Where I Work: Harlem’s Focus Lighting illuminates the field of architectural lighting design
sqft’s series “Where I Work” takes us into the studios, offices, and off-beat workspaces of New Yorkers across the city. In this installment, we’re touring the Harlem office of architectural lighting design firm Focus Lighting. Want to see your business featured here? Get in touch!
After spending many years designing theatrical lighting, Paul Gregory decided to transition into the world of architectural lighting. He started his career working on nightclubs and in , founded his own firm in his neighborhood of Harlem. Eight years later, Paul and his team at Focus Lighting garnered international recognization for their work on the Entel Tower in Santiago Chile, the world’s first automated color-changing building. Since then, the firm has grown to have employees and nabs commissions such as the Times Square ball, Tavern on the Green, and the Waldorf Astoria and that’s just here in NYC.
But through all their success, Focus has kept their offices in Harlem, now at th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, where their close-knit employees work collaboratively. The converted loft space has a unique light lab, similar to a black box theater, as well as a gallery space where the team can test out new means of digital architecture and video projects. sqft recently visited Focus Lighting to learn more about their fascinating work, tour the space, and chat with Focus partner and principal designer Brett Andersen and principal designer Christine Hope.
Then entryway and the adjacent conference room
Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds?
Brett: My background is actually in theatrical design. I went to Carnegie Melon and then moved to New York literally thinking I was going to start assisting on and off Broadway. My first call was from my professor at Carnegie Melon saying, “I have this friend named Paul Gregory who’s got an architectural firm.” I had heard of Focus and had seen Paul’s work at the Entel Tower in one of the theater magazines. I was like “Okay, it’ll be interesting.” I thought I was signing up for six weeks of graphing. That’s the story. I landed here and never left, which is actually how it works for a lot of people.
Christine: I think a lot of us have a similar story. I went to NYU. I studied lighting and set design at Tisch School of the Arts there. I was doing little shows around town, downtown theater. I had a friend who worked here as a project manager. We were doing off-Broadway shows together. She was doing it in her spare time. She kept saying, “Come up to Focus. Talk to us. You’ll love it. It’s great.” I kind of felt like, “What do I know about architecture? I’m a theater designer.” Then I came here and started getting involved in the work. It was a really interesting transition to go from temporary productions to architecture with a different feeling of permanence to it. I think a lot of us take our theatrically trained approach and apply it to architectural spaces in a unique way, which is something interesting we’re able to bring to clients.
Behind the conference room is the Light Lab. Though most firms only use rendering software, Focus uses this flexible space to mount architectural elements, looks at glass samples, test lighting, and more.
As someone not in the business, it’s interesting to learn how a theatrical background is such a great fit for this type of work.
Brett: We used to sit in a dark theatre as lighting designers and try to figure out where we want the audience to look onstage, where the action is? We’re constantly thinking like that with every project that we design. You walk into a restaurant. Where do you want your guests to look for the very first time Hopefully, you can use light combined with the interior design and the architecture to stir an emotion in someone.
Paul Gregory, who founded the company, also came from theater and then from manufacturing. We also have trained architects who work for us, as well as interior designers and people who went to school for architectural lighting design.
The Light Lab has three different dimming systems.
Brett, you’ve been with Focus for years, and Christine you . What are the biggest ways the firm has changed over that time?
Brett: When I started, we had about eight people, and were largely focused on restaurants and hotels with some retail and high-end residential mixed in. Now, we’ve almost quadrupled in size and have expanded into museums, public parks, large exteriors, and more.
I think we reached a point where some of the younger designers wanted to start expanding the portfolio not just in terms of the project types but also the range of architects and interior design offices that we were working with. We started working with Shop Architects. We work a lot of big firms like Gensler and SOM, but we also really enjoy working with the younger boutique firms. I think that’s a big change that’s happened.
On the other side of the ground floor are the immersive Gallery rooms. This ocean graphic is made up of a ′ x ′ LED panel behind a printed graphic–it only cost $.
What about how the lighting industry has changed?
Brett: The lighting industry has totally been turned upside-down since around the year . This was the year we did our first project with NLEDs on it. That was what’s now the Regal Theatre on nd Street near th Avenue. It used to be a Lowes Theatre. Around , that’s when the white LED started being used for architectural lighting. The lighting section at Home Depot went from being about feet wide to feet wide. Everyone and their brother were selling white LEDs that would last forever. That’s the world we’ve been living.
Some of Focus’ studies can be likened to the artist James Turrell.
Do you think the general public now pays more attention to lighting?
Brett: It’s interesting how much more aware the public is of the little details when it comes to lighting. I have family members who now understand what color temperature is for light and how cool or warm they want their spaces to feel. It used to just be incandescent. Now people are much more attuned to the difference between different light qualities which makes interaction with our clients actually great because they actually understand what we’re saying. They appreciate it.
Through a series of six wide-angle HD projects on the ceiling, this gallery space can be transformed into different “rooms.”
Was there one project in the past that really put Focus on the map?
Brett: I mentioned Entel Tower. It was an exterior, which was a different type of project than Focus had been doing, and the first time anyone had ever used automated color-changing lights on a building.
Christine: I think Toys R Us in Times Square, the flagship at Toys R Us, that was a big deal when that opened. It was a huge store in the middle of Times Square with a Ferris Wheel in the middle of it and lines around the block. I just feel like that set a new standard for what a flagship store for your brand should be. That was an exciting one to be a part of.
The second floor is all the office space.
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