Ask anyone who’s ever gone into a restaurant with me. The first thing I’ll remark on is the lighting (and this was before I started worrying about lighting being flattering–just imagine it now). If it’s good, I’ll relax, linger, eat better, tip bigger. If it’s bad, I’ll grumble and whine, eat more junk (really, I’ve noticed this–it’s probably all an effort to soothe myself in response to bad aesthetics–yeah right). And then I flee, leaving the waitperson with a mingy little tip. (Sorry, I know it’s not their fault.)
It’s not, obviously, how the lights look, though of course that’s important. Lighting is afterall, the jewelry of a space, with the ability to take a little black dress of a room from pure and demure to wildly sexy or flamboyant.
It’s really about the quality of light…how it illuminates, moves, changes. It’s mood. It’s primal. It’s everything.
From the first time we saw a light fixture from McEwen Lighting, we were hooked. Theres just something about it. Really timeless design, not in the boring “stick it in the corner way” but in a way that modernizes more classical interiors, and gives a little classical rigor, sophistication and softness to a stark, modernist space.
But–and I don’t think you get this until you’ve actually seen the work of lighting maestro Michael McEwen–it’s so much more than that. It’s the choice of materials, and the way they’re put together. And it’s about the looking and thinking and planning behind it–something that comes from a deep love of light, and maybe…just enough of an obsession. But in a good way.
Lighting does both ready-made “editions” and custom work…but in all cases, the pieces are handmade and hand-assembled–by a merry band of seriously cool makers–Gabriel Bridges, Paul Stillpass, and Geoff St. John. Michael’s wife, Melissa Gomes, also works on the studio team, though she wasn’t there the day of our visit. All this magic takes place in a Berkeley production studio that handles everything from metalsmithing to glassmaking (kiln formed) and shaping (courtesy of a rockin’ diamond band saw).
And speaking of seriously cool, there’s McEwen himself. Lanky. (In a former life he was a dancer.) That slight drawl you get from someone who grew up in SoCal (Pasadena). Just one seriously cool guy who gives you the sense that he’s just having a seriously good time doing what he does. (And it shows in the work.) Loves his music. (Guitars on the wall. Amps in the corner.) Laid back, but focused, analytical but imaginative, generous, quick witted, and just damned smart. And clearly, successful. He’s been in the biz for 20 years.
Why lighting? You mean as a living? I’m really not sure. I studied textile design in college, and worked in the apparel industry building dye equipment.
So…one day you woke up and thought, I’ll start designing lights? (Laughs.) Well, not really. I guess I was always a little into light–ever since I was a kid. I used to shoot out the street lights across the street when I was a kid because they were too bright (excellent!), they didn’t allow me to modulate mood. And I was always into moonlight. But in terms of how I got into doing this for a living….I had had a small business doing hand-printed silk scarves. The business failed…and I just started collecting parts. I put things in galleries and stores in San Francisco. And then eventually the lights sold to galleries in Chicago and NY. Then I got requests to do hardwired fixtures. And then it was a living. I guess it wasn’t anything that I sat down and planned….it just was one thing after another.
How did you get into doing this for clients, as opposed to doing one-offs? I started working with Celeste Gainey, a lighting designer with a firm called Gotham Light and Power (great name). She was great. We worked together for a number of years–projects for Il Fornaio, Innerscope Records, Dreamworks Records.
And your “editions”? How did that come about? It was always a little feast or famine, so I started a line of standard fixtures in 2003. We still do 80% of work in house. We build to order here….we do farm out some work like blown glass, and we order stock parts, etc. But what distinguishes us is that we design the parts here, and have them made. We don’t pick things out of a catalog….I spend a lot of time specifying parts. (He shows me painstaking sketches of parts. Wow.)
That’s a lot of work. Why does that matter? You can tell if everything is catalog-bought. You may not be able to tell intellectually, but you feel it.
