Illumination, Inclusivity, Innovation: Women in Lighting

With over a century of history, Schréder has seen some big changes in the lighting industry. From the dawn of the electric era, to the global transformation brought about by electric lighting, to smart cities, we have been at the forefront of innovation. Another big change is who is driving the industry’s evolution: in recent decades, women have been playing a greater role across the world of lighting. 

For the past year, we have been highlighting the achievements of women across Schréder. For International Women’s Day 2022, we spoke to female lighting designers and commissioners who use our products to make places, (re)invent spaces and create iconic moments using lighting - for everyone. 

What interests me, above all, is the city,” says Isabelle Corten, founder and Managing Director of Belgian lighting and urbanism agency Radiance35. “Public space in general is fascinating.” Over 20 years, the agency has grown to high-profile projects in Belgium, Switzerland and France, including Brussels’ iconic Grand Place and the Quai du Seujet in Geneva, and recently opened a new office in Marseille.

Isabelle Corten illuminated Grand Place to create a magical nocturnal ambiance

The daughter of sociologists, Corten has always put inclusivity at the heart of her designs. Working on lighting in areas which have traditionally been neglected, she believes in a participatory approach which involves those who live, work in and use an area. Women use public space differently to men and lighting can play a vital role in making them at ease.

When we work on public space, all our projects include thinking about how to build in a sense of safety. The aim is to create outdoor spaces which are as comfortable as possible, where one is guided from one place to the next.

Isabelle Corten - General Manager - Radiance35
Isabelle Corten
General Manager - Radiance35

Small Projects, Big Impact 

When it comes to making people feel happier and safer “small projects can have a huge impact,” she notes. Changes such as lighting a pedestrian tunnel, which can make it “feel psychologically shorter”, or lighting an entrance tunnel with “rhythmic colours” can make a big difference to how people, especially women, feel about moving around after dark. Low budget, small scale projects can change people’s perceptions, she adds - after an overhaul of the lighting in the Cité Moderne in Berchem-Sainte-Agathepeople felt better, but they couldn’t really pinpoint why.”

Some of the world’s most famous cities are carefully considering the role lighting and architecture can play in making everyone feel welcome. Barcelona’s Manual de urbanismo de la vida cotidiana is a guide to ensure planning takes into account its most vulnerable groups, including women, the elderly, and children. Glasgow has set out plans to make the city safer for women

Getting women involved at every stage of lighting projects is vital. "It’s still a very masculine world, with manufacturers, councils, public works companies and especially at the site level,” says Corten. However, “things are improving,” with more women studying architecture and lighting. 

Novel, Diverse, Different

Lighting design is a relatively young industry. Emerging in the second half of the last century, the International Association of Lighting Designers was founded in 1969. That coincided with more women working outside of the home, meaning women have been present in the discipline since it started. Having role models to inspire them is also important. 

I think it is important for women to provide guidance and support to other women - we all come from so many different backgrounds into lighting. Women can do any job, therefore why not get more involved in lighting.

Carol McGowan - Director - Ollume Lighting Consultancy
Carol O’Gowans
Director - Ollume Lighting Consultancy

Carol O’Gowans is currently working with a Council to procure and implement their Central Management Scheme for lighting, as well as designing urban and rural street lighting schemes. Dealing with concerns around delays to deliveries to the UK and the impact of the pandemic, she also takes a longer view of lighting schemes. 

Sustainability “should consider the entire lighting system, from the materials used to the location of the manufacturers and the on-going maintenance,” she notes. “Elements of a lighting scheme should only be installed if there is a maintenance plan in place as otherwise they become an eyesore and eventually will be removed.”

She’s also interested in the role lighting can play in getting people back to walking and cycling. “I love the idea of the 15 minute city,” she says. “I like to walk and yet in London I find people are very used to getting the tube even if it's for one or two stops.” She was the lead lighting designer on the redesign of London’s iconic Exhibition Road, home to some of the UK’s most renowned museums - a project that took seven years and introduces the millions who visit London each year to the concept of shared space.

Carol o'Gowan worked on redesigning Exhibition Road in London to create a high-quality public space

Creating Lightscapes, Telling Stories

Women are also reconsidering the fundamentals of urban lighting. Rozenn Le Couillard founded agency noctiluca in 2014, and prides herself on bringing artistic sensibilities to urban lighting.

Sensitivity isn’t a masculine or feminine thing. We’re truly equal when it comes to creating ideas in front of a screen. 

Rozenn LeCouillard - Lighting Designer - Notiluca
Rozenn Le Couillard
Lighting Designer + Founder - noctiluca

Before founding her agency, she was part of a coworking space where, as she explains, they wanted someone who wasn’t a man and wasn’t an architect to bring fresh ideas. 

With growing conversations about sustainability in lighting, the impact of light pollution and urbanisation, Le Couillard starts with the environment and works from there. With a background in landscape design, she first worked with Francois Magos whose students’ project was the  “very poetic” design of the Potager du Roi in Versailles.

I always start by looking at the context; where are we, what’s the surrounding environment like? Where is the darkness, where are the shadows? With the right lighting around, a little darkness can be attractive, not stressful,” she explains. With her work on the rail station in Saint-Nazaire, she was inspired by the contrast between the grasslands of the nearby Brière Regional Natural Park and the bright urban environment.

Rozenn Le Couillard created a harmonious nocturnal atmosphere for Saint Nazaire esplanade

Incorporating a little darkness into light is at the heart of another of her favourite projects, the Parc Simone Veil in Alençon. Celebrating the town’s lacemaking history - an artisan skill mainly practised by women and nuns - her team “wove” fiber-optic lights into a site-specific installation inspired by the Alençon’s 1000-year old castle. “We wanted a space where darkness and light were both present in the city centre,” she says. “It’s in context, we pay homage to the lacemakers, and you can still see the stars in the night sky.”

An Ongoing Conversation

With organisations such as Concepteurs Lumière Sans Frontières, which brings together experts to work on projects in Europe and further afield such as Mali and deprived urban areas, there’s a grassroots movement that recognises the changes lighting can bring, and women are at the forefront of it. At Schréder, women are doing everything from developing smart city apps, to creating 3D renderings of sites we illuminate, to managing national companies.

Still, the lighting industry isn’t exempt from challenges that face women in every sector. The burden of childcare, women prioritizing their partner’s careers, the gender pay gap and needing to travel for work are all issues. “Women need to be represented at every level of the workforce, in management too,” says Constanze von Mühlenfels, Managing Director of Schreder’s German business. “Companies are asking how they can support women better.

Lighting design “should be a question of having a pleasant atmosphere everywhere, regardless of gender,” Le Couillard explains. “I don’t think women should be more afraid of the dark than men.” 

We would like to thank Isabelle, Carol and Rozenn for kindly agreeing to talk and share their thoughts to mark International Women’s Day 2022.