“I’m never really satisfied and that’s important”

He was named lighting designer of the year at the 2017 German Lighting Design Awards: Thomas Mika, board member and executive management team member at Reflexion AG, a Swiss lighting design firm. We met when working on the latest Topos issue “Darkness” and spoke with him about the key to success for a lighting designer.

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Thomas Mika (© Christine Benz, Zurich)


Mr Mika, you founded Reflexion AG along with a partner in 2001. However, you really don’t have any experience in lighting design and actually studied business. How does someone with a background in business get involved in lighting design?

That’s not entirely true. Yes, I studied business, however I worked at a lighting firm as a student alongside my studies. Working there I learned to understand light as such. However, it’s my background in business that made it possible in the first place to found a company. I analysed the market situation and realised: there was a service missing in the lighting design segment. So I offered it.

It was that easy?
Actually, yes (he says laughing). I had this idea during my studies. Without a care and with an eye to the future I got to work buoyed by an entrepreneurial drive.

And everything that you know today about light and lighting design you learned on the job?
A lot of it yes, however I also took graduate courses at the TU Berlin. Maybe it’s the case that a little theoretical background is needed after all.

Sounds like a success story. What was behind the sale in 2014?
My own personal goals. I asked myself whether I wanted to still be carrying the full responsibility until 65, whether I wanted to be an entrepreneur who rocks it alone with his 25 employees or whether it really would make sense to have a business partner in the background who could offer me a certain degree of freedom. I chose the second option.

How do you get projects at Reflexion?
As part of competitions that we enter in collaboration with architects and planners as well as direct inquiries. But I’ll be honest: The more established you are as a lighting firm, the more you step back from the competitive environment. They are simply so time-consuming and resource-intensive.

Reflexion AG took over the lighting design for the project “The Circle” at Zurich Airport – a multi-million Euro project that challenges and fascinates Thomas Mika and his team with a diversity of scales.

You also offer consulting services. How should we picture that?
In addition to our core service – lighting design consulting – we also receive supervision and consulting commissions on occasion and provide support to general contractors and builders during the planning process. In addition, we have a daylight studio where it’s possible to perform daylight simulations using physical models. In principle, we notice that a great degree of uncertainty has arisen along with technological change, digitisation and the development of LED and OLED technologies. Planning requires experts who take lamps and special luminaires into measurement labs and test them. And that’s who we are.

That requires the right kind of know-how. What does it take as a lighting design firm to always stay up-to-date?
You give your employees a kick in the rear over and over again (laughing). But seriously: I believe that our employees have to engage with the world and keep pace with the times. And they’re doing that. They are intrinsically motivated, want to progress and work on projects that are enjoyable. In addition, we take advantage of the size of our office. We have the attention of the industry and a regular supply of news, people approach us and also inform us about new developments.

Speaking of development. Where do you see Reflexion AG in five years?
The truth? I’ll probably be observing it from afar. For me, it’s important for the AG to be shaped by a new generation. I want to pass it along. It was a great time, but even more is possible.

“If you can’t express light in words, then you’re really already lost.”

In an interview, you said that a lighting designer always needs to know exactly what the task is and what the client wants. I think that has to be difficult. Light and the ideas that one associates with it are difficult to express in words. That means that you have to be a communications expert in addition to being a lighting designer…
At the start of every project I have to grapple with what the people who will be directly affected, the clients or users want. However, the problem is that in many cases they don’t know themselves. The path to creating the ideal lighting concept is often bumpy. There are ups and downs and as a lighting designer I have to moderate the process – and yes this does require communications skills. Especially because we’re never just talking about technology, but generally about atmosphere, aesthetics, rhythms and the variety of different states of mind. If you can’t express that in words, then you’re really already lost.

So is that the key to success?
Yes, the greatest skill that a lighting designer needs to have is the ability to take the client’s idea and draw a picture out of words that aids the client and the builder in making decisions for other parts of the project. It’s pretty hard to explain…

What if you, as the expert, believe that the customer is going in the completely wrong direction?
In that case, you need to correct him. Subjective preferences always leave room for differences, however with the help of the right questions it’s possible to bring the client’s ideas in line with technical requirements. I can’t light an office the same way as a living room. Once the rough concept has been set, I can expand on and customise the design.

And how do you do that?
We have started working with a very simple diagram – with quadrants. Using these, the client can define what lighting he imagines. In this case, the scale runs from hard to soft light and highly-integrated or independent lighting. We ask the client: Where do you want to go? Do you want to see the lighting, do you want to perceive it, does it represent furnishing for you or should it simply function in the background? We design the room based on this feedback.

 

I can picture that easily in the case of a single-family home where your client is also the user. But what is your approach when you can’t ask the user? For example, if it’s the public and you are designing a project for a public space?
In that case, I believe success lies in coordination with the planning. From our perspective, it has the highest priority of design. When we work on a project together with an architect or a landscape architect, we follow their lead. Of course we are part of the discussion, make our contributions, but at the end of the day we don’t make the decisions but instead provide support for the concept through our lighting design. When engage in a direct dialectic dialogue with the planners, you can assume that – even for a project intended for a public space – the results will be in harmony and appealing to the users.

“For me, it’s unfortunate that darkness so often has negative connotations.”

In other words, a communications expert. You also said that you picture the room in the dark before you start your design work and then let in the light little by little. Do you take this same approach when designing lighting for urban, open spaces?
Yes, and it’s really not all that easy. I imagine the specific urban space with its surfaces and space. I know what the space feels like in person, based on its granularity and proportions and I then think about where the light needs to be. For example, when a design includes a tram stop, I think about where the people who are getting off will be headed and where they will need light. I picture the space, the urban environment and, in my mind, distribute the light based on the requirements – sometimes higher and sometimes lower. In other words, I really imagine the lighting mood and scenes.

And in an enclosed space?
That’s much simpler. In that case, you can stand in a corner and think about where the light should come from and whether it should be cool or warm. You just have to start somewhere.

So, can it be said that at the outset of every project you’re in the dark? What else does darkness mean to you?
If you look at it that way, you’re right. For me, it’s unfortunate that darkness so often has negative connotations. Like the saying “Where there is light, there is also shadow”. Because light only becomes interesting when it makes shadows and defines shapes. I’m fascinated by the interdependence between light and darkness, the bipolarity, the beautiful systematic – then really that’s what’s interesting, not just the light but really the back and forth between light and dark.

“Light only becomes interesting when it makes shadows and defines shapes.”

Can I use this transition to quantify the quality of lighting design? Or put another way: Is it even possible to quantify that?
It’s absolutely impossible to quantify. It’s measurable normatively, that’s the good news. The bad news is that perceptions and subjectivity are always layered on top of the normative level. That’s because our perception of light is shaped to a great extent by subconscious perceptions and experience. There are certain parameters that can be used to evaluate the quality of design, however when you’re looking at the nuances, the dramatic staging, the degree of contrast, how much softness, how much hardness and how much light there is as such, all of that is subjective in any event.

Does that mean that you as an expert never stop critiquing lighting design?
On the contrary. However, I’m not the fiercest critic of our own work. I’m really never satisfied and that’s important – because otherwise you can’t progress.

Topos 102 presents more cutting-edge contributions on Darkness and its ambivalent relationship to light. You can find the new issue here.