In autumn 2005, I walked through the doors of the Parsons School of Design as the new director of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Lighting Design program. I arrived with great enthusiasm for my commitment to full-time academic work, as well as significant naïveté about what lay ahead and, more importantly, what herculean work had already been accomplished by my predecessors who began this esteemed program at a time when the lighting design profession was still establishing its roots.
Lighting design education started at Parsons in the 1970s under the direction of the late James Nuckolls, a pioneer in lighting design education and practice. With no pre-existing academic models for lighting education, initial study at Parsons began through a framework of isolated design problems, or “projects.” These lighting projects evolved into formal classes in the mid-1970s and were offered in the evening through the Continuing Education Department.
In 1984, because of Nuckolls’ persistence, the classes that he had initiated became the basis for the first MFA in Lighting Design degree and the official establishment of the Lighting Design program. The program experienced a number of transformations in its first few years, not the least of which was the untimely death of Nuckolls in 1987. Despite the significant loss of the program’s founding visionary, lighting design education at Parsons continued its evolution with him in mind.
In 1996, even though the program still consisted primarily of evening classes, the Lighting Design program was moved from the purview of the Continuing Education Department to the Department of Architecture. In 1998, due to declining enrollment, the two-year MFA curriculum was replaced with a one-year (three-semester) Master of Arts (MA) curriculum. However, this change was short-lived due to compromises with intellectual depth and, in 2004, returned to the two-year, four-semester MFA format. Significant to this transition was the development of an entirely new program and, most notably, a migration toward daytime classes to align with other departmental programs and foster improved interaction between students and faculty. In the interest of advancing these cross-disciplinary relationships throughout Parsons, the university initiated a substantial change to the administrative structure in 2008 when it disbanded its many siloed departments and consolidated them into five schools that aligned disciplines and areas of academic interest. This resulted in the merger of Architecture, Interior Design, Lighting Design, and Product Design into the School of Constructed Environments—an equitable alliance of disciplines that share interests in the design of the built world at all scales. Furthermore, this school structure positions the Lighting Design program as an equal to its peer disciplines.
Today, the MFA Lighting Design program enrolls an international roster of approximately 70 students across three master-level degree tracks. As I consider the early days of lighting education at Parsons and compare the work that James Nuckolls initiated to our teaching today, its easy to recognize the many changes that have taken place. These differences reflect the technological evolutions in contemporary practice and current trends toward complex, integrated design thinking, most of which are positive transitions that further validate the work that we do and the need for independent lighting practitioners. Despite these differences, there are core elements from the initial Parsons lighting program that remain fundamental to our teaching today. This includes a progressive vision toward professional preparedness—one that aspires to push forward the intellectual future of the profession in addition to teaching skills that are applicable today—and the recognition that lighting design is an established professional practice that has a substantial impact on the daily lives of people and, therefore, a responsibility to conduct our work in a qualitative, balanced manner with the well-being of the inhabitant in mind. I imagine Nuckolls would be proud of the advancements made at Parsons, and the lighting design profession more broadly, fully recognizing that there is always more work to do.
Derek Porter, IALD, MIES, is a principal at Derek Porter Studio, in New York, and an associate professor at Parsons School of Design, and director of its MFA Lighting Program (2005–14).