A Q&A with Lighting Design Expert Alecia Wesner

A Q&A with Lighting Design Expert Alecia Wesner

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work and their design journey. In this interview we spoke with lighting design expert Alecia Wesner. Alecia is the president and managing-partner of Kovacs-Wesner Design Group, licensor of George Kovacs Lighting, an iconic heritage lighting brand. She is a deeply empathetic designer, and is dedicated to telling the stories of other empathetic designers as the host of the Healthy by Design podcast. She has type 1 diabetes and dedicates a significant amount of time to fundraising for the cure for diabetes as well as participating in clinical trials. In addition to her lighting design work, Alecia has a jewelry design business, part of the proceeds of which are donated to fight the battle against diabetes. We asked her about incorporating new technologies, innovating at a heritage brand, and the intersection of lighting and health.

Photo courtesy of Alecia Wesner.

Q: Could you discuss the role that lighting plays in shaping the mood of a space, and how you consider that in your design process?

A: I am a lighting designer but not in the sense of going into someone’s home and figuring out their scheme of lighting. I’m designing primarily decorative lighting fixtures. One of the biggest things for me is considering the task or purpose of the space. It’s easy to say that ambient and decorative lighting are secondary but we are all in our homes more than we were a couple of years ago, and homes are primarily what I’m designing for. Although we do hotels and office spaces, the home has taken on many more roles than it did previously. Your home office might also be your kitchen. Lighting that works for one task can be different from lighting that works for another task, but now we need lighting for two separate but possibly overlapping applications. One of the features I like to incorporate is dimmability within the space. I don’t think everybody needs their lighting at the maximum brightness all the time. This ties into mood; the light that you want to dine under is very different from the light that you want to work under.

I end up dealing with a lot of other designers in lighting who come from a background that is not industrial design, primarily interior designers and architects who’ve gotten into lighting design. One of the things that I hope that they understand is the role of shadow in lighting, and that when you’re designing a light fixture, yes, you need light to see something, but an important part of creating a mood is shadow and layering light. It kills me when I see a space that has one chandelier or fixture that is supposed to be the lighting for the entire room. You don’t get to see that space transform. As far as the design of light, let’s face it: I’m never going to beat mother nature. Having natural light combined with the lighting that I design is a big part of what I do. What something looks like at sunrise as a light fixture is very different from what it looks like in the middle of the day or in the darkness of night.

Q: What does a lighting design process look like for you? Could you take us from the initial brief or inspiration to the finished product?

A: I’ve never had a cookie cutter approach to this. I represent the brand George Kovacs, and I look for areas where we can continue to grow as well as areas where we can evolve. That tends to dictate the project. Often, I seek feedback from our customers and representatives who are directly selling the product to get their feedback.

For me, one of the most exciting  aspects of the design process is the technology. I started working for George in 1997. I’m technically still in my first industrial design job! In  the late 90s, George and I were in my car, talking about how brake lights were becoming LEDs in buses. He said that believed that LEDs would revolutionize the lighting industry. There were LEDs being manufactured out of Europe, lighting fixtures and task lamps, and they were incredibly expensive. They used blue, green, and red LEDs combined to make white light, and it wasn’t really accepted in the U.S. market. The strategy, in terms of the form, was essentially to retrofit the light bulb. It was an incandescent light bulb shape with encased LEDs that screwed into a standard socket, because that was what we knew. George said, These designers with these LEDs. They’re all just trying to make the same fixtures that we’ve always seen when, at this point, you could make a donut as a task lamp, and put your hand right through the center of it! That’s the magic. Looking back at those conversations with him, that’s where we are now. There are so many more options—as far as form and shape and ability to transform—with LEDs. Also, heat is always the enemy in the design of lighting and LEDs offset that to some extent. Now you take into consideration other challenges, like the placement of the driver or securing the circuit board, but you have the ability to make things, shapewise, that you couldn’t before. You can also distribute light output differently.

Q: What role does research and development play in the creation of new lighting products, and how does this process inform design decisions?

A: I always find this fun to talk about because you could talk to a million different designers about their inspiration and everybody would say something different. It’s the storytelling behind a product that to me is the intoxicating part of design. Life evolves, as do our needs. I have always, like any designer, had a million outside interests beyond the  job of lighting. I took glass making classes for many years. I took a neon class at night because I think neon is so magical, it’s a lost art. It’s those outside interests that often become the spark of inspiration for my next design.

I have a group of designs, Dripping Gems, that are based on 3D printed forms that I was creating for jewelry. I was working on those forms because, during the pandemic, we were in lockdown and I didn’t have access to a jewelry studio. I had a designer friend with a 3D printer, so the two of us would get together and we’d start printing out design forms we were considering for unrelated projects. I made a pair of earrings that were based on a light fixture that I was working on. I’m not the only one deciding which lamps make it into our product line. I’m selling myself and I’m selling the idea of what I’m doing, just like any other designer. So I made these earrings, and I Photoshopped the earring as a light fixture into a room setting, showing what it would look like as accent lighting over a kitchen counter. 

