Robert Shook, FASTC, FIALD
Director of Schuler Shook – Chicago
By: Ashley Rothey, WE-EF USA Marketing Coordinator
In the industry of lighting design, the face of the designer is rarely identified. When viewing a project in an architectural magazine, we may know the architect or recognize the final product, but the lighting designer is usually left in the shadows. WE-EF USA wants to shine the spotlight on the person who brings architecture to life: The Lighting Designer.
Robert Shook discovered his love of lighting while working on several theatrical productions in high school. Since then he applied his love of lighting to architecture; illuminating projects across the globe with his keen eye and understanding of light. Now a Director at Schuler Shook in Chicago, Robert has contributed to several books, including Stage Lighting: Fundamentals and Applications, and won numerous awards for his lighting design. He encourages others to use their eyes and be “good observers of light.”
I spoke with Robert about how his beginnings in lighting, challenging projects he encountered, and what he hopes to see in the future of lighting design.
AR: When did you acquire your love of lighting?
RS: I was first intrigued by lighting when I was working on theatrical productions in high school and college. I was enamored with it working in theater. For some reason lighting just attracted my attention. There was something wonderfully artistic and scientific about it at the same time that just really drew me to it.
AR: You’ve worked in architectural lighting and theatrical lighting. What are there similarities or differences between the two?
RS: If you work in the theater in lighting, you get a finely controlled idea of how light behaves because you have such control over everything you’re doing. During the rehearsal period, you’re trying new ideas. You’re moving lights around, and you’re changing the intensity until you get it exactly right. You’re able to make changes and work things out on a moment’s notice. In the case of the theater, you’re creating a composition within the stage. In architectural lighting, you’re often creating a composition within a room, on the face of a building, or within a particular piece of landscaping. In a way, the similarities are to create a composition through the balance of light and shadow. The big difference is the ephemeral nature of theater. With theater, you work on a production, it opens, it lasts five or six weeks, and it’s gone. With architectural lighting, for better or worse, you design it, and it’s there for a long time. That appealed to me. The architectural lighting side also has its drawbacks because of the longevity issue. I certainly have projects that have been designed and installed, and after a few years, they’ve begun to degrade because they are not maintained well. In the theater, even though it’s a short period of time, you have very knowledgeable people who are maintaining your design for you, making sure the lighting is the same every night.
AR: What criteria do you use when selecting a lighting manufacturer for a project?
RS: Every project is a little bit different. Quality of construction and manufacturer support is very important. A commercial interior may last longer than ten years. Restaurants typically go through redesigns on a much more frequent basis. We work on some projects that have very specific limited timeframes like a museum exhibit or a sales center that is set up for a very specific period of time. It’s very project-dependent.
AR: What do you hope to see from lighting manufacturers in the near future – whether product or service related?
RS: I’d say we’re still looking for longevity. It manifests itself in different ways. It used to be that if it was a fixture that was aimable, that it was able to be locked in position so that as it was maintained over the years, it wouldn’t change its focus. LEDs have obviated this issue because they need less maintenance. However, LEDs don’t totally maintain their brightness over long periods of time and often have issues with color shift. Those are issues that concern us in terms of making sure a design stays in place both from an aesthetic standpoint and from a light safety standpoint.
AR: Which completed lighting project was your biggest challenge? Why?
RS: Millennium Park in Chicago. We were fortunate to be involved in almost all phases of Millennium Park’s design and development. All of the various elements of Millennium Park were designed in individual design and construction contracts. We were the through-line; We were the one designer that was touching so many aspects of Millennium Park. Part of the challenge was that we were working with a lot of different design personalities and design aesthetics so finding solutions that were satisfying and satisfactory to everybody was a great challenge and one that really excited us. In a way, we considered ourselves to be a unifying aspect the design within the park. To be able to point to a project that is so well visited and loved, to be able to visit that again and again, it’s a prideful situation to be able to look at a big civic project like that and know that you played a big part in it.
AR: You’ve specified WE-EF on several projects, such as the Moody Performance Hall in Dallas. Why do you think the designers at Schuler Shook consider WE-EF to be one of their “go to” manufacturers?
RS: There are a number of factors that drive us toward specific manufacturers. The primary ones, in my opinion, are our past experience with the manufacturer and do they offer good support. We consider the manufacturers and the sales representatives that support them to be resources for us. We need assistance during the design period to be able to find out what a manufacturer is capable of doing. If there is a certain modification that we’d like to see, we like to be able to propose that and know that the manufacturer will come back to us with something other than, “That’s the way it is, and we won’t change it.” If a manufacturer has a bit of flexibility and can answer the bell on those things, that’s important. Inevitably things go wrong in the field. Maybe there’s a problem in the installation or there’s a problem in the shipment, we want to know that the manufacturer will step up to the plate and work with us to resolve those issues. The factors that drive us from one manufacturer to another tend to be those support issues and how well they work with the designers.
AR: You’ve accomplished so much in your career – from being a contributing author in several books to working on lighting projects across the globe. What’s next?
RS: I don’t have a bucket list for lighting. I love working on all sorts of projects. I don’t have a favorite project type. I do some office lighting, some restaurant and hotel lighting, and exteriors like Millennium Park. I love all of those projects. To me, the enjoyable part is working with architects and designers who really enjoy the collaborative aspects of design. Not every project is like that, so I look forward to continuing to have good collaborations with architects who appreciate lighting.
AR: What advice would you give to the next generation of lighting designers?
RS: My advice is to use that one piece of equipment that we’re born with: our eyes; be good observers of light. I think if you’re going to be a successful lighting designer, you really need to understand light and the way light behaves and the easiest way to do that is by observing it all the time. No matter what situation you’re in, whether you’re indoors or outdoors, evaluate the lighting. Look at the contrast. What is the quality of that shadow? What is the quality of light? Most of the time light is about the atmosphere you create. If we’re designing an office project, for example, I tend to think about how I can help these people be productive and efficient workers with my lighting. One way to be good at that is to understand what it is about lighting in a work space or a restaurant that works, and we do that by being good observers.