interviews William Lam who launched Lam Inc. in 1951, which later became Lam Lighting Systems. In 1959, he left the manufacturing company to pursue his first love–architecture–and founded WIlliam Lam Associates, a lighting consulting firm. During the next 40 years, the firm would collaborate with some of the world's greatest architects on some 2,000 projects, winning acclaim for such notable buildings as the Tennessee Valley Authority Headquarters complex; restoration of Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the Washington, D.C. transit system (METRO); and the San Diego Convention Center. Lam has taught at Harvard, MIT and Yale University and has lectured extensively on four continents. Many of his writings have become definitive references for students of architecture and lighting design. Although he is the recipient of numerous professionals awards, including the AIA 2000 Institute Honors for the Collaborative Achievement, Lam considers his long and public battle with the IES over standards for light levels to have contributed greatly to the practice of lighting design as it is today.
Q: I'm sure you have many stories to tell when it comes to 'fighting the standards,' as you've called it. Can you share one with us?
A: I had been warned about the IES influence at my first class on lighting at MIT, but I really became aware of it when I began designing lighting for projects. It seemed that on every project, the power companies would always get in the way; they were just everywhere. For example, early in my career, I had worked on an innovative school in Colorado that featured continuous curving spaces with partitions to divide them. I chose to indirectly light the space. The next thing I knew, an article appeared in the magazine Better Light—Better Sight with the headline, 'Greeley School Fails to Meet IES Code.' The article quoted IES members—an electrical contractor who did not get the job and a salesman from the electric utility—but the last paragraph of the article stated, 'Nothing is apt to be done about the lighting in Greeley School because everyone loves it.' Probably not many readers realized that the magazine was published by Edison Electrical Institute, a public utility marketing group.
Q: And thus began your crusade. How did you get your message across?
A: I took advantage of any invitation to educate the architects and public about my criteria for good luminous environments. My hope was to get the architects to take back control over the way their buildings were rendered by light.
One of my first chances was a lecture to the AIA School and College Architecture Committee at the 1964 national convention. I told the architects it was time to wake up and realize just where the lighting criteria (which were ruining their buildings) were originating—that 14 of the 19 members of the national officers, council members and regional VPs of the IES were employees of public utilities or lamp manufacturers. To believe their 'codes' were objective was like asking the dairy industry to decide how many glasses of milk we should require children to drink each day. I urged them to have faith in their eyes, brain and common sense, and if their quality classroom lighting design continued to be challenged, to build a mockup to compare it with existing classrooms that meet the 'code,' reminding them, 'You only pay for the mockup once; you pay for a bad design for the whole life of the building.'
Over the years, I lectured at universities and industry events, helped with the Massachusetts lighting energy code and also testified before the Federal Trade Commission. In 1966, I was hired by the State Construction Fund of New York to help write lighting standards for New York's university buildings. The project was funded by the Educational Facilities Laboratory of the Ford Foundation. After a year of reviewing existing lighting research programs worldwide, I collaborated with MIT on putting together a really first-class, international multidisciplinary committee to write lighting guidelines. The results, published in 1976 as 'An Approach to the Design of the Luminous Environment,' concluded that numbers from a chart would not be of much value, but instead provided guidelines for design judgments. The report emphasized the greater importance of quality over quantity.
Q: The reaction from the IES?
A: Well, it seemed that often when I gave a lecture, someone from the IES would appear uninvited. I remember speaking at MIT to an audience of college presidents. When the time came for answering written questions to the panelists, the chairman announced an unusual request, that someone wanted to make a statement instead of asking a question. The director of research at the IES stood up and said, 'I don't know where you found this guy, but obviously he has never read our reports.' The funny thing is my comments had discussed exact quotes and figures from IES reports.
This type of confrontation happened frequently. They had big stakes. They were doubling the recommended light levels every 10 years. Their magazines would brag about their marketing achievement in increased light levels and energy sales and I would use excerpts from the articles in my lectures. I remember one industry publication that graphed the per capita increase in lighting energy up to 1963. The caption said that it was interesting to note the increase in lighting in the last year was more than all lighting that had existed before that time.
Q: Bill, it's been said that your career first took off after receiving notice on a light fixture you had designed upon graduating from MIT. Tell me about that design.
A: It was a floor lamp with a wood base, brass stem, goose neck and a fabric shade that featured a clip-in diffuser to minimize glare from the lamp. This was a novel feature at the time—the best known contemporary model had a metal shade with a bare bulb sticking out at the bottom.
