was lighting the facade of the ‘Veil’ at Crown Sydney, which is an intricate and geometrically complex piece of architecture (kudos to Wilkinson Eyre and Bates Smart). The brief was to illuminate it subtly and attractively without contravening any light spill standards, or upsetting the adjacent observatory.

Tell us about the lighting on this project.

It required nearly 400 small wattage fittings, each individually aimed, with many mounted on top of a glass canopy structure over diners! All the fittings came with fairly sophisticated light control baffles and the aiming had to be done so that there was no upward light spill beyond the architectural ‘eyebrow’ at the top of the facade. I have undertaken larger projects during my career – the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the MCG for instance – and they all had their challenges, but what I like about the Veil is that it’s a lovely set-piece project with stunning architecture.

What innovative new approaches are you seeing when it comes to lighting design?

Everything for the past ten years has been linear, linear, linear; all due to the take-up of the micro linear LED systems we all know and love. Personally, I think these have had their day and should become just another tool, not the tool. I would like to see a return to classicism; drop dead gorgeous pendants, more uplighting and more interiors in the ‘dimmed incandescent’ colour range, rather than the ubiquitous 3,000K.

What advice do you have for aspiring lighting designers looking to break into the industry?

Almost everyone who has trod the path before you has come into the profession from an unusual angle, at least in this country. Entering from a field unrelated to lighting is no barrier. Provided you have an appetite for learning, experimentation, hard work and a good eye for detail, you may well have what it takes to break in.

Why should a client engage a lighting designer, in addition to an electrical engineer, in the early stages of a project? What are the benefits?

Electrical engineering is, I think, a different profession to what it was 30 years ago (and I speak as someone who once wore an ‘electrical’ hat). Back then the electrical engineer did everything related to the supply of electricity within a building, and the device on the end of the cable, at a time when lighting was a simpler beast than it is now.

Firstly, luminaires absorb electrons, but emit photons; and electrical engineers are not trained in how to deal with the photons, in other words the light emitted and how to harness it, whereas lighting designers are.

Secondly, a lot of electrical ‘specialisms’ have moved away from core electrical in the last 30 years – I’m thinking specialist communications, AV, security, IT, and so on – and lighting is included in these specialisms.

A lighting designer involved in the early stages of a project will be looking for lighting opportunities, and most importantly, ways for them to be integrated into the architecture – in other words, not be built out. At the same time, the electrical engineer will be more concerned with space planning, with things such as substation design and authority negotiations, which is a very different focus indeed. The two can run in parallel, but each discipline’s primary focus is in fact quite dissimilar.

Lighting design – is it art or science? Why?

Both. In my everyday professional life, I find the need to practice what I hope is good taste and the ability to make the lighting completely harmonise with the architecture. I believe this falls within the art remit, but also understand how the lighting works technically, which is the science.