INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
PAUL NULTY: OUT OF THE DARKNESS

All the world is a stage to be lit for lighting designer Paul Nulty, who is known for his people-focused approach, theatricality, and keen eye for a spectacular feature luminaire. In 2011, after 11 years at the Light Bureau he set up Paul Nulty Lighting Design (PNLD), which has established itself as a key player in just two years. The practice ruffled feathers among more established firms at the 2012 Lux awards, with its nomination for Lighting Design Practice of the Year, and came in Highly Commended. Alison Smith caught up with him to talk about drama, darkness, the bottom line and the ubiquitous downlight.

Paul Nulty's aptitude for conjuring drama with light, whether it's in a flagship store, a hip bar or a neighbourhood restaurant, stems from a background in theatre, having studied Performance Design at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. 'I originally wanted to be an actor and found set design by accident at college,' he says. 'So I started studying that and ended up falling in love with lighting - the ability to use light to change space and people's perception of space is very exciting'.

This emphasis on lighting as it is experienced by an active body in space is a defining feature of his approach. 'When we talk to clients, we always talk about the story of the space, how lighting reveals the space and the experience within it - and there's a lot of meticulous planning that goes into achieving it,' he says.

So for instance, in the design for the Adventure Bar in Clapham the lighting levels subtly increase towards the back of the bar, pulling the eye through the space to where a feature neon sign spelling out WAIT HERE, GONE FOR HELP provides a 'full-stop' at the end of the view.

'We are lighting spaces for people, for users,' he explains. 'Light is the medium that facilitates the conversation between the person and the architecture. It enables us to have control over how a person interprets that space.'

Paul likes to work at an early stage with architects and interior designers, to make lighting much more central to the design. And he would call on interior designers to shift their focus from the floors to the walls when if comes to lighting. 'One of my biggest hates is walking into residential spaces and simply seeing a geometric array of downlights. There's no need - you don't really experience space via the floor. You experience it by the walls - your peripheral vision is greater left to right than top to bottom. When engineers quantify lighting they put a measuring surface on the floor or a table and if there's enough light they tick the box. But this neglects the quality of light, which is much more important than quantity. Interior designers need to be thinking about drama, about artwork. You need to understand about the language and rhythm of light, not just how good a light fitting looks.'

By way of showing how it's done, PNLD collaborated closely with interior designers to create a convivial, warm and intimate environment at Colbert - a Parisian-style brasserie in Sloane Square. Architectural lighting features include custom designed, moulded glass chandeliers, wall lights and a large 'false' skylight illuminated with LED lamp sources. Drama, contrast and ambience is created in a low-light environment by selectively lighting interior elements such as the large clock over the bar, and vintage photos. 'I always describe what we do as painting with light - you start with a black space - the first question we ask is - what do we want to illuminate and why,' says Paul.

PNLD's work in retail lends itself to the evolution of the high street retail experience as theatre, having split off from the practical world of internet sales. 'The high street as we know it is dead,' says Paul. 'The high street is either about incredibly cheap products or buying into an experience - because you can buy any product you want online.'

The experience created by PNLD for the Superdry flagship store in Regent Street is part of the trend for moody, nightclub-like interiors in clothing stores, embraced by brands including Hollister and Abercrombie.

The practice artfully followed this dark aesthetic, but with reduced energy use and improved visibility. Ambient lighting is low and the shelving and vitrines housing the products illuminated with LED track lights for 'jewellery case' style illumination. Spotlit mannequins and hefty linear fittings from the Eastern bloc ramp up the drama. High contrast ratios make this as far from mainstream, uniform shop lighting as you could get. And the contrast is only achievable because the starting point is a dark 'stage'. Similarly, when PNLD tackled the Nike store at Manchester United Stadium, it was all about lighting the merchandise and allowing the circulation spaces to be dark. As a result, the merchandise become exhibits in an almost museum-like environment.

'There is a trend towards darker spaces, and that's probably twofold. It's energy-saving and secondly, people are becoming more switched on to atmosphere and drama,' says Paul. 'From a retail perspective for years it was like an arms race on high street, with people trying to out-light each other, and every store lit to within an inch of its life, then somewhere a retailer pops up with less lighting. The absence of light is as important as the quality of light. One could argue that as much as we are lighting designers we are darkness designers.'

Perhaps the appeal of selectively illuminated, dark retail spaces is to do with a yearning to cut some of the informational 'noise' of our modern, always-switched-on world. These nightclub-like stores don't overload you with endless choices packed together. Rather, your eye is drawn in to certain products displayed in darkness, which is more relaxing, and perhaps even more conducive to increased sales. After all, we didn't evolve in a light-saturated environment, so these spaces speak to something primordial in us.

Paul agrees: 'Go back millennia and we were all sitting round campfires, seeing shadows, and low illumination levels and high levels of contrast.'

Despite his dismay at unimaginative downlight scenarios, Nulty has noticed that architects and designers know a lot more about lighting than they used to. 'I think its because lighting is maturing up as an industry. With technical advancements in things such as LEDs, a lot of it is because developers and end clients realise the massive difference light can make. The industry is getting out of infancy, and people realize there is added value. It's bottom-line driven whether you like it or not.'

A true creative with his eye on this bottom line, Paul treads a path between the loftiest creative ideas, and the meticulous detail and number crunching that comes with the territory of lighting design. Does he enjoy the tension between the two? 'It's a very hard path to tread for sure, but its part of the interesting challenge,' he says. 'A lot of people out there struggle to tread that line - and I'm proud that as a practice we're doing very well at it. It's all well and good conceptualising a wonderful idea but if the client can't afford it or it can't be built then that's no good. It's all about designing with longevity and affordability in mind.'

Paul Nulty is on the jury of the WIN Annual Awards 2013 - Lighting Category.

Alison Smith

Alison Smith has written on design and interiors for titles including The Scotsman, The Guardian, You Magazine and The Herald (Scotland). She has a background in contemporary art communications, having worked for organisations including the ICA and eyestorm.com.

Photo credits:
Paul Portrait: Photography © Sanna Fisher-Payne
Colbert: Photography © Sanna Fisher-Payne
Adventure Bar: Photography © Sanna Fisher-Payne