"When it comes to innovation in lighting, I am a firm believer in Occam's razor—that the simplest solution is usually the best. The innovations that impress me the most in lighting are those where a designer or a design team creates a wonderful architectural environment using just a few basic pieces of lighting equipment. Especially when some of the equipment is used in new ways, or in ways that we [the manufacturer] did not anticipate when developing the product."
While working in lighting for close to 30 years—first in industry, then in academia, and now back in industry—teaching has always been the constant in Bob Davis's approach to architectural lighting. His father, an electrical engineer, inspired him early on, and so Davis pursued a suite of mechanical drafting courses during high school, all the while his sights set on Penn State and its architectural engineering program. But once there, the scholarly passion for lighting, exhibited by teachers such as John Flynn and Gary Steffy, convinced Davis to pursue lighting as his specialty within engineering. It has been this same passion to which Davis has held true throughout his career, whether teaching in academic settings such as the lighting program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, completing his doctorate in cognitive psychology in 2006 at the age of 46, or developing new luminaire designs, as he does in his present position as director of product innovation and marketing at Hanson, Mass.–based lighting manufacturer Litecontrol.
What fascinates you about light?
How much we don't know. There's still so much to learn about how light affects us psychologically and perceptually. We continue to learn new things about topics that we thought we had already figured out.
What are some of the distinctions between working on lighting in an academic setting versus a business one?
Whether it's in academia or in industry, there's always a huge need for education in lighting. I do as much or more teaching now [at Litecontrol] as I did when I was at Colorado. The biggest differences, though, are the stresses, and life and time demands; fewer in academia.
Are there different expectations for teaching lighting in an academic setting versus a non-academic setting?
Whenever you work with a team of engineers or undergraduate engineering students, you can go pretty deep. But in the corporate world, that is pretty unusual. I'm always trying to figure out how I can take very technical material and make it understandable to people who may not have an in-depth technical background.
How has the business of lighting changed since you first entered the field?
The most positive changes have been in information and communication technology. The ease with which we can now do things that used to be laborious is amazing. The greatest negative changes have been the acquisition and, in many cases, the demolition of family businesses that were providing most of the new innovations in lighting equipment. Along with that has been the packaging of lines at rep agencies, and how difficult it has become for a designer to get the solution that he or she really wants for a project.
What makes a great piece of lighting equipment?
One that accomplishes the architectural purpose without drawing attention to itself.
Are you designing luminaires with the potential for some kind of modification or customization in mind?
Yes. It's one of the things that has allowed us to withstand the economic downturn and continue to compete with much larger companies.
Does sustainability factor into the lighting discussion?
A casualty of the economic downturn has been any serious conversation about sustainability and lighting. Right now, sustainability in lighting has been reduced to 1970s-style energy-conservation efforts with little thought about the quality of the environments we create.