Where to begin? So much has transpired—good and bad—since I last penned this column. First there is the economy. In the United States, as well as globally, the economy took a nose dive in late September. U.S. financial institutions—investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns—that once seemed the pillars of economic soundness are gone, the victims of bad speculation, management, and greed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has suffered decline after decline, posting a notable single-day loss on Sept. 29, 2008, of 777 points. This finally forced the U.S. government to step in with a financial bailout plan of $700 billion to stop the situation from further spiraling out of control. Like a patient being monitored in an intensive care unit, the bailout plan has appeared to temporarily stabilize the economy, but the patient is not out of the clear yet. It's too painful to look at depleted 401k and other retirement accounts. Recovery will take an undetermined amount of time.
And yet there are signs of healing and optimism in the political landscape, with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. It is a bold decision that Americans should be proud of as we refind our way as a nation. Of course, it represents a historic “first”—the first black man elected to the highest office in the land. But it also signals desire for change, representing a spirit that is undeniably American. As we dare to take a risk for the sake of achieving something greater than the present offers us, we become the entrepreneurs of our own future.
Architectural lighting design, as an industry, also stems from an entrepreneurial spirit. When there was no such thing as a “lighting designer,” early pioneers in the field such as Abe Feder, Richard Kelly, and Edison Price did not just light spaces, they invented ways to illuminate, and in the process created the fixtures necessary to get the job done. Price, whose namesake company Edison Price is synonymous with lighting design, worked with some of the most notable architects of the 20th century—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Buckminster Fuller, and I.M. Pei. Equal parts inventor, engineer, designer, and craftsman, one cannot think of recessed and track lighting and not think of the two innovations for which Price is recognized. Ahead of his time with low-brightness, glare-free fixtures, Price established what have since become industry conventions, setting the benchmark for future product development. Price has long been recognized as a great innovator. In today's lighting industry, is it possible for such an individual to exist?
Recent mergers and acquisitions between lighting companies, such as Cooper's purchase of io Lighting and Philips' notable acquisitions of Color Kinetics and the Genlyte Group, have changed the playing field completely. As a result, the U.S. lighting industry is dominated by four conglomerates—Acuity Brands, Philips, Hubbell, and Cooper. While there are business advantages for smaller lighting companies that are brought under the umbrella of larger manufacturers, with their presumably greater available resources, questions still remain: Is the research and development process for new fixtures, sources, materials, and technologies at risk when it sits under the purview of so few corporate structures? Do these conditions foster true innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit that will allow the U.S. lighting industry to remain competitive in the global marketplace? Will the structure of the lighting industry fall out of balance as small- and medium-sized companies disappear?
Most likely, the days of a designer establishing a viable lighting company—as Price did with Edison Price, or as Sy Shemitz did with Elliptipar and Tambient—are long gone. However, it does appear that new innovations such as solid-state lighting and thin-film technologies are serving as the catalyst for the formation of new companies. Lighting manufacturers of the future will not build themselves around fixtures, per se, but around new applications. Once the technology has been established, fixtures will follow suit.
President-elect Obama seems to possess the wisdom and fortitude to overcome the economic and political obstacles at hand. There is no reason why the same cannot be true for lighting. Now is the time to envision a new definition of our industry, one that cultivates an environment of innovation and exploration, and creates a new generation of Edison Prices.