Paul Nulty, the Designer Behind Lighting for Nike, Burberry, and Soho House, Shares His Bright Ideas

As one of the most dexterous and in-demand lighting design consultancies of the moment, the London firm Nulty has worked on lighting solutions across retail (from high street to high-end), hospitality, residential, and even the public sector, counting both the United Nations and the London Underground as clients. Be it innovative (and often neon) solutions for Nike; slick setups for Burberry, Alaïa, and Soho House; a scheme for the Ritz Carlton in Astana, Kazakhstan; or a cutting-edge private residence in Notting Hill, Nulty works at the intersection of creativity, aesthetics, and technology, illuminating spaces and places of all shapes and sizes.

Founded in 2011 by Paul Nulty—who initially set-up shop at his living room table—Nulty now takes on hundreds of projects a year across offices in London, Dubai, Beirut, and Miami. Here, Mr. Nulty enlightens AD PRO with some bright ideas, sharing the latest trends and tricks of his trade.

AD PRO: You began your career as a lighting designer in theater. Does that still influence the work you do today?

Paul Nulty: The big difference is that in theater, if it feels right it is right. It’s all about the emotional reaction that you get from lighting. Whereas in the real world, you have to be more technical about it—safety first, if you will. There are many regulations to meet, technical solutions to get right. But I think the notion of feeling right still applies: You just have to back it up with the right documentation. First and foremost, it is about the drama of a space, no matter the context.

London’s Haz restaurant.

Photo: Courtesy of Nulty

AD PRO: You’ve worked on projects all around the globe: from Kazakhstan and China to Norway and Dubai. Do you find that the “language of lighting” is quite universal?

Nulty: This is kind of a politician’s answer, but in truth it is and it isn’t: Lighting is universal because it’s ultimately a beautiful, intangible substance that is both psychological and physiological, but at its simplest, it’s there to emotionally connect you to the space you’re in.

But culturally, people react to light very differently. Of course, every project is unique, but I would say the major difference we see are in the Scandinavian countries, and in the Middle East. In the Nordics, you’re contending with many months of darkness and battling that with soft, warm lighting. In the Middle East, there tends to be a lot of cool, cold light, which offers a kind of psychological break from the heat and the sun.

AD PRO: Based on your recent projects, what would you say are the most notable trends in lighting design right now?

Nulty: We’re seeing is a greater focus on health and wellbeing. So in a hotel room, that could be lighting that is linked to your alarm clock: Twenty minutes before it rings, the lights very slowly turn on and you begin to gently wake up. When you’re going to sleep, it’s about finding ways to relax the brain, so not having a lot of blue light in the room is beneficial. LEDs are notoriously bad for bedroom lighting because they have very high proportion of blue in their spectrum.

In residential, dynamic, tonal changes are popular: a space that reacts to the level and quality of light outside. People also increasingly have light systems that link into circadian rhythms and help to create beneficial sleep environments, which is a case of light really being used to create a health benefit. We’re also seeing simplification of lighting controls: In the last ten years, you we went through a phase of very complex control systems, where you walked into a home and you didn’t know how to turn the lights on. Smartphones have helped a lot with this as there are great apps that allow for easy, hands-on control.

Leake Street, a tunnel in London covered in graffiti.

Photo: James French

AD PRO: Sustainability is a buzzword in the wider design sector, but lighting is one of the most immediate areas where it can be quickly applied. Are you seeing clients demand an eco-friendlier approach?

Nulty: On the residential side of things, honestly, not really. People apply the rules and regulations, but most don’t go above and beyond. In the retail and hospitality world, it’s a bit different because these are people with large estates, and therefor very large electricity bills. If you can save 10 or 20 percent per year, it’s significant. We saved one retailer nearly £1 million ($1.340 million) a year on electricity. The opportunity to save money is a driver for the approach, I think, rather than just goodwill, but I guess it works out for everybody. We try to offer the most responsible solution in all our projects.

