Although Howard Brandston’s boyhood dream was to be a tennis star, it’s a good thing he chose lighting design instead. In his own right, Brandston has become a shining star—and guiding light—in this field.
Brandston studied theatrical illumination at Brooklyn College and began his career in lighting in the New York theater. Early on, he was a designer at several manufacturing and lighting design firms including Century Lighting, where he served as assistant to the legendary Stanley McCandless, who inspired much of his work and design philosophy.
“Good lighting is an agreement between the designer and the client at the beginning of every project,” said Brandston. “The ultimate criticism is when, upon completion of the project, the guy who’s paying the money says: “This place looks precisely the way you told me it would.”
Brandston also credits McCandless for teaching him to be careful and honorable with a client’s money— “design and budget are synonymous”—and to respect each and every member of a team. “Working with Stanley, I realized that every single person who works with you is critical to the success of a project—from the principal designer to the client to the janitor,” recounted Brandston. “Even Stanley, who was busy and famous at the time, was never ‘too important’ to answer his own phone.
The young Brandston soon had ample opportunity to answer his own phone when he set out to join—and conquer—the world of lighting design in 1966. With some borrowed money, Brandston established his practice in a small loft in Manhattan, sent out announcements and waited. “I was getting to be a pretty decent guitar player because I was there alone, playing, waiting for the phone to ring,” said Brandston. “Then a lighting company called and said they needed a new line of fixtures and wanted me to design the optical systems.”
The firm was Kurt Versen, which soon referred him to graphic designer Rudy DeHarak, whom he collaborated with on the flagship Canadian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and later, the American Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. These undertakings soon led to even bigger projects, such as the design of the master lighting plan for what became the Meadowlands Sports Complex in northern New Jersey and eventually, to the lighting of the Statue of Liberty.
In all, Brandston has more than 30 years’ experience in lighting design, engineering and electronics—designing illumination for more than 2,500 commercial, institutional, residential and government projects—leading peers to credit him, with his portfolio of high-profile works, with elevating the practice of lighting design to a profession.
“I’m really a very plain person, though,” said the lighting designer. “My peers would find that hard to believe because I fought so vociferously against different IES and ASHRAE standards … and won. They were error-ridden and were not serving the public at large, which is what they were purporting to do.”
A past president of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), he has addressed forums of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the IES, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the Products Council, the United States Institute of Theatre Technology and others. He has served on committees for the National Academy of Sciences and was the IES representative to the Architectural/Engineering Federal Energy Committee during the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, which he has called “the best thing that ever happened to the profession.” His work on conservation helped set the initial standards for lighting from 1975-85 and he was a founding member of the Ad Hoc Committee for Lighting Research and Education Funding Entities, Lighting Research and Education Fund and the Lighting Research Institute.
He has been a guest lecturer or visiting professor at many institutions including Ohio University, Cooper Union, Temple University, and Washington University and was adjunct professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he worked at the Lighting Research Center. In 2000, Brandston also held the Feltman Chair in Lighting and was adjunct professor of social sciences and humanities at Cooper Union.
His articles have been published in more than 70 publications and his light sculptures have been shown in art galleries throughout the U.S. and are permanently installed in museums and university collections.
When all is said and done, tough, people “know me for my dedication to this profession, even when I was known for my dissent,” said Brandston.
Brandston, who admittedly has “no complaints about his career” shared, “The one thing that I would still hope to accomplish is to be the person, either through teaching or mentorship, that gives somebody the leg-up to better than I did—to grow beyond me.”