Architectural Lighting interviews John F. Bos, IALD, IESNA, LC, principal of Bos Lighting Design in Houston, TX. His professional experience has encompassed many aspects of design from architectural lighting design to theatrical scenery and lighting to industrial design to theatrical consultation. Bos teaches at both the University of St. Thomas and University of Houston Downtown, both in Houston, TX and has received numerous International Illumination Design Awards (IIDA) for his work on such projects as the Axxiss in Monterrey, Mexico, Riverbend Church in Austin, TX and the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Brownsville, TX.
- Christina Trauthwein

Q: Who is John Bos?

A: I'm a designer. That's how I define my professional persona. Whether that means I'm designing children's toys, shoes, clothing, light fixtures, theater sets, whatever, I am a designer. To me, that means someone who can apply an aesthetic problem-solving mentality to what they do day in and day out.

Q: Quickly, a couple of words to describe you?

A: Humorous. Patient. In fact, my wife often tells me: 'I can go into a room and say 'hello' and people can be mad at me. You can go into a room and say 'go to hell' and they'll thank you.'

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

A: I probably would have said a whole list of things. And maybe I'll just get to them all before I retire. Seriously, though, I started off in pre-med, went into creative writing, then went on to the theater, then to industrial design-and now this. I was heavily focused on math and science in the beginning and then met a man, who turned out to be a mentor, who got me into theater design in my junior year of college. And once I started on that track, I was fortunate enough to have a second mentor at SMU-Bill Eckhardt-to help me continue with it. Bill was a top-notch theater designer/producer in New York City-responsible for discovering Carol Burnett and giving Angela Lansbury her role as Mame on Broadway-who really solidified a lot of ideas about design and taught me to focus on the broad definition of design rather than its division into disciplines.

Q: What captured your interest about theater design?

A: The ability to design things and the opportunity to see them quickly. The idea that you put something up, see what you've done, find your mistakes, find your successes and then move to the next project is both thrilling and gratifying. It's an incredible learning experience because of the rapidity of the projects.

When I came out of graduate school, scenery design was my main focus. And when I moved to Houston, I became the scene designer for the Alley Theater. I only thought I'd be there two or three years-and that was in 1979. I went from there to another small theater, worked with them for a number of years, opened an industrial design studio for a while, then moved back into the theater again thinking I would stick with that path. Well, the guy I was working for really wasn't creating the right opportunities for me and one day, a local rep firm offered me a slot to go to work for them, assuming I could sell dimming. Through this position, I called on architects and interior designers. And after about five years, it paid off: A couple of the architecture firms got together, said they wanted me as an independent consultant and even gave me a couple of years' worth of work to entice me. And it sure did. That's how I became an architectural lighting designer.

Q: What experiences accompanied you on your new career path?

A: In the theater, I learned about reflectors and actual lamps and the ways to manipulate light rather than more engineering-based lighting applications. I was also taught about the concepts of light and space, providing me a perspective on using light creatively versus using light to achieve a purely technical solution. It's all about thinking in light rather than thinking about applying light-it's like learning a foreign language. They say the key to mastering that is to actually think in that language instead of thinking in your native tongue and translating in your head.

Q: What learning experience has had the most impact on you?

A: Probably my graduate work, working with Bill Eckhardt. He had a wonderful vision and the ability to express it. More than that, he possessed great confidence in knowing and accepting that other people often have different solutions to the same problem. Other ideas did not threaten him. What an admirable trait and how lucky I was to witness it firsthand. He showed those of us who studied with him a valuable lesson in professionalism and set this wonderful example that taught us it's okay to have firm ideas and strong beliefs-in fact, he'd encourage that-but to allow other people's ideas to flow around you, to listen to them and pull what you need from them. I carry this into our studio every day.

Q: What's your favorite type of project to work on?

A: I love residential work. I really enjoy the fact that you're constantly challenged to be creative on your feet and that the basis under which the project is born inevitably changes five or six times-and you're expected to have answers to those as you go. 'Yes, John, you've solved this problem three or four times, now what's your fifth and sixth solution?' For me, it's great fun.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about lighting designers?

A: In terms of the construction industry, that they inevitably make a project cost more and the value derived is not in line with that.

Q: What's one thing you wish architects already knew about your job?

