Light has always been a subtle part of stagecraft. In ancient times, coloured awnings were stretched across theatres to hide actors from the glare of the sun. By the Renaissance, scholars were writing detailed treatises on how to best light a space. In 1545, Sebastiano Serilo recommended placing candles and torches behind amber-coloured water, immersing actors and crowd in delicate gold.

The invention of the lightbulb pushed theatrical light further ahead. By the mid-20th century, it was as crucial to a performance as any soliloquy. But even as it shimmers down to us in theatre, for a long time, lighting was not been seen as a specialist field of design in its own right.

Chad Rains recalls such times vividly. “When I was in school – between 1987 and 1992 – lighting design was still a very new field,” he says. “Back then, it was just New York and London, and even London was dwarfed by New York. I remember all through the 1990s, we still took people from interior design or architecture and then trained them to become lighting designers.”

From this hesitant start, Rains and his profession have prospered, working confidently alongside architects and interior designers. Rains himself – founder and creative director of the London-based Illuminationworks – has found similar success. His work has won broad praise, most recently at the 2017 Lighting Design Awards, where he and his team were anointed Lighting Design Practice of the Year.

Listen to Rains explain his design philosophy, and these achievements become easy to understand. “For me, the most important part of any project is ‘integration’,” he says. “This means making the light fittings as unobtrusive as possible, while still delivering a memorable atmosphere that can be both relaxing and exciting, depending on the use of the space.” The purpose might have changed, but the subtlety of theatre lighting is still there for all to see.

Developing skills

These ideas did not appear overnight. Rains first encountered lighting design as a student at Louisiana State University. Under the tutelage of Andrea Daugherty, an influential professor, he developed an appreciation of lighting as part of a broader set of architectural tools. “Andrea encouraged me by creating a one-on-one independent study course and emphasising lighting design in my normal interior design classes,” Rains explains. “By my senior year, I had a substantial lighting portfolio.”

It helped that Rains was entering a relatively undeveloped field. “I could tell that some of the trigonometry formulas used for quantifying lighting really perplexed most of my classmates,” he says. “I saw this as a clear advantage going into work, so pursued lighting as a speciality focus in a time when there were no lighting design programmes.”

This foresight paid off. After a stint in New York, Rains moved to London and worked under Arnold Chan, the force behind graceful lighting schemes at The Wolseley and the Hong Kong Landmark. “I continued working on high-profile projects around the world and further developed my hospitality lighting skills,” Rains recalls.

In 2006, Rains founded Illuminationworks and has been there ever since. A parade of high-profile hospitality commissions followed, including London’s Hospital Club, Café Royal, and Beaumont Hotel.

Structural foibles

Pushed to explain these triumphs, Rains remains diffident. “We have continued working on great projects worldwide,” he says simply. But not even he can hide his pride at Illuminationworks’ success, something he ascribes to working closely with architects and interior designers throughout the design process. “One of the things that makes us unique is that we look at each individual project and prescribe a unique solution for it.”

“We are brought in during the concept stage,” Rains continues. “Usually the architect or interior designer has already advanced their own concept design and done the space planning or initial layouts. We comment on their ideas. Then, we take it further and create our own lighting design concept package with 3D sketches and breakdown the different lighting ideas for a space.”

Harmonising ideas with architects and interior designers never gets dull, Rains adds. “The projects that are dictated to you can be a bit boring to be honest,” he admits. “Those where you have complete free reign can be boring, too. Lighting can be very subjective, and if you don’t have someone who has an opinion on the project, it can spiral out of control. I think the projects in the middle – where interior designers and architects are interested but not dictatorial about the process – are the most gratifying projects to work on.”

Close cooperation with architects is also important for pragmatic reasons, especially in older buildings. Unlike new designs, historic properties have structural foibles that only become clear during renovation. As an example, Rains cites his work with 21c Museum Hotels, an American hospitality company that specialised in conversions. “We’ve done seven [renovations for 21c] so far, and six of those have been adapted for use from existing buildings,” he says. “One was previously a bank; the one in Nashville was an old warehouse.”

