Light as a medium, has the potential to elevate the finer aspects of architectural design, thus enhancing the visual appeal of physical spaces.

Neha Sivaprasad, our next pathbreaker, Founder Principal at Sol Light Studio (San Francisco), works on a wide range of projects that include hospitality, education, high end residential and outdoor parks, designing lighting systems for such spaces.

Neha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up lighting design as a specialised field of architecture after being intrigued by the subtle yet powerful role of light on human emotions.

For students, lighting design attracts professionals from several backgrounds like architects, interior designers, industrial designers and engineers with the common goal of blending creativity with technology !

Neha, can you take us through your background? 

I was born in the lovely city of Mumbai (India) to a nuclear medicine scientist and a finance manager, and to grandparents who were a  homemaker and a lawyer. I was always interested in how the physical world around us influenced human behaviour and well being. As a child I had a keen interest in drawing, painting, designing (spaces and objects) and dance. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I did a diploma in Interior Design, a Bachelor’s degree in  Architecture (Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai, India) and a  Master of Building Science degree (University of Southern  California, Los Angeles, USA) 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? 

After my education and training as an architect, while I was in my  Master’s program (now 18 years ago), I was introduced to  ‘architectural lighting design’ as part of the course material. The  idea that lighting design was a totally different professional field in itself intrigued me as a student. 

As I learnt more and took more classes in architectural lighting design and theatrical lighting design (from the Theatre Arts school at my university), the realization of the impact of light on space, emotion and the human experience fascinated me. This is when I began to study more and  began to look for work in lighting design practices in Los Angeles alongside completing my Master’s program. 

Architectural Lighting design is an interesting field of work that attracts people from several backgrounds like architects, interior designers, landscape architects, industrial designers and engineers. Some come into the field with a degree specifically in Lighting Design, others may have had lighting design as one of the subjects they learnt in a boarder program like me, while others learn it all on the job. A background in either engineering or design, I think, is a good foundation.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about  your career path 

I was always driven to the design of physical spaces and objects. Thus, I found myself doing architecture. We are constantly surrounded by the built environment and I wanted to learn how to be part of designing the built environment and how it impacts the human experience.  

My drive to get a masters education after my bachelor’s degree in Architecture was to get more knowledge on the technology and engineering side of architecture. The intense 5 year Bachelors  program was very design focused (rightly so) and I wanted to now learn more about the other aspects like structures, engineering, acoustics, facades etc. And finally, when I stumbled upon lighting design during my Master’s program, I was instantly drawn to it. I  thus decided to study it in more depth. Therefore, learning how to  design lighting for theater and drama was one of the best things I did. There I could experiment with color and intensity of light to  exaggerate the emotions of a scene in a play. Seeing the direct correlation between light and emotion, played a huge role in me pursuing a career in architectural lighting design. Now as an  architectural lighting designer, I design permanently installed  lighting for spaces like museums, resorts, hotels, restaurants,  schools, offices, parks and streets. 

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first summer internship in a lighting design firm in Los Angeles during the summer between the first and second year of my Master’s program. I worked really hard to find an internship at that time. This is where I was exposed to the various aspects of the process of architectural lighting design in the real world. That is when I got a glimpse into how a design concept on paper went on to shape into the reality of a constructed project. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them? 

Beginning a career in a (then) foreign land, in an industry that was (then) filled with predominantly American (and mostly white or white passing) people, with very few immigrants was a challenge. I looked and  spoke differently from everyone I worked with. I stood out too much while I was trying to blend in. 

Another layer to this was that I was used to the construction methods in India, which are quite different from the way construction is done in the US. I had to learn a lot, keep my eyes and ears open, always look out for something I didn’t understand, so that I could go back and research it to learn more. I was hungry to learn and I took every opportunity to attend classes, lectures, seminars to keep learning.  

The third layer of challenge was that I was not only an immigrant but also a woman. I had to be louder to make myself heard, and to be taken seriously especially on construction sites,  during site visits. It was not good enough that I was good at what I did, I had to go the extra mile each time. 

On the positive side though, my work was recognized and I was lucky to have had the chance to work with extremely talented and gracious people, many of whom I consider my mentors in the industry today. I am grateful for every experience and I don’t take any of my experiences for granted. 

Where do you work now and your current role?

After over 17 years of working at different firms, I have my own independent architectural lighting design practice called Sol Light Studio based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I work on a wide range of projects that include hospitality, education, high end residential and outdoor parks. 

I work with teams that design these spaces and my contribution is in designing lighting systems for such spaces. The design teams comprise architects, interior designers, landscape architects, electrical engineers, structural engineers, developers and artists.  After the design phase, I am also involved throughout the construction of the project, at the end of which I am involved with fine tuning the light fixtures, adjusting the lighting control system and setting scenes, to make sure the spaces function as they were designed.

What’s a typical day like?

I wear different hats throughout the day. I have to sometimes be an accountant managing finances of my growing business, be involved in working on marketing material with my team, be a pure designer, be a coach to coach other designers, visit sites and coordinate with contractors or sometimes just be a good listener to hear a client out. 

What do you love about your job?

What I love about my job is that I get to wear different hats. No two days are the same, no two projects are the same. Every project is exciting and different, and, presents an opportunity to learn and do better. There is a constant sense of moving in a positive direction, in a direction of personal and professional growth, and, of pushing  boundaries and setting new limits. Not to mention, the number of  talented people I get to cross paths with and build relationships with, through each new project. 

How does your work benefit society?  

I see architecture as being a huge contributor to the social and cultural fabric of our society. I believe that the design of the physical world around us has the power to foster better communication and better human connection, which our civilization is in much need of today. I feel grateful to be able to contribute to the process of designing our physical world through the use of this subtle yet powerful medium of light.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is  very close to you! 

It is hard to pick one project. There are several projects particularly in California that I have been involved with, almost entirely designing and managing that are all memorable experiences. More memorable are  experiences where I may have learnt something new or where I may have had a deep connection with another designer because we had  a great working relationship on a project. 

I am currently working on a school project where the design of the  physical classroom is intended to create a great learning experience  for students and change the way they receive education. I am very  excited for this project which although small, will be very impactful on the next generation of adults who get to experience this space.  Projects like these that have a huge impact on the human experience are always memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Always be hungry to learn and know that the learning can never stop. Prioritize your life in terms of which parts of your life should receive more energy versus which can do with less. These priorities will change as you grow and age but always know what is most  important to you at the present time. Dream big and have huge aspirations, but always break it down into achievable goals. And when you achieve the small goals one at a time don’t forget to celebrate yourself. Take  time to look back at where you came from and where you have reached. But never look around and compare yourself to others at  a given time. Each person’s journey is unique and you can only move forward from where ‘you’ started. 

Future Plans? 

I plan to focus most of my energy on my independent practice and on the projects that come my way. I also plan to spend some of my energy in education and guest lecturing, with the aim to give back  to the future generation that may choose to be in the field of  architectural lighting design. There are other very important  priorities as well, like being the best parent I can possibly be to my children and continuing to pursue my passion for art and dance.  Life is a balancing game and the definition of balance is unique to  each individual!