Do you look at the work of other designers? I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s stuff. I live in my own head as far as our designs are concerned. I don’t have concepts that evolve in my head and then build them. It’s more shapes that I focus on, and they evolve in working with materials. The designs are born through capabilities of the materials. It’s really all about the materials, and we like to stay ahead of technology when we can. There’s a lot going on these days.
What’s your approach as you sit down to design something? The most important thing that I think about is how light works in the fixture itself. A lot of designers think of the fixture as a sculptural object…but for me it’s how the mechanics of the light function and work. From that starting point, you can take the shape of it in certain directions. It’s really constrained by the physics of working with an indirect source.
But that’s not what people see. Yeah. I like to say that I’m into mood and mystery beyond the mechanics. I love layers of transparency, and glass–like opal glass. (Which I’d thought was milk glass but is more translucent and has great nuances of color). I like to take a viewer’s eye through one, maybe two layers. And sometimes we go as far as to build shrouds around the bulb, so bulbs become more ambiguous, and hidden.
And beyond the light itself, we’re known for using traditional materials: metal, glass, mica, wood. There’s a romantic quality to those materials. It creates a warm, lyrical feel, and a counterbalance to the form itself. It brings out something in your heart that it responds to the materials.
Nice. What inspires you when you’re working on something new? Nature’s important to me. I spend a lot of time looking at and being amazed by the natural world. I want to see if I can reproduce a speck of that–the variation, the way light works with things…it’s amazing.
You work a great deal with architects and designers. When should people start to think about lighting in the design process? Well obviously, we love coming in early, maybe collaborating with an architect…then we become involved in creating a vocabulary of hardware in the home. We’re not just about objects and finishing touches. And we often partner with architects to come up with ideas for the overall look of a space.
What’s your biggest challenge these days? Definitely the whole change in lighting. In 2012, they’re effectively outlawing regular incandescent bulbs. LEDs are currently riding on top of the wave and appear to be poised to be the preeminent technology. But there are new technologies that are coming up quickly that might eclipse LEDs. They’re evolving really quickly.
That’s got to impact your entire business. Absolutely. It can change everything for us–the way we design, the way we think about light. We need to create products, specs, etc. (Oh wow.)
So what was your best moment, career-wise? I’d have to say…buying this building. It means so much to have a home base. I feel so much more established, more permanent. Plus we now have lots of room.
And worst moment? I don’t know if I have any worst moments. I don’t dwell on negative moments. (Words to live by.)
Music’s obviously a huge thing in your life. What gets you into a creative space? What’s playing now? Oh I’m not sure, just something off of Pandora. But I grew up with rock and roll, so I like listening to indie rock. I’m kind of behind the times a bit, I guess, but I like guitar-based music, intelligent lyrics: Radiohead, Pavement. Elliott Smith… What’s the mini recording studio about in the corner? I’m looking at doing a little recording. (Nice!)
OK, so who’d play you in the movies? (should’ve asked what band you’d most like to front, but then we think of these things after the fact, don’t we?) Nick Nolte. Really? Well, that’s kind of a joke. Hmmm. Maybe Sam Shephard? OK that works.
What’s in your fridge? Dales Pale Ale beer. Lots of amazing leftovers.
And what’s your summer reading? A series of books called 33/1/3. It’s a series of books by writers on their fave album.
You know what’s coming. What 5 things define you? Well it’s just not things.
- Certainly, my family: my wife, and my kids Ramona and Emmet.
- Family here. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by people I love working with. And they kind of intersect with my real family. Oh, and I have to include Lee Miltier (glass blower), we’ve worked together for 15 years or so.
- The work. The process of the design, the building, the world of materials and aesthetics I live in.
- Nature. The desert. My parents and grandparents retired in Sedona. I’ve been going out there all my life.
- Music. Maybe within that, it’s this guitar. I used to have a vintage guitar collection: Gibsons, Fenders that kind of thing. Were they vintage when you bought them? Oh no. They were just great guitars…. If I still had them, I’d be able to retire.
Well, it’s good for us that things worked out that way. Life’s too short for bad lighting and there’s much work for you to do out there. Thanks, Michael.