Technology plays a big role in my design process. Now, I can model and print any idea. I like working three-dimensionally instead of just sketching it out. I like to move around and see the concept from a variety of angles. I ask, What would this look like in different spaces? That is a starting point for me but also a way to evolve an idea. Once you have that three-dimensional object, whether it is a piece of jewelry or a scale model, you can see where you’d like it to go beyond what you imagined it to be.

Over the last 10 years, this idea of jewelry as lighting for the home seems to be a cliché tagline. It’s everywhere, as if this is the only thing that we all are doing now. Sometimes, when I’m looking at a lighting design, I think, What would I have done differently? My brain goes back to a jewelry mindset; what stone was used, how was the bezel set? That can help me visualize a small change I might want to make in the lighting concept. There hasn’t been much lighting that I have translated back into jewelry, but the thing that I’m asked the most by lighting customers who know that I make jewelry—and see me wearing the jewelry that matches the lighting at trade shows—is, When are the earrings going to light up? I get that question all the time! Why haven’t I done that yet? At some point, I definitely have to do that.

Q: Could you talk about the technological advancements influencing lighting design today, and how you adapt these into your products?

A: I have type 1 diabetes and always thought that my medical journey was separate from my product design life. I didn’t go into medical product design but I look back and it’s all interwoven. Now I find myself gravitating towards a lot of the science and health aspects of lighting. I was contacted by the Mount Sinai Light and Health Research Center, which is outside of Troy, New York. They were looking to use an existing Kovacs fixture in some testing on circadian rhythms, and they needed changes made to the product for the testing. They’d bought the product and made changes to it themselves, and they wanted to know if they could get these changes made at a production level. I jumped at the chance to go visit them. I’m a science nerd and, even if it didn’t work out as far as potential work projects, I wanted to learn. I got the full tour and was absolutely fascinated by circadian rhythms and how your environment, your non-sunlit environment, affects your ability to sleep. As somebody who loses a lot of sleep this felt so relevant and intriguing. They have trials in which they’re testing the saliva in somebody’s mouth to see how much melatonin they’re secreting based on the light experienced throughout the day. That’s just a general overview, they do much more. I thought, What if we incorporate this into the lighting we design? We’ve gone further and further into the development of smart homes. What if the lighting in your home could help you sleep better? That’s a real springboard for me. If there is a way to better the lives of people through lighting products, why would I not want to be involved in that? 

When I was in my mid-20s, I learned that I was losing my eyesight due to complications of diabetes. I was fortunate in that I had an aggressive treatment plan and I still have my vision. If there were products that could help me, lighting products that I need for my home but that could also help me preserve my vision…what an exciting possibility that is. I think about COVID and research seeking to test if lighting applications could benefit long-term COVID patients. There is a study about framing a doorway in Illumination in elder care, which helps center a person when they get up out of bed. If you shift that illumination, the person’s movements also shift. Think of all the possibilities with that. The same thing with vitamin D. Certain populations have low levels of vitamin D, and one of them is people with type 1 diabetes. I have extremely low vitamin D and I remember a doctor saying to me, You just haven’t had that much sunlight. I said, Look at me, that’s not it! I had just come back from vacation and I was as tan as can be. If vitamin D affects so much of your health, especially your bones, what if the lighting in your home could help you produce vitamin D?

As far as my lighting in my home goes, I am trying to get the least amount of artificial light in my bedroom at night. As somebody who constantly checks their phone, that is a real tough one to do. I am also conscious of the fact that my lighting needs are changing as I age.

Q: How do you balance the demand for timeless designs, especially given a heritage brand like George Kovacs, with the desire for innovation and experimentation in lighting design?

A: George Kovacs is currently celebrating our 70th anniversary. I have such a unique situation with him as a person. He took me under his wing—his wife, too—and showed me the world. I knew at the time how fortunate I was, especially compared to my peers starting out in industrial design. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize about Kovacs [the brand] is that George was not only a pioneer of innovation and technology but also a risk-taker, and some of those risks were failures. Those were his favorite presentations to give. When I first got to know him, he would do these slideshows and talk about his failed projects because, as he said, People like to hear about the screw-ups. They like to hear about what didn’t work and the risks you took, not just all the successes. It was entertaining and endearing, and became part of the brand story. There’s a lot of humor and playfulness in that. The names of the products were genius, too. The ‘Save Your Marriage’ was a lamp that was two lights above a bed. It changed a million times over the years but there was witty advertising that went with that. I hope that, in all the lives that the brand has now had, that wit and whimsy remains.