AD PRO: LEDs, which are the more sustainable option, have a bad reputation when it comes to quality of light. Is that changing?

Nulty: In terms of LEDs, the saying “you get what you pay for” has never been truer. If you spend a little bit of money, you can find warm, good quality light that isn’t glare-y. It’ll dim properly. It’s maturing and becoming much more sophisticated as a market, and even the lower-end is slowly improving. But for now, pay up, it’s worth it.

A Nulty-designed residence in Notting Hill.

Photo: James French

AD PRO: How has the selfie phenomenon and the ubiquitous use of social media affected the way you think about retail lighting?

Nulty: Our approach to fitting rooms has probably changed most dramatically. The level of light in fitting rooms is increasing so you have enough light to take a photo. We’re also lighting more from the mirror, so you have very flattering light for a selfie. Retailers are also asking for flexibility and interactivity: Customers can choose a light setting and see their outfit in daylight or nighttime scenarios. Overall, there are higher levels of ambient lighting, especially across fashion retail, which is meant to accommodate all the photography that happens in-store.

AD PRO: Is there a Nulty golden rule of retail lighting? A pet peeve?

Nulty: We have a whole seminar on this and there are ten rules, but to keep it short here are two:

First, light for the brand. Understand their messaging and respond to that. For example, Apple: They light very homogeneously, it feels neutral, like daylight, and it’s approachable and friendly. They’re not a client, but they do it very well.

Two, create permeability. You have to create a sense of rhythm and movement with light. It’s important to light the most distant spot in a space the most brightly because the eye is always drawn to brightest point, so if you want a store to feel inviting, you need to make sure the back is well-illuminated.

My pet peeve is that visual merchandisers don’t get trained to refocus the lights. What happens is that a store opens and it looks amazing on day one, and then the VMs move the mannequins and some midfloor displays and they don’t move the lights. You end up with a floor that’s really well lit and merchandise that isn’t. If you have a flexible retail space and you’re constantly moving things around, you shouldn’t be pin-spotting merchandise; rather, create a scheme that is more diffused with a higher level of ambient lighting.

Selfridges, at Nations House in London.

James French

AD PRO: Would you say Nulty’s work has a signature aesthetic or approach?

Nulty: I don’t want someone to walk into a project and know immediately that it’s Nulty. I think every lighting design should be a reaction to the architecture and the needs of the end-users and stakeholders, so naturally the solution should be unique from project to project. However, there are certainly two things that you’ll find in all our work: We use light to emotionally engage and connect, and we don’t like lots of down light, which we call “ceiling acne” because they look like pock marks – there’s just no such thing as a nice-looking technical light. For me, light fittings should not be seen or heard. We want to envelope the space with light, and let the decorative fixtures and fittings do their thing. Our work should always be subordinate in a space.

AD PRO: On that note, you work alongside architects and designers day to day. How do you get your point of view across?

Nulty: Generally speaking, we’re almost always brought in too late in the design process. What often happens is that the architect or designer will conceptualize the space and then they will think about the lighting as a kind of afterthought. Which is why you have so many interiors where the lighting looks like an add-on—because it is.

The most successful projects are the ones where we are brought in early. Lighting designers, if we’re being pompous, we could almost describe ourselves as dark designers, because what you don’t light is as important as what you do light. And that’s where permeability, contrast, drama, and rhythm, and pace come from—the contrast of light and dark. And surface, light is all about the surface it interacts with. If we can work alongside the architect and designer from the get-go, we can have those conversations, about what to hide and what to highlight.

Light is about more than just fixtures: It’s about how you perceive a space. The most successful spaces are the ones where you walk in and you think it looks and feels amazing, but you don’t really know why. If you don’t know why, it means everything is working harmoniously together. The point is not to have someone walk in and say “the lighting is good”—in truth, then we’ve failed. It’s about subtlety, and the space as a whole.

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