Architectural Lighting interviews Charles G. Stone II, IALD, LC, managing and design principal for Fisher Marantz Stone, Inc. Stone received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University with a Certificate from the Program in Theater and Dance for lighting design. His experience encompasses architectural and theatrical projects including concert halls, airports, convention centers, museums, hotels, theme parks, corporate headquarters and commercial developments throughout the world. He has received IALD Citation Awards for the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the National Yokohama Convention Center. Projects receiving an IALD Award of Excellence include the National Gallery of Canada, 100 East Pratt Street in Baltimore, the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City, Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong and, most recently, the American Museum of Natural History Rose Center for Earth and Space.

- Alice Liao

Q: If someone had asked you, 'What do you want to be when you grow up,' you would have answered...

A: I always knew what I was going to be when I grew up. When I was 11, I went to the Harrisburg Community Theater, worked backstage on the lighting, came home and announced that's what I was going to do. That's absolutely true. You can ask my mom.

Q: How did you make the transition to architectural lighting?

A: After Princeton, I thought I wanted to be a theatrical lighting designer, but a little summer stock and a couple of years in off-off-Broadway made me realize that there were only about five people who actually made a living doing that-one of them is Jules (Fisher), of course.

Then I was introduced to architectural lighting. I went to see Sy Shemitz, who wrote me a letter that I still have somewhere. He pointed out to me the obvious truism: In theater, you design and build things that last perhaps two weeks or a year and in architectural lighting, it's 40 years. You need to understand and embrace that idea if you want to be an architectural lighting designer because if you come here and start working, it will be a few years before you start to see projects. So my advice to young lighting designers is if you have the patience to be an architectural lighting designer, then come on board. But if you want to see it happen more quickly, work in theater, film or TV.

Q: What is the most intriguing aspect of your job?

A: Trying to figure out what the critical details are. There is not enough time in the project schedule and in our days to work on everything and resolve every little detail. No one has time for that. Which are the most critical parts of the experience of approaching a building? What are the most beautiful places to stand? Which views are the most moving? And how will light play a part of it? We have a lot of projects underway in our office and it's the senior people who have to make sure that we've given proper attention to the right details. Which is why I'm never bored. I walk around in fear that I won't catch all the right details. It's a powerful motivator-fear.

Q: What do you hate about it?

A: Some of the business aspects are inconceivable and therefore, not much fun. People pay their doctors and phone bills, but they don't necessarily want to pay for professional services, such as ourselves. We try to work with people who are going to recognize that we bring value to a project and who will pay our bills. Usually, there are no problems, but when there are, it's an unpleasant part of the day. When you realize they have no respect for what you do, you wonder why they hired you in the first place.

Q: Are there issues that you're passionate about?

A: Well, I like to say that one person's glare is another person's glitter. Every time I think I understand appropriate brightness relationships and illumination techniques and results, I meet another person and I learn a different view. So that's ever changing. However, I have strong feelings when a project looks right. That's usually when I get into the most trouble with clients. When we disagree on something fundamental in terms of how a project should look, either before it's designed, during the process or when it's too late, when it's built, I become very passionate. It's always the most frustrating time because sometimes I'm in disbelief that I can be wrong or that maybe I've misunderstood something. Of course, they should never hire us if they don't want the passion and the point of view. But actually, most of the time, the problems are all traceable to communication. Our job is to listen to what clients want and then find a way to realize it, enhance it or to turn it around and show them a better way, some combination of that continuum.

Q: Communication seems to be an important issue for you...

A: One of the themes I've been focusing on in our office this year is thinking very hard at the beginning of a project about how to communicate your lighting ideas to the client, to colleagues and to the architect, because the nature of what we do is an abstraction. When you start to solve the problem, even before you put your pencil on the paper, you have to start thinking about how you're going to communicate the abstraction. What will the metaphors be? It's always about metaphors-you can draw the light, but you can't hold it in your hand. You can't go there, because it's not built yet. You can take them to similar spaces or show them pictures, but there's great danger associated with that because when you show someone a picture of a space and say, 'It's going to be like this,' they may be looking at the flower arrangement. This happens all the time.

In fact, I think some of the success we have enjoyed has been due to our insistence on studying and perfecting communication techniques. I like to discuss with the client the process of communication, how it can be improved. One of the great assumptions that we make over and over again about our clients is that they can read the drawings. Very few people can actually look at blueprints and stand it up in their brains. It's not that they don't have the ability-it's just a skill you acquire through practice.

Q: What about computer programs?