As designers, we study modern design. I studied architecture before I studied industrial design and I think back on how many different movements I learned about in modern architecture. It’s easy to say modern as a blanket statement but, to many, George Kovacs has always been synonymous with mid-century modern. Of course, there’s so much more than that. Playing up the mid-century modern roots has a place, and that’s something that cycles through, but it’s also important to be a risk taker and to have offerings that customers don’t expect. One of the areas we’re growing is portable lighting; task lighting, table lamps, and floor lamps. That was an area we got away from for a couple of years but it was a big part of the business when I came on board because we were selling more to furniture stores than to lighting showrooms. Now we’re bringing task lighting back and advancements in technology allow us to reassess things like, What if a task lamp were portable and rechargeable?  What does your task lamp really look like? How much space does your task lamp take on your desk? Is the lighting an object beyond just giving you light? Is it sculpture? Is it an object of beauty? Why can’t it be all of those things?

Q: Could you talk about how your podcast, Healthy by Design, came about and the stories you are telling with that platform?

A: Healthy by Design was a stroke of luck for me. Bruce Hannah was working with a production company on a podcast about Industrial design and we’ve been friends for a long time. I used to come to Pratt with George to do a lighting design show-and-tell and then be a visiting critic for lighting design projects. After George passed away, I continued doing it, and Bruce and I became friends through that Pratt connection. He’s somebody that everyone admires and he’s the Google of industrial design. He has a story for everything and you want to be around him because you just keep learning the whole time. So he was part of this podcast production, though he didn’t tell me that part, and he asked me to meet with the production team. I thought I was there to do an episode about being an industrial designer participating in clinical trials in the diabetes space. I did the interview and, when they walked me to the elevator, one of the guys said, You got the part, but I shouldn’t tell you this yet. I was confused because I didn’t know there was a part to get! When I contacted Bruce, he explained that they wanted him to have a design speaking sidekick and I was it. I kind of took a step back. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in the podcasting world. The podcast continued to evolve and landed as a  new concept, which was that Bruce would have a Design Mysteries program and the sister program would be Healthy by Design. That was just so exciting to me, not only the idea of the platform starting as my own story—of being a designer participating in clinical trials and using technology to keep me alive and thriving—but also the idea of talking to other incredible industrial designers who were creating products that improved  people’s lives and sharing  their stories.When I was approached about the podcast, one of the goals they shared was, We just want to do work that we’re proud of. That was so meaningful. I consider myself so fortunate and lucky to have my vision. There were all these people before me who tested laser technology for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy. In an effort for that treatment to evolve there were failures and people who continued to lose their vision. I saw Healthy by Design as another platform to pay it forward. I could teach a bit about industrial design and give credit to the people who are behind the scenes making the products that help others. I’m at a point in my life now where the question of purpose plays a bigger role in so many of my decisions. Not to get all mushy, but we’re all here for a limited amount of time. What are we doing with it? We have this training but, if we’re not learning empathy and bringing that to our own design agenda, what’s the point?

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Design News N.023

Design News is your tiny dose of design, technology and other important news, curated monthly by Interwoven Design. In this series we share the latest on our favorite topics, including exhibits in NYC, sustainable design, technology, and design for disassembly. In this issue: some museum and gallery exhibits to enjoy, and a tech company that embraces design for disassembly.

Barber Osgerby presents ‘Signals’

’Signals’ by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Paris exhibition, © Alexandra de Cossette courtesy Galerie kreo.

Designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have designed a series of lamps inspired by the form of the cone. Their new solo show at London’s Galerie kreo is ‘Signals’, where the Barber Osgerby exhibition features floor, wall, and pendant lamps made of aluminum and hand-blown glass. The designs are a compelling blend of the industrial fixtures and the artisanal glass. The elements share clean geometry while the delicate, organic transparency of the sconces is in contrast with the rigid, glossy base. The color and opacity variation in the glass modulates the quality of light beautifully.

via Wallpaper* Magazine

Hard, Soft, and All Lit Up with Nowhere to Go

Blue and white sculptures in the Noguchi Museum
Formations (2018) by Objects of Common Interest, with sculptures by Isamu Noguchi. Installation view, Objects of Common Interest: Hard, Soft, and All Lit Up with Nowhere to Go, The Noguchi Museum, New York, September 15, 2021 – February 13, 2022.
Photo: Brian W. Ferry. © Objects of Common Interest / The Noguchi Museum / ARS

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum has collaborated with the New York-based studio Objects of Common Interest to create an exhibit inspired by “moments of unfamiliar simplicity”. Senior curator Dakin Hart writes, “despite often having no explicit, or essential, purpose, and even though their works are clearly in search of something more than function and attention, they never wander far from an unidentifiable usefulness.” On view September 15, 2021 through February 13, 2022.

*While this exhibit has ended the images and thoughtful curator statement are well worth investigating.

via Noguchi Museum

Preassembled or DIY modular laptop

Modular components allow the Framework laptop to be disassembled and repaired. Photo courtesy of Framework.

Tech company Framework has designed a modular laptop that was created with disassembly and repair as priority features. The ability to replace components reduces e-waste and ultimately increases the lifespan of the product. Tools for disassembly are included in the product kit, and customers can purchase a preassembled or DIY version to encourage building and interaction. Individual components can be more readily recycled than the usual hybrid monsters. The laptop is not just a product but a system that supports a circular economic system.

via Dezeen

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