INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Lighting Designer, Zerlina Hughes, first moved to London over 20 years ago when the East End was dotted with independent makers and artists, living cheap for the sake of their work. Times may have changed but Zerlina has stayed true to her original vision and throughout her career has designed lighting for mainly independent cultural institutions in the UK and Europe.

As a former student of the Arts at London's Goldsmiths University, theatricality has had a major influence on Zerlina's work and continues to inform her approach. This winter, Zerlina's Studio ZNA has already designed lighting for exhibitions at two major London galleries: Seduced by Art: Photograph Past & Present in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery and Valentino: Master of Couture at Somerset House, with more up-coming projects across the UK capital.

World Interior News' Assistant Editor Sarah Roberts travels to Studio ZNA on the Regent's Canal in East London to find out more about Zerlina's work, her plans to expand and her ability to export good lighting design to interiors across a variety of industries. In her bright waterfront studio, the charismatic Zerlina welcomes us into the dynamic world of a lighting designer.

What is your background in design?
While studying English and Drama at Goldsmiths I started to focus on design, such as model making and lighting. The school had really good studio spaces and lighting equipment, we would build up a stack of chairs in the studio and light them. It was the late 80s / early 90s and we spent a lot of time experimenting. It became a way of designing in space with what materials I could find. Lighting was the main component - it was there and you could play around with it. I loved it so much that I soon lost interest in model making. Lighting was so experimental.

How did you come to focus on lighting design as a career?
As with most lighting designers it was a side step - there was a group of us who set up a theatre company. We mostly designed in found, weird spaces, always interpreting those spaces with light. Despite being very abstract, in combination with my academic background, wealways started a project with a narrative thrust. I think I still do. Lighting design is a way of telling a story through space. I plot out light journeys even in small exhibitions or apartments. After college I started working in theatre and film at a junior level and from there I was invited to light private events, restaurants and so on. That's how it all began.

Why lighting design?
For me working with different textures, paint finishes and objects is such a natural thing.

"Lighting design is very technical, there's a real geeky element to it, but once you know that side, you are free to be very creative."

You started off your career assisting the British film director, Mike Leigh. What was the best part of working with him?
Working with Leigh was brilliant, like being part of a process, working from concept to completion in a very hands-on way. It was pertinent in terms of my interest in storytelling. Unlike other directors, Leigh writes from improvisation so it really does start from scratch. Seeing something develop from a seed, being written, shot and filmed, was amazing. I was always interested in the drama of public space and working with Leigh it was all about the heightened drama of normal situations.

You opened your Studio ZNA in 2006 and it's located in the East End where you worked with Leigh. How has the area changed?
On the film 'Naked', Leigh hired locations in upper Dalston for prolonged periods to do improvisations in real time. Working on the film was a real life/ art crossover, an immersive experience. The area has changed enormously. Back then I was so worried about the actresses who stormed off set and onto the streets of Dalston during filming. But it was fine. Their characters could look after themselves!

Most of your work is in the cultural sector. Can you explain the dynamics of working in a curatorial team and at what stage you join the process?
On the best projects you have an input from the start but that is determined by budgets. Joining from concept means that you can integrate lighting into the whole design process, starting from those early drawings. We push to get in early. If you join too late, which can happen in the industry, lighting looks tagged on.

What essential elements do you consider when approaching a new project?
I always start with the creative team, the curators and designers. Together we consider what we want the end-user to feel when they are going through a space. In an exhibition, that feeling comes from the objects but also the context that they are put in. For me personally it starts with atmosphere and feelings, in concept my ideas are sketchy and free using lots of references. From that I move into detailed design and begin to look at angles, mounting positions and shadows, technical and architectural aspects.

What challenges can you face when designing for the cultural sector?
On bigger projects, like the David Zwirner Gallery we have just done on Grafton Street, the mechanical and engineering people can exert some control over our

design in a similar way to how a structural engineer works with an architect. They often want to take the easiest or most rational option and we will want to take another route. So you have to find a solution and it's a dialogue!

You designed the lighting for Seduced by Art at the National Gallery. What can you tell me about that project?
Seduced by Art was a relatively simple show, although it had its own technical difficulties due to the different surfaces of the works. We went in early to consult on framing depths and how the daguerreotypes - old photographic prints - were to be mounted. They have to be set at a certain angle to the light for the full image detail to be visible. For this exhibition, the curators wanted a sense of the works almost floating against very dark walls to downplay the architectural surroundings. The light focus was all on the works. We kept the ambient levels low so that those vistas just punched out.

Is dark, dramatic lighting a style that resonates through your work?
For many shows the curators want a theatrical interpretation. But I would say our work is a real mix. In the culture sector you also have conservation issues to consider, for example when we worked on the quilts exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the light had to be turned right down to protect the textiles. In the V & A's Sculpture Gallery 1300 - 1600 we have supplemented daylight that so that the atmosphere is soft and open. I like both approaches, so it's not necessarily a stylistic approach but rather what is relevant to telling each story.

My personal approach would be more theatrical in the sense that it gives you a whole tool kit to work from. You can control and change from morning light, to sunset, to a brightly lit sea scene if you want! Even when working on a project that doesn't have that dynamic control, I'm used to the flexible tool kit and I do think about a dynamic change.

Can you tell us about a specific project where you have used colour dramatically?
In opera and dance you again can use the full tool kit and spectrum of colour. You can work in a bold and visual way. It's such an aesthetic language. Taking that influence into a commercial project, such as a restaurant project we did called Liquorice we were able to use dramatic colour. The interior had big open skylights for daylight, and we studied how the light fell into the space. We added artificial light on the level where the sunlight stopped. As the sunlight faded we raised the artificial light into reds with pockets of candle light. Throughout the day there was a shift from daytime dining to a more sociable bar experience.

How did you light Valentino: Master of Couture at Somerset House?
The downstairs part of the exhibition is more AV heavy and the showcases themselves are quite bright. Upstairs they wanted a theatrical presentation on the catwalk. We didn't want it to look retail in the context of the dresses but more dynamic: not give an even wash but rather chinks of light to create rhythm and movement. So that the atelier table had the same visual power as the AV showing film, we recessed the fabrics onto light boxes to show texture and detail.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
We are refurbishing a gallery in the Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent, an old ship building site. We are working on a project at the Science Museum and a few for the V & A. We are also opening Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind at the British Museum this February. I'd like to do more projects that make controlled lighting more accessible for smaller retail environments, hotels and restaurants. It's an interesting area with a lot of scope.

"People are becoming more light-conscious, and clients seem to understand that if a space is not lit well, it's not going to work. You can transform a space through lighting on a fairly tight budget, and create different spaces and intimacies."

What is your favourite cultural building in London?
I have a real soft spot for the V & A. The gallery is so accessible and their craft exhibitions are about 'making' now. It reflects my particular interest, a real range of art and design.

And finally, Zerlina, if you could design for any cultural interior in the world, where would it be?
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Northern Europe is highly literate in terms of lighting design. They have so little light, they really know how to harness it. I've worked in Sweden and Denmark a lot and learn something from the new builds every time I visit. Equally,I would like to design for somewhere with high levels of sunshine - being able to light plan a building from intense light outside to modulate it for interior use.

Sarah Roberts
Assistant Editor

Photo Credits:
© Peter Macdiarmid