My route into lighting was an unusual one. I didn’t
study architecture or design at university, like so many
others – I’m self-taught, an autodidact. My only formal
training was at the London Film School, and I came to
lighting through theatre and film.
I was a graduate of Berkeley High School in the radical
years, and at 18 I had the choice of getting a well-rounded education or following my own interests and
developing in my own way. I was an obsessive filmmaker interested in community activism, and I went
to London to help out on a community early-years
education film. It was there that I realised the school
of life wasn’t enough, I needed in-depth instruction in
my area of focus. Instead of university I went directly
to the LFS, a trade school, and worked on community-minded films.
Later, when I was establishing my lighting career, I
realised I had missed out on the bonding and social
networking that automatically develops at university.
I also chose not to join a company or studio in those
early years, compensating by finding mentors and
following them around with a notebook. I learned a
lot from touring designers working as a rock n’ roll
electrician, as well as in opera and dance. One example
was Jeff Ravitz who allowed me to watch his operation
at the lighting console, which in those days was pretty
much all manual.
I freelanced in lighting, experimenting, learning by
doing and staying true to my own interests. I worked
collaboratively with architects and clients, developing
and sharing ideas, and making a contribution in my
You might say I did it the hard way, but would I advise
my younger self to do it any differently? Well, no. It
worked for me. It was nerve-racking and scary at times,
but I was driven and single-minded and I wouldn’t
change a thing. I would reassure my young self: ‘It’s
OK, it’s the way you’re built, just go for it.’ It wouldn’t
work for everyone, but if you have the nerve and the
wherewithal to teach yourself, it’s a great way to learn.
I suppose I did everything in reverse – I started up my
own company, acting as my own boss, and now I work
for Arup alongside 400-odd people, and I’m loving it.
So I would tell my 18-year-old self, don’t be afraid of
the unknown. If you have nerve, and motivation, and
the support of family and friends, believe in yourself
and do it your way. It will work.
l Leni Schwendinger is associate principal at Arup
in New York
‘If you have the nerve and the
wherewithal to teach yourself, it’s
a great way to learn’