A: Everyone's hooked on computer renderings-for good reason-and indeed, in projects like the American Museum of Natural History Rose Center for Earth and Space, the computer enhanced our ability to imagine and enabled us to solve the problem the way we did. But computer visualizations of architectural spaces are dangerous things. The most basic technical facts stand in the way. Computer models are made from mathematical iterations and calculations and you can't run them out to infinity. You have to stop at some point. Everyone who uses them understands the shortcomings in the software, and in the industry, it's a wink and a nod. However, when you show computer models to your client, they don't understand the limitations of the rendering-that either on a monitor or printed out, you're looking in both cases at a limited number of values of gray scale. Two-hundred-and-fifty-five steps from white to black on a computer screen are just a fraction of what your eye is capable of. The dynamic range that your eye and brain can see and imagine is much greater than what you can show someone on a flat piece of paper or on a computer screen. All the subtleties of lighting are lost. There's a far more dynamic range, for example, in a Caravaggio painting than what's possible in a lighting program. In fact, in a Caravaggio, there's always black and if you look for it, you'll find almost absolute white. That's very interesting to me because it's an infinite scale.

Q: Is Caravaggio a source of inspiration?

A: Caravaggio is my favorite artist. There's great honesty in his use of light, which is one of the reasons his paintings are so moving. When I was in Milan three weeks ago, I spent time looking at a few of the Caravaggios in town. Studying where the light is in those paintings is a very relaxing and worthwhile exercise for a lighting designer. Everybody says it's a beautiful painting, but why is it so? If you had that little light in most projects, you'd get in trouble. And yet they're exquisite in their expression-the play of soft and sharp shadows, the angles of light. Three variables, right? Color, angle and intensity. Those are the three variables if you really boil down lighting.

Q: Do you derive ideas from other disciplines? Music? Literature?

A: Sometimes, the rhythms from music or patterns from mathematics or discussions about geometry will have a lot to do with how you think about ordering a building at some abstract level. It's hard to take that into practicality, but if they're strong and well-formed, those initial concepts can run right through a project. They can provide ideas, especially with regard to rhythms and patterns, because one of the ways that we look at a building is in terms of layers. For example, an entire arrival experience that takes you through a series of luminous zones can be associated with a musical rhythm or relate to math or simple geometries like Golden Sections or the Fibonacci series or other ideas from observations in nature.

Q: The most inspirational architects?

A: It is so much fun to work with many different architects and their styles. And because our job is to come in and enhance their work, we have to see through their eyes. Paul (Marantz) likes to say that we inhabit the mind of the architect-that's our primary job. Their first job is to bring us in on their communication set of tools, introduce us to them. We're all doing some of the same things, so there's a lot of similarity in the tools we use, but the stories they tell to explain the project, the metaphors they use, the images they show you, the style of their presentation, the references-historical and otherwise-and obviously, the way the projects are conceived, detailed-all of that is different for every single architect.

Q: What did you think of Lightfair?

A: Each of these fairs has its own kind of personality because of the way the markets operate. One of the big differences between the U.S. market and European market, for example, is that the dollars per cubic unit of building in Europe is much higher than it is here, so there's more money sloshing around to pay for innovation. Consequently, at the European fairs, you tend to see more new things. They'll actually float a new product out there-and sometimes it's real vaporware-just to get a reaction. You don't see that as much in the U.S. not only because of the cost of building and available capital question, but also because there's a fear on the part of U.S. manufacturers that they're just going to get copied. So when you go to Lightfair, you have to snoop around for innovation. Every one asks us: What did you see that was new at the show? Did I see anything? Sure. Did I see a lot of innovation? No. I saw more of that at other places in the world this spring, which is a little discouraging, but that doesn't mean there won't be an American manufacturer who's going to figure out how to mass-produce it first.

But actually, to a large extent, it's our job to innovate. I don't really care if I saw new things at the show because it's my job to come up with them. And I think that's what we try to do in each job. In each project, we are looking for places to innovate, because on a good day, each lighting project we come to in the course of a day is one that has a unique client, a unique program and a unique set of problems. That's presumably why they came to us. So it's our job to innovate something that maybe will be unique. I wouldn't expect to find it in a show.

Innovation is using a set of things in a new way. People appreciate that. In fact, they'll appreciate that more than designing a completely unique light fixture. If you can find a simple, ordinary set of lighting tools, existing fixtures to solve a problem in a new way, that's creative use of stuff. And that's good. That's what gets me up in the morning.

June/July 2001 Architectural Lighting Magazine