Read A|L's profile of Rogier van der Heide
The predictable question: How did you get started in lighting design?
The reality is I have never done anything else. My parents were in performing arts and music. As a little boy I walked around a concert hall or a stage or the pit of an orchestra, so it was natural. We played music at home and acted. I have my roots in the theater. I went to study in Brussels—cinematography at the Academy of Arts—but had a passion for light from the start. I did a lot of theater shows, which sounds like the typical career shift that entertainment lighting designers make—but for me it was more radical. As I worked with an architect, I was very much aware of the differences. I enjoyed it so much more: the process was more intense, in terms of the dialogue between the different people involved. In theater, there is no time, at least not in Europe, for a good critique. Hugely enjoyed opera, ballet, anything with music, but it felt kind of lonely. You come in very late, at best three weeks before the opening night, so you really interfere with a team that is very close. You are a stranger, and after the opening night you are gone again to the next show. And I really care about working with my team; that is for me as big an experience as the projects are. 1990, an architect saw my work in theater and asked if I would like to do an exhibition with him. I went with the trunk of my car filled with theater lights, which was the most stupid thing you could do for a museum. I didn’t know, I learned it the hard way.
Do you still play an instrument?
I play piano. I bought a piano just a year ago, after a long time without an instrument at home. I had to go play my mom’s grand piano.
It’s great; the theater is coming back to me also at work. We just started at Arup, with a very small team, to start up a venue consulting group, and that is not directly related to lighting, but because of my background.
So you transitioned into the architectural lighting field in your 20s, and you did have your own firm, right?
It took me until 1995 to focus on just architectural lighting design. In 1995, I founded my practice, Hollands Licht. Before that I was a freelancer, and I worked part time at a small theater consulting practice. Hollands Licht has a meaning: when art historians say Hollands Licht, thÝy are referring to the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer. They call to it the Light of Holland—the way they had the ability to make the light tangible in their paintings—so for me, it was a very poetic name. In Dutch, as in English, light also means light weighted, and I think the Dutch are usually a bit heavy. Their minds are not very flexible. I thought it was an ironic translation.
I never worked much in the Netherlands. I think it’s just not appreciated in Holland; there is a famous Dutch expression, “behave normally, it’s already crazy enough,” so they probably never wanted to work with me. The ironic thing is now that I work for Arup, I have more work than ever in Holland.
Do you want to speak to your move to Arup?
Yes of course. They approached me and it took quite awhile to convince me. What made me go for it is the interaction with my colleagues. It is really great how we can share ideas and work concepts up to feasible designs. It wasn’t always easy in the beginning—a big company can be a big monster—but I still have a relatively small team in Amsterdam. And all of the lighting groups together is just over 30 people.
What is your favorite part of your job, or more personally, what is your favorite part of the day?
It’s that magical moment when an idea comes together; when you are in a brainstorm session, and you all have the feeling that this is going to work. I don’t like the traveling; I like the office. I like the moments in the office, the early mornings, when no one is there. I also enjoy the process with the younger designers: I’m young myself, I’d say, but my team in Amsterdam is very young, really talented, but inexperienced. I like working with them, seeing how that is all changing, how they are improving, exploring their talents.
Is there a project type you have not done, or a specific building you wish you could have been part of it?
I haven’t done much hospitality, and I am very much into the experiential part of lighting, how it is being perceived, how people interact with the lighting I designed, how it can set the mood. I love that aspect. And I think I have built a reputation of being able to do so, but mostly in retail, expressing the identity of corporations. I am quite analytical in the design process, trying to discover the real self of the client. And trying to find an expression of that in light which is really just a medium then, a messenger. Maybe that is an inappropriate process for hospitality. It seems in the large hotels and resorts it is so much about experience. I just started one now, in Las Vegas, but it’s the first time.
Also, since I travel a lot, I am very frustrated by airports but not in the usual way: Airports believe that passengers ask for more efficiency, but I think what we need is more identity. You can disembark from a plane and you have no clue where you are. It all looks the same, around the world. It is the local identity that you like to see. Not in a folkloristic way. We don’t need that but cities and places like airports need to understand who they are and how we can express that in an environment that surrounds us.
