An interview…

A talk with Matjaž Mavsar

As part of our collaboration with the Open Houses of Slovenia -OHS festival, the organizers conducted and published an interview with the manager of Arcadia Lightwear. We talked about illuminating public space, the education of architects about artificial light and our company's vision.

In many ways, the production of architecture is very similar to that of film – expensive, slow, time-consuming, and involving a myriad of leading and supporting actors. The architects may be viewed as the directors, but as any good director, they would admit to being helpless and lost without the help of their team. It is only with the smallest independent projects, that the director can hope to single-handedly master photography, sound, production, etc… and still successfully wrap up the project. This is not merely about checking items off a to-do list. Each collaborator, each professional profile brings with it a new perspective, new knowledge and experience, opening the doors to new insight. There is however another point, which is particularly relevant in this context. In both film and architecture, light holds a special place. By all means, there is no visual arts, which we could envision without light, but what separates film and architecture from the rest of the field, is their capacity to create their own light. A sculptor or a painter, have a severely limited influence on the lighting conditions their art piece might eventually be presented in. The director and architect on the other hand, have not only the capacity but an obligation, to actively engage the question of lighting as part of their creative process. In this process, the director is accompanied and supported by the chief lighting technician – also known as a gaffer – and possibly by the director of photography – the DOP. For the architect, that person is – supposedly – the lighting designer and engineer. /…/ This process was the subject of our conversation with the manager of Arcadia Lightwear – Matjaž Mavsar.

Mr Mavsar, in our discussion earlier, we talked about how you do not wish to be presented as standing apart from the team, before Arcadia as a whole. You mentioned how you did not start the company, but actually took over the ownership from its founder and likewise imagine that someone will one day take over from you…

In the first place, Arcadia is a conglomeration, a well-rounded group of people, professionals in their fields, even within the company itself. It is composed of departments, each with their own specialists and precisely defined tasks. The design department is separated from the sales department, which is further divided into two –technical lighting and decorative light.

To the architects, Arcadia is known mostly as and architectural lighting design company and supplier, while the broader public knows it best as a retailer of high-end lights. How does Arcadia see itself? What is its vision?

In the beginning, Arcadia really did establish itself as a retailer and supplier od quality foreign lighting brands. But what set it apart from the start, was its strong focus on consulting, design and support – basically, on know-how. And that is precisely what we have been developing and building upon all this time. It is the part of our work that has been growing stronger and more vital over the last 30 years. What we – “the new Arcadia” – want to say is that being and exclusive retailer or supplier for worldwide brands such as Flos or Artemide is no longer important. It used to have a certain ring to it, a certain prestige, because the public also used to have a different perception of lighting design. We will come back to this topic later, but there is another point I want to make here. What we managed to change, is to give light fixtures, the sale of lighting, a high added value. Now, what do I mean by that? It is not our goal, to sell lighting products by themselves, but mostly to sell, unfortunately since we are forced to do so by the market, our know-how via the products. Lighting design as a field and an expertise is not fully appreciated yet in Slovenia. And many other places as well. Architects have a similar problem as well, albeit to a lesser degree. So we are forced to develop lighting design through the commercial sale of lighting products. Even so, I believe our main advantage is the ability to give these products a high added value through our knowledge, engineering approach and work ethic, all of which we have developed through the years. And to circle back to the topic I mentioned earlier – why clients think differently of artificial light, then a decade or two ago. Mostly because, over the course of time, we – lighting designers, and I dare say Arcadia in particular, alongside with the architects, have managed to present light in a different way. Artificial light is no longer merely a necessary evil, with each room having a single unavoidable light-bulb in the centre of the ceiling. It has become a part of architecture, a pert of life. People have slowly learned to appreciate artificial light through the eyes of natural light. We all consider it par for the course, that during the day, there are dynamic light conditions in every space – a play of light and shadow, a change of intensity, temperature and colour. But come night-time, people used to be satisfied with turning on a single light. Now, they expect more, a different, better mood or atmosphere. And this is our vision for the future. To strengthen this awareness, to increase the added value and to develop our knowledge, skills and our team even further. Because that IS thefuture. And if nothing else, we will all be forced to do so, by the changing market conditions. With the growth of Internet retail, our options to operate as a simple retail channel for design products will keep shrinking by the day.

