Interview with Lighting Designer Ron Neal: Crafting the Experience From Subtle to Crescendo

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As principal and founder of Ron Neal Lighting Design in San Diego, California, Ron Neal has always maintained a passion for good architecture and design, and a talent for combining these elements with light to create captivating spaces and experiences. Along with his talented staff, Ron has amassed dozens of Illumination Awards for his high-end residential and hospitality projects, and more, in the San Diego area and around the country.

Why did you specialize in lighting design?

My father founded one of California’s most successful electrical contracting companies, and my mother had a flare for interior design. She helped me understand the value of well-designed spaces, and inspired me to go to design school. While studying architecture and interior design at Woodbury University, I became fascinated with lighting. Once I graduated, I worked as an interior designer, electrical contractor and lighting manufacturer representative, and in hindsight, these were perfect apprenticeships. I’m fortunate to have a strong, well-rounded foundation towards understanding the constructability associated with lighting design. This combination of education and past experiences ultimately gave the ability to start my own successful architectural lighting design firm.

What inspires you, and how does that drive your design?

I’m a visual person. I see all types of design-inspired elements, from nature and art to architecture and fashion design; it’s just always been part of who I am. I’m constantly aware how buildings and finishes are articulated and enhanced with a wide range of lighting sources and applications. Additionally, we work with some of the most established architects and interior designers, and discriminating end-users, so I draw inspiration from them, too. These inspirations are channeled into using lighting design and applications to enhance an individual’s experience as they move through a space. Part of the overall vision of beauty in a well-designed space is to understand rhythm, procession, access, and terminations; and each project presents its unique opportunities. Once I find that inspiration, I find it sometimes helpful to write out the basis of design; documenting a description, hierarchy and lighting design goals. The most successful residential lighting design solutions should be a unique representation of the homeowner’s personality and lifestyle. It’s similar to how we gain inspiration to approach our hospitality projects. Lighting of hotels and restaurants should not only address the varied uses, codes and budgets. It should also be a direct response to the brand, location, clientele and overall design concept or theme; creating a unique personalized experience for their guests. And yes, good lighting design lighting can help do that!

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How do you direct the person’s experience?

In lighting design, there are ups and downs, much like topography on a map that shows peaks and valleys. Contrasting shadows are equally as important as the illumination itself. Curb appeal draws a person to a space. However, it’s often about the interior spaces and the experience beyond the front door. You don’t want to overwhelm people with light at the first impression. Instead, you want to build up the opportunity to tell and direct a story. In many cases, this is an intuitive process, where you may have a large or interesting element. By thoughtfully tailoring light levels we can then create a crescendo of sorts. It’s important to understand the procession, create sense of intrigue and to take special care not to provide too much illumination too soon as one views or moves through a space.

Would you describe a project that stands out in your mind as rewarding?

I’m extremely proud of the projects we’ve worked on, and I would say that there are two types of reward. Of course, there’s the business aspect of how profitable the project was, but more importantly, there’s the relationships forged and sustained after the project. At the risk of sounding cliché, the most rewarding projects are those that are a true collaboration between the end user, design team and contractors. We recently completed a large estate in coastal North County, San Diego, where I took a primary role as the lead design consultant. We had a remarkable team. I worked closely with the home owner and contractors to develop many custom architectural lighting details throughout the home and landscape. I was even able to select finishes and materials that could be enhanced with lighting. For most of us who identify more as artists than business people, success is about pushing our craft. It honestly is! We always strive to work at the highest level, although scale is part of that, too. Recently, a client at a large international architectural firm asked me, “What would be your dream project?” I responded, “Oh, gosh. I’d love to do something like an all-inclusive resort on a private island.” Well, you can image how shocked I was when he responded the very next day with an RFP for an all-inclusive 600-room international resort with several restaurants and lounges, multiple live music venues, spa and a casino. It’s extremely exciting! Our clients are regularly pleasantly surprised at the amount of added value our lighting design services provide for their projects, regardless of if it’s a small home, or an all-inclusive international resort.

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Let’s talk about dynamic lighting; how are tunable white and color playing a role in your designs?

It wasn’t too long ago I struggled to maintain continuity of coloration for all light sources on a project, but now I appreciate the ability to tune a white LED source to enhance architectural finishes and landscape elements while maintaining a natural appearance. The challenge is to ensure that when tuning is complete, whether it’s white or a precise color, the user doesn’t override the system to incorporate inappropriate colors or changes, because tunable white, RGB and even dimming help to enhance the overall concept, but if not controlled properly, they can work against the experience we’re trying to create. For instance, if we have a key feature wall in a restaurant, maybe we want to enhance it at sunset, so at that time, the wall becomes warm, almost an amber color. As the sun transitions down, the wall changes to an indigo sky or dark blue. And all the finishes in that space are also considered. If the user were to change the lighting to a rainbow chase instead, it distracts from the overall project.  We try to include system checks, along with operation and maintenance guidelines, to ensure that if the system is overridden, it can be quickly and easily returned to its original programming.

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As lighting technology evolves from electric to electronic, how do you see the conversation shifting with project teams and clients?

The term ‘electric lighting’ system gives one the impression of simplicity, yet those systems are outdated and extremely inefficient. In comparison, new electronic technologies allow for vast energy savings and a wide range of control options. Without electronic technologies, we couldn’t offer personal control of the systems or meet many of the stringent energy regulations. You might even say that technology has driven many of the current codes. In California, we are probably under the most stringent energy codes with Title 24, and they’ll get even tighter in the future, but along with that, lighting efficiencies will continue to improve. It’s our responsibility to stay abreast of new technology and code advancements and to educate our clients and the design team members of the requirements, implications and benefits. Especially when working with interior designers and architects who have such a broad scope; they have to be experts in so many aspects, and details down to the towel bar that they’re specifying. It can be hard for them, when it comes to fixture layouts and specifications. There’s just so much detail, but that’s where we become their lighting advocates and educators. We look out for their project’s best interests, because when it comes to lighting, it can be easy for someone to confuse what they want with what they need and what is now available.

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