over the past decade, while working on projects of nearly every building type, and for a range of clients, from Disney to Ernst & Young, Los Angeles-based Kaplan Gehring McCarroll (KGM) Architectural Lighting has emerged as one of the lighting industry's leading design firms. Its rigorous, client-centric approach to developing solutions and mentoring staff has enabled KGM to thrive in the high-pressure, fast-paced exclusive world of casino and hospitality design, with involvement in such top-level casino projects as Las Vegas's Palms, Bellagio, and Paris.
KGM expanded into casino design via a residential assignment for casino owner Jon Jerde. Joe Kaplan, a Texas native, began his career lighting shows for Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. In 1985 he opened an office in his hometown of San Antonio, designing lighting for banking industry offices and upscale residences. In 1989, he relocated the firm to Los Angeles when he received the commission to light the St. James Hotel, the storied Sunset Strip establishment now dubbed the Argyle Club. In taking on two architects as partners, Michael Gehring in 1994 and David McCarroll in 1995, Kaplan fortified his then-two-person firm with the skills and experience it needed to expand its portfolio beyond high-end residential work and into the world of casino design. It was a world that by 1994, says Gehring, was departing from the thematic glitz defining mid-twentieth-century Vegas, and emerging as a haven for luxurious, elegant, and sophisticated lodging and dining experiences.
Gehring and McCarroll joined Kaplan because they wanted to expand beyond traditional architectural practice, and because both men loved lighting and wanted opportunities to impact major projects. Successfully lighting a project, McCarroll explains, requires a designer who understands the architectural concept, the architect's approach to design, and the function of architectural lighting. Accomplishing this, says Gehring, involves working with each project's architect to develop lighting solutions that accentuate the architecture and enhance the user's experience of the building's function. With an understanding of the architectural idea, KGM can contribute valuable information about lighting the structural and architectural elements, and using light to transition people through space and to enhance, enliven, and balance environments, all of which impact the final product.
'Project success is more than how a solution looks or lights,' says Gehring. 'It's how people perform, how we perform, and how we help the people who maintain the building perform.' Their client-centric, post-delivery design focus is ingrained in every KGM designer via the firm's informal yet entrepreneurial-minded culture, one where the principals actively groom each of KGM's 20 designers to one day run the firm. Accomplishing this involves much collaboration with each member-from recent graduate to experienced project manager-to help them understand both the business of design (contracts, fees, profitability) and the practice of design (taking projects from start to finish). Informal impromptu project meetings and firm-wide e-mails are the preferred tools for openly sharing firm information and lessons learned that the principals believe will help each designer resolve project problems, nurture client relationships, and assume ownership of, and responsibility for, their projects and their solutions. 'We want them to come up with the ideas first,' says Gehring.
This mentoring also involves the principals inviting KGM designers to client meetings and delegating project responsibilities in the presence of clients. The idea is that any team member can, at any time, help any client if the client's primary contact is unavailable. McCarroll calls this approach the key to KGM's success. It is their proven technique for winning the trust and favor of numerous clients and owners, particularly those working in the extraordinarily fast-paced and high-pressure world of casino design, where the owner's project representatives push designers to complete projects nearly faster than humanly possible. 'Everyday the casino is not open,' McCarroll explains, 'is money the casino is losing.' Because of this overriding principle of developing casino projects, and especially because of an owner's desire to reduce all potential project risks, most casinos are designed by a core group of firms that have already proven their ability to deliver this building type. KGM's Las Vegas portfolio alone is evidence of its design approach, commitment to a firm culture of education and encouragement, and business success. joseph dennis kelly ii