This year, Arcadia is celebrating its 30th anniversary. During this time, you have realised a considerable number of very demanding projects in collaboration with the most prestigious architecture offices. We have already talked about the reasons why others seek you out. But what do you look for in an architect? Or, so we are not too harsh, what are the desired traits in a client, what does your experience show is important?

Certainly the understanding, that artificial light is just as important as natural light. I’ve noticed how, when it comes to architects, their awareness of the importance of natural light is very high. But they too often fall short, when it comes to taking account that other part of the day – darkness. Gradually, we have managed to develop that awareness at least in some, so the lack is no longer as apparent. We now have offices, who come to us at the very start of a project. Our goal of course, is for there to be more and more such offices, that ultimately they would all do that.

Currently, there is next to no attention paid to the education of architects when it comes to artificial lighting design in Slovenia. As far as I know, the Faculty of Architecture in Ljubljana does not include it in its curriculum on any level, not even as an elective class. Why is that? Where do you believe this omission stems from? Given how Le Corbusier defined architecture as a majestic play of volumes in light, it is difficult for architects to dodge responsibility here…

An additional unfavourable piece of information is that even at the Faculty of Electric Engineering, illumination is an elective subject. So the few who explicitly wish to gain the specific knowledge, can do so there. But even there, it is only a single-term subject. Unfortunately, not many are aware of the importance of this knowledge at such an early stage in their careers… All the while, there is an immense demand on the job market. Everybody in the field is looking for trained professionals, but there are no educational opportunities. So at Arcadia, we educate our team members ourselves. Most of them come to us without any specific know-how and then gradually learn on the job. At present, there is just no other system in place. The fact of the matter is, at the Faculty of Architecture, artificial lighting is still viewed as a necessary evil, which is a problem. A part of our vision, even out duty and out goal at this time, is to try and sensitize the architects as our main clients, to the role artificial light plays in architecture. And to the fact, that there is a person, who in a certain segment, has more knowledge about it than the architect. That there is a whole profession dedicated to this segment of the architectural project – the architectural lighting designer, who makes for the perfect collaborator and advisor. Naturally, in this effort, we are more successful in some cases than others, but we are happy to see how recently, the overall level of understanding has been rising steadily. In part, due to our focus on organizing lectures and workshops for the students of the Faculty of Architecture in our headquarters. Additionally, we strive to utilize our collaborations with architectural exhibitions such as “Arhitektura Inventura” (“The Architectural Inventory”) in order to stimulate those who are not yet familiar with our work towards project collaborations and elevate that project to a new level. By working with a specialist for articifial lighting.

We have already mentioned the positive trend in awareness, when it comes to architects. But what about the general public? For example, when it comes to public spaces. That seems to be a large segment, where architects are not the only ones calling the shots. Once the architects gain a commission, it is up to them whether they approach you for assistance. But the choice of what public space projects should be, ultimately lies with city councils, public initiatives, and so on. Isn’t it they, who define the parameters of the project, decide whether to task the architect with designing for example only the paving for a square, while leaving the lighting to an electrical engineering office, who stick to purely practical or pragmatic objectives?

Well, I can’t say completely I agree with that statement. In the end, it is still the architects who design space. And it is through them, that the education of the public takes place. But I am happy to say that this story has been developing in the right direction over the course of the last few years and that more and more investors seem to realize how artificial lighting is an important part of architecture. Which is also how we came to have a law on lighting pollution. Slovenia was among the first countries to adopt such a law and currently has one of the most restrictive regulations in this respect. Without an open public debate on the subject, there wouldn’t have been enough awareness among the general public, of how important an issue it is. And of how there is a whole class of experts, who are capable of determining and describing these environmental effects, as well as modifying the design to minimize pollution and power consumption. For the wellbeing of all.