A: Lighting designers look at space differently from architects. And our vision-how we're trained to view a space compared with the way they are trained, brings us to a different set of conclusions about how the space develops. Architects are trained and all of their tools are rooted in 2D models. Very rarely do you find an architect, or especially a client, who thinks in terms of volume of space and how that volume is subdivided. Architects deal with typical rectilinear volumes and they don't usually consider how to emphasize or de-emphasize parts of those spaces. People inhabit the space, intersect the space and move through it, and lighting plays a significant role in creating their experiences-whether good, bad or indifferent. This is an idea I try to express most but is understood least. We try to work with architects on a peer-to-peer basis and hopefully, there are no subjects considered 'off limits.'

Q: Is there a motto you live by?

A: I have a quote that I keep near at all times. It's by Mark Twain: 'When in doubt, tell the truth. It will astound your friends and confound your enemies.'

Q: What's one thing about your job that you've found extremely rewarding?

A: The opportunity to have created a studio for 10 designers to work in and to be able to make a good living doing what they love to do. One of the things in theater that I didn't like was that designers were constantly creating large amounts of value for various producers and were wooed by the story of loyalty-you know, the 'we're all family here' line-and that was fallacious most of the time. The opportunity here to put that ethos into practice and to form and maintain an environment for creative people to thrive is by far the most rewarding-even though the most challenging-aspect of my job.

Q: If you were to pen an article on any professional topic, what would it be?

A: I would want to somehow hone in on the topic: Design is design. It's not lighting design, it's not art design, it's not architecture design, but that design is a universal language and a universal system of solving day-to-day problems. Something else I'm passionate about: The lighting industry has forever had a bad rap about honesty and integrity. Virtually every architect we work for has horror stories about lighting and how terrible the project pricing has gone on a job. I'd express that irregardless of how sleazy we've been told lighting is in the construction industry because it doesn't have to be that way. We do not need to go to meetings with chips on our shoulders and assume that the reps, the wholesalers or the electricians are the bad guys. We should be able to deal honestly and directly with each other understanding that everybody has to live and make a profit. It does not advance our profession for lighting to have a reputation of an 'anything goes' industry; that you can hang the honesty hat at the door and it's a free-for-all. Nor does it advance lighting for us, as designers, to constantly denigrate our reps, electricians and wholesalers.

Q: What's the best thing that's happened in the profession in recent years?

A: I think probably the IALD Vision Conference and the work that Barbara Boyeau and the membership committee at the IALD have accomplished. The new sense of opportunity and level of interest that has accompanied these have moved our profession a giant step forward.

Q: What words describe lighting design in the '80s, '90s and beyond?

A: The 1980s planted the seeds for lighting design; 1990s signaled the growing of the crop; and we're now getting into an era where there's tremendous opportunity to harvest and reap the benefits of our efforts.

Q: What's your outlook on the economy as it relates to the lighting industry?

A: The economy has slowed down, obviously, and when things slow down, we've all done a good job of creating a sense of need for better, more efficient lighting. We'll see some retrenching on that. I think there's going to be more of a sense throughout the lighting and construction industry that integrity and lighting need not be an oxymoron. In a down economy, people are not going to be able to make money as fast and easy as they used to, so more than ever, they'll tend to do business with people they can trust. 'Making deals' will slowly be squeezed out.

Q: Who, in your opinion, in the most influential lighting designer?

A: I have a great personal affinity for the work of Motoko Ishii. I think she has a wonderful sense of the spirituality of light and the non-engineering based portion of light. It is not, of course, that she is incapable of doing those things, but that she has an overriding sense of light that is part of her vision that transcends the mechanical underpinnings. She uses those tools to get her from the beginning to her vision.

Q: Are there any examples of architecture that move you, motivate you to design?

A: The Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona that Antonio Gaudi designed. There is a sense of grandeur, form and detail that is so irregular and so spectacular. The ability to envision something so large yet focus on detail so small-especially throughout an entire project-is truly inspirational and has always amazed me.

Q: Do you derive inspiration from any other disinclines?

A: Well, obviously, my theater background predisposes me to explain and feel in a theatrical design sense, but other than that, I would say that I often explain design concepts from a Jungian-style psychology (what we are aiming towards or what we ought to be aiming for-what archetype) for our clients. We want to involve them in the conceptual targets at this level so that their understanding of our work rings true to their aspirations for the project.

Q: Last question: Do you have any professional pet peeves?

A: I'm not real fond of arrogance being in any part of our profession. We're at a point in our development as a profession where we have a lot of educating to do with our clients and the other people we deal with and we're not in a position where arrogance has a reasonable part in our day-to-day work ethic. We are problem solvers and rarely are we presented with problems that can have only one solution.

October/November 2001 Architectural Lighting Magazine