The complete interview with Paul Gregory, founder of Focus Lighting
HD: How did you get where you are today? Did you always know you wanted to go into lighting design? Hospitality?
PG: Lighting is a combination of art and physics, which has always suited my interests. I knew I wanted to be a lighting designer when I was in high school and became very involved with the theater. The architectural aspect came a little later, but it was always about combining my artistic, and scientific interests, and merging those worlds into a single discipline.
Hospitality projects are ideal because it is a small group of professionals and you get to sit across from the client; whether it is the hotel owner, or the celebrity chef. You get direct feedback from the owner and collaboration with the other designers. There is no committee, no board to interfere with the creative process and the success of the design.
Hospitality is also like a theatrical show because there is preparation, collaboration, opening night, and press which is critical to the success of a space.
HD: How big is your firm now?
PG: I started Focus Lighting in 1985, which is now an architectural lighting design firm of 25 talented designers doing projects all over the world. We have approximately 18 lighting designers, four project managers, and three office personnel.
Half of our designers are trained in architecture and half are trained in theatre. Many people come here by way of friends, or other connections in Lighting, Architecture, and Art. Each designer is essentially “hand-picked.” In many cases I have met their parents. I would welcome any of them into my home. They are all wonderful and very talented people.
HD: What was your big break into the hospitality lighting design world?
PG: Nobu and Town in New York, designed by Rockwell Group, are two of my favorite projects for which we designed the lighting. It was a very exciting time to be working with David Rockwell and creating such amazing and successful New York restaurants.
My previous company, LiteLab, was focused on entertainment lighting and we did clubs like Studio 54, the Paradise Garage, Xenon, the Saint, and of course, the floor for [the film] Saturday Night Fever.
Ready to make a transition into more architectural work, it was important to preserve the sense of drama, energy, and excitement, yet to find a subdued, beautiful, and lasting way to light these hospitality spaces.
HD: Why do you love lighting hospitality projects?
PG: I love to sit across from owner and discuss the patron's experience. Why will it be great? What makes it unique? It is answering these questions together that stimulate the entire process of the design.
Hospitality projects are similar to theater because the moment you walk inside the experience begins. You see the velour curtains, crystal chandeliers, and the wallpaper on the walls. Then you take your seat, the orchestra plays, house lights go to half, music transitions, all goes dark, and then the curtain opens for the big reveal.
Walking into a hotel is not so different. You see the space from across the street and receive your first impression. You get closer and notice the marble, the chandeliers, the lit bar fascia. Once inside you find your table, you see the sparkle in the tableware, the glow on your date’s face, and the lit artwork on the walls. Essentially, theatricality works in hospitality.
HD: What are some of the new "trends" in lighting design?
PG: First, there are trends in science and technology. Light sources are more efficient and longer lasting than ever before. Yet some light sources are better in certain applications. Care must be taken to know whether to use low-wattage metal halide versus low-wattage LED. Sometimes color rendering leads the design criteria, and sometimes lamp life or efficiency is the deciding factor.
Second there are trends in art and design. 'Great design wins, just look at the iPod.' People appreciate a beautifully designed space more than ever before. The layers of light which we apply to a space give it depth and dimension. The sensitivity it takes to interpret every surface is appreciated by the client and the consumer.
HD: You have worked with some of the top design firms and owners. What is the key to a successful collaboration?
PG: Respect. Clients and owners must respect my design input and I must respect theirs. We push each other to make it great, but manage to support one another along the way.
HD: What are the secrets to success to using lighting to create a better experience for the patron? Talk to me about some of the techniques you use to make sure this happens?
PG: It is important to ‘analyze the views’ in an effort to create beautiful pictures. Pictures are comprised of foreground, background, frame and focus. Each element of the view is analyzed. The wallpaper, furniture, artwork, and the people that will inhabit the space are the most important elements of the painting. Then the color, reflectivity, and depth of each surface are analyzed to create the final picture.
Also, due to my theatrical training, I think I pay particularly close attention to how faces and people look within is space. Like the amazing light that hits the human face when sitting around the fire, when light comes from low level it can be very warm and attractive. We are trained to think about these things and emulate them with the appropriate sources.
HD: You have recently worked on many exciting projects. Can you talk about one and the challenges/highlights?
PG: One of our most exciting projects right now is a restaurant on the 124th floor of the Burj Tower in Dubai. We are working with Tihany Design to try to create excitement in the restaurant and create something unique for this groundbreaking structure, the tallest in the world at completion.
HD: How was it to work on such an exciting project as CityCenter? For Crystals, you said it took hundreds of drawings, three models, and multiple full-scale mock-ups completed over the course of three years to fully integrate the lighting into the architecture and special features. Can you talk a bit about this?
PG: Working with Studio Daniel Libeskind, Rockwell Group, and the other talented designers on Crystals at CityCenter was an amazing experience. With such a complex angular structure it was a hard task to integrate lighting into the exterior, interior and the walkways around the building. Particularly the interior provided challenges where we needed to light the ceiling itself, the walls and the concourse below. We designed ceiling slots which house theatrical fixtures and are accessible by catwalks. There are also dynamic light slashes cast of the walls to mirror the architecture and create another layer of interest in the beautiful design.
HD: What don’t people realize about lighting design?
PG: 'All You See Is Reflected Light.' You don't see all the materials and surfaces; you see the light that reflects off them into your eye. Lighting designers are integral in deciding what picture the viewer will see. When lighting is described as a tool for 'painting' or 'sculpting' it speaks to how integral light can be to define a space.
HD: How is the green movement is affecting your industry. What are some of the new technologies/products helping you?
PG: The green movement provides a real challenge. To create a fabulous interior at 1.5 watts per square foot requires ingenuity and creativity. Great design is often created by rising to this challenge. Strict energy codes or low maintenance needs have driven us to many a unique solutions.
HD: You seem to be very busy in this economy. How are you faring? What's the secret to staying so busy?
PG: Referrals. All our work comes through referrals from previous projects. It is the work that we have done in the past that keeps us busy in these rough times.
HD: What is one hotel or restaurant you love for lighting but didn't work on?
PG: I really loved Tavern on the Green (now closed). It was one of my favorite places in New York. Ken Billington, of Broadway acclaim, created the lighting design. The trees wrapped in light and the chandeliers in the white room made a big impact on me.