A German major in college, lighting designer Lesley Wheel had once aspired to a life in foreign service. 'But I found the people boring,' she said. 'So when it came time for me to choose a career, I asked myself, 'Where do I find the most interesting people?'' The answer was in theater. Stimulated by the friends of her sister, an actress, the 21-year-old took up lighting as a way to further her career in stage managing. 'Nobody wanted to do lighting, so I would fill in and do it,' she said. 'I became good at it and slowly, it dawned on me that I had a career.'
One of her first jobs was at the New York City Ballet. Since the Ballet's sparse budget meant it could rarely afford sets, Wheel-under theater lighting great Jean Rosenthal-learned how light could compensate for an empty stage. This experience as well as others would prove useful when she made her transition to architectural lighting and especially to illuminating night clubs, her initial training ground. 'In cabarets and night clubs, there usually wasn't much scenery and the lights had to do what the scenery would be doing,' said Wheel. 'I learned a lot about color and the effect of light and angle on emotions.' Although she supplemented her training with IES classes, which according to Wheel, were more oriented toward engineering, it was seeing Richard Kelly's work on the Seagram's Building in New York City that showed her the possibilities of lighting design. 'It was the first time I saw light used as pattern. He had created a band of light all around the building with narrow beam spots,' she recounted. 'It was brilliant-it blew me away.'
Today, Wheel herself is also regarded as nothing less than brilliant. A major force in interpreting the principles of theater lighting design into architectural lighting, she was the first-and for many years, only-woman to practice full-time in architectural lighting design. In 1961, she co-founded the firm Wheel-Garon Inc.-which later became WGS-and subsequently served as principal designer and CEO for 37 years. 'It took me eight years in theater to find out where I belonged,' said Wheel, 'but once I got started in architecture, I knew that I was in the right place.' During Wheel's tenure as CEO, WGS was the premier office for hospitality design and lighted more than 70 hotels for Hilton International, in addition to designing for all the other major hotel companies. WGS also designed the interior and exterior lighting for well-known commercial corporate headquarters.
On her 30th anniversary, her business partner, Don Gerztoff-who had since replaced Garon-congratulated her with an ad in a lighting magazine celebrating three decades in lighting design. 'It was so unlike him because he was the most unsentimental man,' said Wheel. 'But it was really a wonderful thing.' To this day, the advertisement is her most cherished professional possession.
Wheel is known for her skill in creating warmth and intimacy through light, while searching out the beauty and grandeur inherent in architectural spaces. She received an IALD Award of Excellence for the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. and for the Omni Netherland Hotel in Cincinnati, OH and an IALD Citation Award for the lobby of the Guam Okura Hotel.
A founding member, Fellow and past president of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), Wheel received the Designer's Lighting Forum (NY) Honor Award, the fifth such person so recognized, and in 1999, was the first lighting designer to receive the IALD Lifetime Achievement Award. One of her proudest accomplishments has been the founding of the IALD Internship Program, which has helped young designers realize their dreams.
Although retired since 1999, she continues her work in education, serving as director of both the Nuckoll's Fund for Lighting Education and the IALD Education Trust Fund. She is also on the board of the local sections of the Designer's Lighting Forum (DLF) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IESNA).
Wheel earns a place in the annals of lighting design for expanding the profession through her tireless industry efforts, her long and outstanding support of the IALD and her exquisite works. Colleagues continue to praise her clarity of imagination, which not only helped create the IALD and DLF, but continues today to inspire the Nuckoll's Fund and the IALD Education Trust.
When asked to provide some words of wisdom to young designers entering the profession, she offered, 'Have fun.' 'One of the great joys in life is to be gainfully employed in something that you're good at and that you like very, very much,' she said. 'I've always loved working with light. When I think about how many people have to do drudgery, I feel I've been blessed beyond calculation.' -