Q: And your company was born…
A: When some friends wanted to know where they could buy the lamp, I made three sales calls in Boston and got three orders. I made five sales calls in New York and got five orders. I went out the next day, rented some space, hired one employee and started making these lamps. That lamp and a coffee table were selected for a 'Good Design' award by the Museum of Modern Art and exhibited in museums across the U.S. That really got things off to a great start.
When I started the company, I innocently fantasized that I would run the business for only a year and then go back to being a designer, combining product design with architecture in the footsteps of Alvar Aalto and Charles Eames. Getting out of the business took a lot longer. I had acquired stockholders and gotten involved with designing around new manufacturing processes. My lighting diffusers and shades were among the first consumer products made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic. The 1953 institutional ads for Owens Corning Fiberglass showed one of my lamps, an Eames chair and a fiberglass shower base. I also began making shades and globes with vacuum-formed plastics and eventually developed a machine to blow small and large seamless globes from extruded tubing. Two carloads a week of these products were marketed through Lightolier.
Q: But you went back to your true love…
A: After a while, I realized that I needed to get out of manufacturing and get back to architecture. In doing so, I approached a potential manager/investor who advised me, 'The products you're making now are in a style market. As soon as you're not creating new designs, we won't own anything. To attract investors, you have to make products that get specified in buildings.' That's why I started making prefabricated forms of indirect lighting. That meant that I had to provide free consulting services to show the architects how to use the products most advantageously—like how to integrate them with the space and other elements within the space. After a few years of showing how to use our prefabricated indirect lighting in classrooms, offices and other types of spaces, some of the architects began to ask me to help them with other parts of the project including daylighting.
The time was ripe to do what I was waiting to do. I sold control, hired a wonder?ul executive VP to take over running the company and planned that over a few years, I would leave the company and go back into architecture.
Q: And what about lighting design?
A: When I started consulting, I already had established contacts from free consulting that I was doing as part of the company's services. Through articles I had written and teaching I was doing, people heard about me and consequently, I became the lighting consultant on some major projects. That's what got it started. I'm very fortunate. My projects came from word-of-mouth and the few people I had consulted for.
Q: What is your design philosophy?
A: Lighting design is about design and not engineering. Fixture selection and calculations should be the last thing you do. You have to understand the engineering principles behind it. You have to understand about light and the physics of it, but mainly, it's about having a vision. If you know what a good environment is, you can create it. Lighting is applied perception psychology. You have to know what makes a good environment. In fact, in the teaching I do, that's what I emphasize. If I teach 14 classes at Harvard, only one or two are about calculations. The rest is about observing. You have to understand the principles in relation to what makes something appear bright or dark, cheerful or gloomy—what makes a good or great luminous environment. It's not enough to have enough light and to avoid glare. Every room should be a positive experience for the activity with all elements of the space integrated.
Q: What are your sources of inspiration?
A: I have always been very aware of my environment, whether in buildings or on the street. I am inspired by beautiful spaces, bothered by the ugly. My mind cannot help thinking about what should or could improve the situation. I went into lighting design because I observed that almost every space was ruined by the electric lighting—spaces filled with visual noise. I needed to develop theories on what makes a good luminous environment.
Too many buildings were not being designed from the inside out. What motivates me is helping to create spaces that people would want to live and work in. I'm always looking for total integration of lighting with the architecture. To do that, you have to understand the principles involved as well as the equipment. But I can't sit down and design lighting by just looking at drawings or a reflective ceiling plan. I need to understand and collaborate with others on the whole building. The best design comes when we start as early in the process as we can with the schematic design of the building. If the building's already designed, you're just decorating it with light.
Q: Where do you think the lighting design profession will be heading in the future?
A: It's great that we now have a professional lighting organization—the IALD—as a counterweight to the industry-dominated IES. I think we're heading in the right direction, although I'm afraid that in lighting design, as well as in architecture, too much of the publicity goes to the conspicuous rather than the good. It's not the best buildings that get the publicity, it's the ones that are flashy or different. Similarly, in lighting design, there's room for show biz, but that shouldn't be the crux of lighting design. Special effects are sometimes required, but good lighting is always essential.
I'd like to see architects and interior designers receive enough lighting education so they really know what a good luminous environment is and really want it. Then I'd like to have lighting consultants who have a solid background in design help them in the technical end of achieving those goals. A sound design background is so critical because you can't be good lighting designer if you're not a good designer. Get as much experience and education as you can and then specialize. By having a common background in design, you have the means to communicate and work most effectively in the team.
Q: How about some good advice?
A: At the conclusion of my lectures I say, 'Don't believe anything I've said. I've given you my thoughts, but if you can't prove to yourself what I've told you, don't believe it.'