Light in context – Interview with lighting designer Carla Wilkins

Be it for a museum, a workplace or a cruise ship—lighting designer Carla Wilkins from Lichtvision Design is looking for new solutions regarding control and customization at Light + Building. Martina Metzner spoke with the lighting designer about regional lighting cultures and colored LEDs, among other things. 

Motif Fascinating

You design lighting concepts for many building typologies. Does everyone in your team do everything does each of them have a focal area?

We do not have explicit teams, but we use the synergies of our 40 employees from 15 nations. What we do for the cruise ship also benefits the shopping center and vice versa. When we founded the office in 1997, our focus was on museum and administrative buildings. Then we gradually expanded our spectrum. In 2012 we opened our office in Hong Kong and have also been active in the Asian market since. Shortly afterwards, we added our branch office in London, from where we manage projects in the Middle East and elsewhere. Once a week we team up in a web conference.

Light is not material - the more difficult it is to plan. What is more helpful: the knowledge of technology, experience or is it intuition?

As a lighting planner, you naturally need the technical lighting expertise to handle the respective tools. Experience teaches us that the best tool is not always the right one. This is where I see the responsibility that we lighting designers have. Who are we planning for? We use our design intelligence for long-term solutions. We are looking for a modern solution, combined with the genius loci. However, lighting design is based above all on the excellent cooperation between clients, users, architects and engineers. 

‘Control and customization of light is a very big issue.’

Carla Wilkins

You have accompanied some outstanding projects to their completion. From your perspective, which ones are particularly formative for the work of Lichtvision?

Planning Terminal 4 of Changi Airport in Singapore was certainly a milestone project. This also encouraged us to open the office in Hong Kong. Other airports are in the makingunfortunately we can't go into more detail. From London, we worked together with seven other architects to complete phases 2 and 3 of the Downtown Doha urban development project. Last but not least, we are particularly proud of the fact that we have been working on a project like the extension and refurbishment of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, based on plans by Oswald Mathias Ungers, since 2008 together with the team of Jan Kleihues, Walter Noebel and BAL. It is something special to accompany a project that maintains a high quality of execution even after so many years. Last year we were very happy to develop the architectural lighting design for the new Bauhaus Museum in Dessau. Previously, the new Bauhaus Museum in Weimar was opened, and we planned its exhibition area. Last year there also was a third anniversary project we were involved in: the permanent exhibition at Beethoven's birthplace in Bonn. 

You work in Europe, but also internationally, in Russia, the Middle East, China or India. To what extent do you have to engage with the respective local lighting culture?

On the whole, there is a common global lighting culture, which differs above all in terms of the experiences we have with daylight and winter darkness. When it comes to artificial light, it has more to do with personal experience. In the planning process, daylight must be considered very early on in a project, a fundamental discussion with the architects is necessary. It's very much about geometry and cubature. Planning artificial lighting is much more part of the construction planning. In principle, both approaches should be combined.

We therefore always prefer to be involved in the project very early on. A good example is the Museion in Bolzano, for which we planned daylight, artificial light and visual media. Since light is of particular importance in museum construction - incorrect light can actually damage cultural assets - lighting designers are traditionally involved at a very early stage. In the meantime, however, the light factor is also attributed a much higher significance in other areas - in hotels, gastronomy, retail or for workspaces. 

Technical lights in the museum

A lot of attention is currently focused on the lighting design of workplaces…

The working environment and the ways of working have changed massively. The computer workstation, which was special in the 1990s, is now trivial. Human Centric Lighting in its various interpretations, in other words the individual adjustment of the color light temperature and illumination intensities at the workplace, has already emerged in connection with the fluorescent lamp. Now the technology is being refined. Dimming is becoming more and more standard, and luminaires are increasingly linked with sensors. The challenge lies in the interconnectivity of the various sensors and systems. We need a new standard, in addition to DALI also for Bluetooth control.

A woman is standing at a desk lamp

Has the classic desk lamp become obsolete?

The fundamental issue here is the space required, which is limited by additional furniture on the table. Therefore, the discussion is about the economics of the workplace. Today, instead of the table lamp, the floor lamp is used at the workplace, which creates a personalizable workplace situation. 

The mainstream loves colored LEDs. How do you approach the topic of colored light?

An important component of the market is the RGBW LED, which can produce not only the color spectrum but also a clear white light. This is a great advantage of LEDs, so that you can work with colors at short notice and create different scenarios. At the Luminale, you can see this, for example, on the DZ Bank tower block located close to the exhibition grounds, which is also one of our projects. In Asia, the use of color is much more extensive. 

Are there any topics in lighting design that you are currently interested in and which you will be looking for at Light + Building?

The subject of light control and personalization is a very big issue. Light and health remain important. We will pay more attention to the integration of light into an overall context. We will also have to deal more closely with materials in order to avoid unnecessary LED scrap and to comply with new EU regulations. 

Human Centric Lighting

What about sustainability and LED? Although it is efficient, LED boards are often irreplaceably connected to the body of the luminaire. If the LED is broken or at the end of its lifespan, the entire luminaire must be replaced...

The consortium Zhaga provides a standard for LED boards, which some manufacturers have already adopted. The EU now stipulates that after use, luminaires should be dismountable into individual components for recycling. The initial euphoria about the new illuminant LED has led to its establishment. Today the discussion about the interface to the user and the control system is the next important threshold. At that point we have to focus more on the human scale; this must not be an academic exercise.

About the person
Together with her business partners and the team from the international office Lichtvision Design, Carla Wilkins has won countless prizes for the illumination of important buildings - examples include the new Bauhaus Museum in Dessau, the Rotes Rathaus in Berlin and the Opernturm in Frankfurt. Carla Wilkins is also involved in the International Association of Lighting Design (IALD) and the Werkbund.