Interview with lighting designer Jered Widmer

Jered_Widmer

With a lifelong passion for architecture and a keen engineering aptitude, Jered Widmer blended both strengths at Penn State University. During college, he was mentored by lighting professor Dr. Craig Bernecker, who encouraged Jered to pursue a career in lighting design. Fresh out of school, Jered found the right chemistry and inclusive atmosphere at The Lighting Practice in Philadelphia, PA. He became a principal at the firm in 2014.

How do you tell a story or convey a message through light?

When I start a project, I like to talk with the architect about his or her vision for the space. I think of architecture and light as a yin and yang in design; they work hand-in-hand, so the light should have fluidity that works with the architecture rather than fighting it. Some projects include the opportunity for great dialogue with the design team, and time to really dig in to create the most dynamic solution. As a lighting designer, it’s not only important to intelligently talk about the appropriate lighting technique, but also influence elements in the architecture to build a stronger storyline or reinforce specific emotional responses. And while storylines are great, with some projects it can be a struggle. In that scenario, I start by understanding the function of the space, imagining myself in that space, and then asking myself questions like: What do I want to experience? How might I feel in this room? Where is my attention drawn? There’s a high-level, abstract thought process of outlining destinations, how to get there, and what to experience along the way. That helps me set the tone for the storyline, and subsequently the lighting application and which fixtures to use.

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What percent of your projects are strictly LED, and in what areas or applications do you see this changing in the near future?

About 80 percent of our projects are LED only. Five or six years ago, we started using LED selectively, but cost, light output and fixture selection were limiting factors. And I think many lighting designers looked at manufacturer data and claims saying, “Is this really true? Will it really last this long? Can I trust this data?” Early on, LEDs were retrofit into traditional form factors because they were familiar to the industry. We’ve moved beyond that now, and new fixtures are developed strictly around LED to take advantage of the small size. I’m surprised at how quickly LED technology has evolved and matured. It’s not at full maturity, but it has morphed and is heavily adopted now. Sometimes it’s driven by clients, and other times energy codes and accessibility drive it, but it’s great to see how far this industry has come in such a short time.

On the flip side, LED luminaire changes are not always done in context of the application. For example, a manufacturer might have a 600, 1000 and 1500 lumen downlight, and in an upgrade, the output goes up and the wattage drops. Suddenly, the 600-lumen downlight that we loved is now 750 or 800 lumens, and it’s too much light for certain applications. It’s like changing the crayon box, where the familiar red, green and blue are now magenta, cyan and turquoise. They’re still shades of the original colors, but they’re different. To get my 600-lumen package, I either need to add controls to get the lower output, or find a new manufacturer to offer it. There’s no one right answer. It’s just figuring out the balance and how to deal with these types of changes in the industry.

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You mentioned blending new technologies with existing technologies. Do you rely on tunable white for this, and are you incorporating it into your projects?

I think that LEED as a building design standard, while still relevant to our industry, is starting to lose its luster; while the Well Building standard is gaining attention. This considers health, wellness and circadian rhythms, and it’s where the concept of tunable white light will play an instrumental role. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and continued research that needs to be done. We’re asking where tunable white fits best, if it works, and what benefits it provides. It’s an important topic for projects in healthcare, senior living, special needs, and even classrooms. Early studies are looking at how tunable white can affect the temperament and behavior of children and help them remain responsive and alert in class. I believe it’s still too early for mass implementation, but as clients request it, we’re starting to use the technology. I’m looking forward to learning about additional independent research findings.

Describe a project of yours that stands out in your mind as rewarding or challenging or somehow memorable.

The JFK Tribute in Fort Worth, Texas was an eye-opening experience for me. When we first got involved in the project, I didn’t know much about the weeks leading up to President Kennedy’s assassination. I learned that he flew into Fort Worth on November 21, 1963, and stayed the night. Early the next morning and despite the rain, he gave an impromptu speech to spectators gathered outside. He then continued his scheduled meetings and traveled on to Dallas. That speech, at that site, was his last public address before he was fatally shot. The Tribute honors his life and legacy, and the lighting design reflects the tribute’s historic and cultural significance to Fort Worth and our country. I’m personally honored to have been part of something this important.

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As an adjunct assistant professor at the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, what do you stress to your students, and what do you think surprises them to learn about lighting and lighting design?

I love teaching and sharing knowledge, and there’s always something to learn in lighting design. My goal when teaching third- and fourth-year architecture students is to demonstrate the application of lighting to evoke an emotional response. Many people don’t give much consideration to lighting. It’s often an invisible component of a building; it doesn’t exist until there’s a problem. At the same time, light doesn’t do anything unless it’s applied to a surface or object. But once it is applied, it is evaluated on a functional and aesthetic level. So, I start each term by showing a slideshow of pictures to illustrate the influence of lighting in a variety of applications from the Empire State building in New York City to a cafeteria on campus. I ask students to photograph spaces that they encounter, and articulate their positive and negative associations with the space. They start to see that words associated with a space relate to the lighting. For example, they may present a photo of a space where they didn’t feel safe. I ask why. Their response: “Because it’s dark, with a lot of shadows.” It’s a great exercise to drive home the connection between lighting and emotions, and the interplay of light and shadow. I also take advantage of the Lighting Applications Center at Philips Lighting in Somerset, New Jersey as a field trip for my students. There, they are immersed in hands-on lighting and learn the intricacies and complexities of lighting. This all gives them a solid foundation to effectively work with lighting designers and appreciate the interaction of light in architectural design. And just maybe, we can entice some students to become lighting designers themselves!

Is there anything that surprises you about the students?

When I get feedback at the end of the term, sometimes I’m surprised at how much students really enjoyed the class, or how much they got out of it. Students aren’t always vocal in the moment, but I can see them involved and excited. Maybe it’s because there’s more artistry involved in lighting than some of their other courses, like plumbing and mechanical systems. Lighting design doesn’t have a complete set of concrete rules, sometimes there is no right or wrong, much of it is very fluid, and that’s what I want to impress upon them.

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