Lighting has long been a natural outlet for Leni Schwendinger and her creative interests in storytelling and placemaking. While still in high school in Berkeley, Calif., she began by studying theater and lighting stagecraft, and then in 1972, she went on to study cinema at the London Film School. She returned to California in the early 1980s to pursue a career in film, but soon found herself drawn back to theater lighting. Just as she was about to start a lighting apprenticeship at the San Francisco Opera, though, her funding was cut. She saw this as a sign to head to New York.
The turning point came in 1993 when she designed a large-scale lighting projection for the façade of the James A. Farley General Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue in New York. She realized that she no longer wanted to work indoors. Ever since, her focus has been on combining her artistic vision with an exploration of the city's nocturnal side to create an approach to urban lighting uniquely her own.
What fascinates you about light?
Except for sound, it remains the only medium that is malleable and abstract at the same time.
What texts about light have influenced you?
Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, particularly the chapters on light and shade; In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki ; and Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy .
How has the role of the lighting designer changed since you first started working?
There is closer collaboration. We are moving out of that box of just being technical or just being on the mechanical side of architecture.
You've incorporated social media platforms such as Twitter into your day-to-day work. How has that changed your lighting practice?
It's another form of teaching for me, a way to share information and raise questions.
What opportunities do new lighting technologies present to today's practitioner?
Technological advances in lighting are exciting, but it's the use of them that is more exciting.
How would you characterize your work?
It's about civic theater and engaging with the community. Light plays a critical role in the health of cities—both during the day and at night. People should feel just as comfortable being out in the city at night and using spaces as they do during the day.
What is the greatest challenge for designers?
Having one's work be valued artistically, not just in a pragmatic or utilitarian way.