“Each building is different. As builders go in there and start renovating – doing the fieldwork, tearing the walls down and the ceiling out to see what’s really behind – they start to see hidden columns and structural beams. This forces you to adapt the lighting design. It’s not just a case of doing the first few design phases then [leaving] architects on their own. You have to see it through to the end.”

Renovating hotels poses special difficulties in other ways, Rains adds. “Hotels are challenging, because there is usually a wide variety of spatial types, each requiring a different approach,” he says.

“There is usually a destination restaurant that is as much for local residents as it is for hotel guests. We often spend more time designing the restaurant than any other single space in a hotel. Additionally, there is usually a bar, lobby, business centre and spa. All of these areas have very specific requirements for lighting, but the lighting [need to be] used to bring continuity to the project as a whole.”

Down on downlights

Successful lighting designers cannot rely on versatility alone. Light has the power to soften sober rooms and snap dreary ones to life, but it needs to be used carefully. Inexperienced designers do not always get the balance right, Rains says. One problem involves using harsh light when softer tones would do.

“Often, the colour temperature is inappropriate to a specific environment,” he explains. “The glare and adjacent back of house areas are not lit to the same level of sophistication [as public spaces]. These might include kitchen areas immediately adjacent to the dining room in a restaurant, or storage rooms in a spa environment.”

For its part, Illuminationworks includes every corner of a hotel in its plans, bringing Rains’ theory of ‘integration’ to elegant fruition. “We always take adjacent back-of-house areas into our scope,” he says. “[This is to] limit the possibility of someone opening a door and flooding the space with atmosphere-killing cold, bright lighting.” Using mellower light, with a lower Kelvin number, helps too. “In hospitality environments, we never use lights higher than 2700K, with warm white colour temperatures,” Rains adds. “In a space with no daylight, we might even venture lower to get a dimmed incandescent effect.”

Rains also explains the importance of placing fittings carefully within a space, and is especially keen to underline his aversion to ceiling lamps. “We seek to envelop the guest in light from the perimeter as much as possible,” he says. “This approach allows for the limited use of down [ceiling] lights, which can feel glary if not carefully positioned. With more light coming from vertical surfaces, a space can feel lit without being overly bright. This adds to the sense of relaxation. We save the downlights for tables, for example, where you might have a flower display.”

Dolly lighting

Reflecting on his two decades as a lighting designer, Rains concedes that better technology has helped him polish his art. “I have seen the industry go from halogen to LED,” he explains. “These days, we use tunable white LED technology that mimics halogen dimming wherever possible. This is especially useful in rooms with daylight, where cooler temperatures look better in daytime, and can get gradually warmer as night falls.”

A related development involves ‘dolly diming’ whereby individual lights in a room can be controlled separately, allowing for even more versatility. “Let’s say you’re working on a corporate project, or a museum, where the walls might be reconfigured in future,” Rains says. “At a museum, for example, you might have a temporary exhibition and need to then change all the lights on the ceiling. This can be done easily with a dolly system. With the old voltage lighting systems, you’d have to rewire all those fixtures. Overall, dolly dimming helps future proof projects.”

This flexibility is proving handy as Rains explores new markets. His team has several commissions in East Asia, including shopping centres in China and a cosmetics store in South Korea. All this poses special challenges, Rains smiles. “Unlike in Europe, clients in Asia prefer light to be brighter and more even,” he says. “You have to light the floor and everything else in the space. There is also a tendency to light a bit cooler.”

Illuminationworks is also working on a number of hospitality projects back in Britain. A country hotel is high on Rains’ list of priorities. “It’s good to have contacts in every region, because it’s nice to have your work spread around the world,” he says. “If one area starts to dive economically, it’s good to have something else to rely on.” None of this should be surprising: Rains is clearly comfortable shaping light into beauty whatever the stage.