Onur Sunguroglu - Filip Vermeiren

“Good lighting is invisible.”

Onur Sunguroglu and Filip Vermeiren, along with Bernhard Bstieler, are the founding partners of Inverse Lighting Design consultancy based in London, Bangkok and Hong Kong. They told us about their approach and methods.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional backgrounds and how did you form Inverse Lighting?

Onur: Coming from an engineering background, I’ve always been interested in lighting but not necessarily was able to use it as a medium to change the perception of space. So I decided to take the MSc course at Bartlett School of Architecture. I met my business partners at the course. When we completed the course, we went out and worked for other designers and consultancies. In 2006, we decided to go ahead and found Inverse Lighting.

Filip was involved in contemporary dance and stage setting during his studies as an architect. He became technical director at ‘De Beweeging’ a centre for contemporary dance and experimental movement theatre. He was involved in creating lighting for the productions and saw an opportunity to merge his passion for architecture, light and movement in architectural lighting design. He ended up at the same MSc course at Bartlett School of Architecture. The rest is history.

Port House, Antwerp / Architecture: Zaha Hadid Architects and Bureau Bouwtechniek (Photography: Bart Gosselin)

How do you define a good lighting design? 

Onur: The good lighting is the one that you see and feel the effect but don’t easily see where it’s coming from. It is also a critical balance of darkness and light not necessarily highlighting everything.

Filip: I agree, ironically good lighting is ‘invisible’. Although we have done projects where lighting is a key feature and stand out on itself (for example a nightclub called Sound Club in Phuket). Generally speaking, we do not want people to notice the lighting installation, but just be in awe of how good the space feels. Good lighting enhances the interior design and creates the right focus that feels natural.

What makes your studio unique among your competitors and how do you define your approach?

We resemble each other in the way we design. The three partners are all low key, thoughtful persons. This comes through in practice. We’re good at working with different teams and finding creative solutions to suit all parties without going through rigid procedures.

How do you start working with an architect and what makes a lighting design brief a good one?

The brief should address how the end-user would like to see and use the space. Good lighting design supports the architecture in achieving this. The best ‘lighting’ brief the architect can give is a clear architectural concept focused on the use of the space. We will make sure that the lighting supports this.

What was the most exciting/challenging project you have ever produced?

Every project has its victories and excitement. We get the most satisfaction from getting the details right. For example, we designed lighting for a 10 meters wooden sculpture in a glass cube at the entrance of Five Hotel in Palm Jumeirah. Trying to light a structure with no place to locate the lights was a challenge. We did many small scale cardboard mock-ups and renderings. Seeing it work on-site as intended was a great satisfaction. Still walking inside the glass cube, it’s all about the sculpture, not the lighting.

Five Palm Jumariah, Dubai / Interior Design: Yabu Pushelberg (Photography: FIVE Real Estate Development)

Along with London, you have studios in Bangkok and Hong Kong and you have projects in Asia, the Middle East and in the UK. How do cultural differences affect architectural lighting preferences in different countries? 

This is something that varies depending on the geographical location and culture. For example, people who live in warmer climates tend to prefer cooler colour temperatures as warm colour make them feel the space is too warm. In contrast, people in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere are much comfortable with warmer colour temperatures, perhaps due to living with reduced daylight hours.

Higher brightness levels are generally preferred in the far east vs those who live in western countries.

As most of our projects are for hospitality and lifestyle business, where we prefer to use warmer colour temperatures, moody lighting etc., this may initially seem an issue for us, however people’s perception changes once they are in a space where the lighting is coherently designed to enhance their experience.

You have experience in a variety of typologies but hospitality projects seem to have a weighing more. Was this a deliberate choice of yours when you opened your studio? How did so many projects accumulate in years?

We are interested in how people experience and use a space. This is general in any lighting project, however, in retail and hospitality, there is a drive and focus to emphasising the guest user experience. So we are quite naturally drawn to these projects. As our work comes mainly from word of mouth, this steered us quite naturally to a focus on these types of projects.

Five Palm Jumariah, Dubai (Photography: FIVE Real Estate Development)

You emphasise that you’re an independent lighting designer, that provides only design and advice but no supply of products. Why do you feel to stress this out? Aren’t all lighting designers working in the same manner? 

Being an independent designer allows us to focus on the outcome, rather than on the products. Our clients get the design, however, we are not limited to certain products. If the client or contractor wants to use more cost-effective products, being independent allows us to review these products whether they meet the design criteria. If the alternative works, we accept this. We believe that, in the end, clients get a design that is value for money. The only downside for clients is that they pay for the design upfront, rather than it being incorporated into the cost of the products.

Which current projects are you currently working on? 

We were working with Zaha Hadid on a residential lobby project that also ran as a virtual project in 3D. However, the project has been temporarily put on hold due to Covid.

We’re working on several resort projects in, among others, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, Maldives, Indonesia,… We’re also working on a Book Lined Leisure and Retail space in Xi’an.

How do you represent your ideas to your clients? Do you have your internal team of photo-realistic visualisations or do you work with external CGI agencies? 

Since we base our design on what the interior designer and architect bring to the table, our presentations reflect this. The key for us is a 3D view to show how people perceive the environment. If the interior designers have not provided 3D views, we hand sketch views and indicate the lighting on them. Most often we receive daytime 3D renderings and turn these into night time views via Photoshop. We often split up the lighting so the light can be turned ‘on’ in sequence and you see the effect of that lighting element. This seems very successful compared to a static 3D view.

Since CGI is 95% about the interior, we rarely get asked to produce CGIs. Although, we do this for some projects, for example, the project with Zaha Hadid that we’re working on. Most often, CGI’s are prepared by the architect and we advise and comment on the lighting aspect.

Do you have preferred photographers or do you consider commissioning new photographers for each of your work? 

Being part of a larger team, the photographer is often commissioned by clients or interior designers. We occasionally employed a photographer, for example, we commissioned Bart Gosselin for the exterior lighting of Port’s House in Antwerp, which we designed with Zaha Hadid. Everybody can take a snapshot, but taking good photographs is a real art and invaluable to show your work to others.

What do you expect from a photographer while documenting your works? 

Show the lighting as perceived. Some interior photographers will bring in extra floodlight to ‘show’ the interior, which does not help the lighting designer. It is a challenge for the photographer to balance the contrast and light colour to what you perceived.