First, I would advise my younger self that less is more.
Then I would say that designing a lighting project is
like telling a story. The story must link the architect’s
main idea with the way in which the user will use the
space. Be sensitive to the functionality of the space,
and use this beautiful material of light to create an
Take things one step at a time and don’t try too hard.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Designing is like
learning how to ski, you have to make mistakes in order
to learn. And don’t be impatient – things happen when
you are ready for them. I worked for eight years in
Paris before I came to New York, and things were very
different. In France you present an idea to a client and
they say no, we can’t do it – but after a lot of time and
negotiation, you find a way. In the US it’s the opposite
– you present an idea and they get super excited.
But I wouldn’t have been ready for the US at 18. My
years in France and my classical design background
helped prepare me for New York, where there is more
modernity in the world of architecture. When I arrived
here and met Frank Gehry, I had to break my own rules
and think differently – the same with Steven Holl. It
was very modern, very different, very minimalist, and
I would not have been ready. It’s difficult to run when
you can barely walk.
I would tell myself to listen more to the client, and learn
to judge when you can be a bit more experimental on
a project and when there’s no room for trial and error.
Choose your battles. On some projects you can test
different things and have a dialogue with your team
and your client. Architects like Steven Holl or Jean
Nouvel are always ready to go further. You can think
about the meaning of the light, the drama of the space.
But it’s also good to work in the corporate world. The
clients’ goals are just as valid and can make you realise
some crucial, practical element of design.
Be prepared – on every project something will happen
that you didn’t expect. Listen to the people in your
team and respect them, that’s very important. They will
always have something good to say – but remember, at
the end of the day one person has to make the decision.
I don’t believe in democratic design – it’s very difficult
to do a project with too many voices.
l Hervé Descottes is co-founder and principal of
L’Observatoire International in New Yorkw
‘Designing a lighting project
is like telling a story’