Is there a specific project you admire that you would have liked to have been part of?
There are so many, but I am really happy and thankful for the projects that I do. I think I am privileged because of the projects—their personality, the freedom I get from my cliµnts, who really give me the space I need. I shouldn’t ask for anything more at the moment, actually.
That’s wonderfully said, though you only continue to grow if you want more from yourself and your experience, which leads nicely into the next questions: what would you like to do with your career?
I’ve never looked at my career like that. I have never sent out a letter for a job application or anything. My career has taken shape a little differently. I am really interested in product design and in architecture of course. I am really interested in multimedia, and how I can apply that in the built environment. The job in Korea with Ben van Berkel—it was very much about multimedia, and I also designed the products for the project. That was the synthesis of everything that interests me, but it is all not very structured. It comes as it comes.
So if you ask me what I want to do with my career, I would think about how I could make myself more comprehensive beyond lighting design.
I want to explore other design disciplines. I really believe in holistic design as long as it is not just abstract. If it is just a hollow phrase it doesn’t help anybody.
How would you define it?
What I mean is you see the environment as a total system of things that work together, the lighting, the built environment, the acoustics, the climate. You can only design these things if you take all of the others into account, so that calls for people with a very broad mind and interest—a whole team of people like that. Which is a bit of a contradiction to the trend of the “super specialist” in every field, but I think that is a potential risk. The way technology is moving requires highly specialized professionals in every field. However we can only improvå the built environment if we keep thinking about it as generalists. I am interested in how to solve that paradox, which is probably where my career will take me.
It sounds like you feel the environment at Arup begins to work toward that end.
I must say if there were any place this would work out, it would be Arup. The practicë is built on statements like this. It’s just not always put into reality, because not all projects are suitable.
It’s an ideal, especially in a company that is so large. It is sometimes hard to put something like that into practice, but at least it is a daily mantra. The reality is that people are more than busy running their projects and getting them right. You would sometimes wish there’d be more time for things like we are contemplating right now. I very deliberately build it into my everyday routine, but I also appreciate that not everyone is in a position to do that.
It’s nice to get to a point where you and your approach are your own brand.
How can the practice benefit most from leaders being their own brand? I realize that I am the brand. I have done many projects that get published, that people speak about, but I think that that is ok and I really encourage everyone else. Moreover, look at the IALD award for the beautiful lighting of the High Museum, that is a project done by Arfon Davies and Andy Sedgwick. But it is an ongoing discussion.
When you hire Arup, you hire Arup, you don’t hire Rogier. But I believe that these days, large corporations can benefit from a couple of strong personalities. When you look at the most successful architectural practices, they are all built around a single person who is the carrier of the brand. For an engineering/design practice, it’s a little different of course, but Arup decided to acquire my firm for a reason. They had a strategy in mind. Lighting is one of the most exposed disciplines. When you design a fa?ade element, the effort that goes into it may well be much bigger than what goes into the lighting, but the visibility of it is much smaller. The same goes for the acousticians. They do all the hard work behind the scenes. The lighting team is part of Arup’s consulting sector, which is the sector where the smaller design-related skills live as opposed to the building sector, which is more the structural and mechanical engineers. Part of our aim is that lighting design could help expose the consulting sector.
I had a question about how you approach your work: There is something almost joyful; something really delighted about your relationship to your work. I really appreciate that. I wonder if that is part of what makes your success?
What you are referring to is the kid inside myself—the minute I received the Radiance Award last year, I was just a kid. I would say to everybody don’t give up that part of yourself. It helps you. And I try to make it a good experience for people to work with me, but as you get older, you understand yourself better, and I realize that I can be very polarizing. There ar? people that hate to work with me. I’m not adaptive enough, maybe, because I feel it compromises my work. It’s not arrogance, but I feel it is important to create the lighting the way I create the lighting. If I just do something that pleases the client, there are hundreds of lighting consultants around who could do a better job at that. But I would like to be asked because of my vi?w on things, and not just because of my resume.
I need the excitement and pleasure to perform, and I can usually find a way to make that happen for the whole team. And I consider that part of my job.