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''Anyone can pick out light fixtures but not everyone can design a luminous concept, which is the role of a lighting designer.'' - Toh Yah Li

Toh Yah Li, Director of Light Collab

Jan 3, 2020 5:50 AM

Light can illuminate a building, make a space feel cosy and even heal a rift in a marriage. Just ask lighting designer Toh Yah Li, director of Light Collab, who once met a couple who were squabbling over the lighting in their home. One of them found it too dark, while the other said it was too bright. Ms To was hired to rectify the problem and now, husband and wife have their own light settings and everyone is happy.

Set up in 2010, Light Collab specialises in using light to enhance spaces. Ms Toh, 39, is one of the few certified lighting designers in the world. She is also a professional member of the International Association of Lighting Designers and is the coordinator for Southeast Asia. In 2019, she was also named one of 40 under 40 at the Lighting Design Awards in London, which recognises the world’s most talented lighting designers.

She always wanted to be an architect, but after graduating from architecture school at National University of Singapore, she changed course after realising that building design was more about efficiency than designing spaces for people. “Light is the fourth dimension and the soul of a space. It was missing in architecture, which is why I wanted to pursue lighting design.” At 22, she left for Germany to pursue a Master of Arts in architectural lighting design, and her career direction was set.

WHAT DOES A LIGHTING DESIGNER DO? DON’T YOU JUST ENSURE THAT A BUILDING OR SPACE IS SUFFICIENTLY LIT UP?

There is a common misunderstanding that lighting designers like myself design lights and chandeliers or that I simply pick out lights for a project. Anyone can pick out light fixtures but not everyone can design a luminous concept, which is the role of a lighting designer.

Lighting design is about painting or filling up spaces with layers that allow people to feel something more. Light can make you want to linger on or make you leave a place sooner. It’s not about making a space look brighter or the idea that the more lights there are, the better.

For example, we did the lighting for habitat by honestbee. It is the first supermarket cum experience centre and you can feel the sense of space and you want to hang out there.This feeling is created without the lighting fixtures being obvious. For the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, I designed five layers of light to fill the main hall. It brings the temple to life, creating different moods rather than illuminating the space with floodlights.

WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE AS A LIGHTING DESIGNER?

I have to convince clients why they need a lighting designer. There’s a misconception that the value of lighting is low since it is intangible. But lighting can bring up the value of good design, help with branding, help a shop sell more goods and make an office more productive, among other benefits.

I seek meaningful collaborations with clients, architects and interior designers. But it’s not always possible because not every collaborator is open to my lighting ideas. There are times we get hired too late and we end up having to rectify jobs which can be costly. In Singapore there are fewer than 30 lighting design practices and only a small percentage are Singaporean firms so people might not take a local firm seriously. There are no lighting design courses in Singapore, so people think that lighting designers are not skillful.

YOU’VE BEEN A LIGHTING DESIGNER FOR ABOUT 14 YEARS, FIRST WITH LIGHTING PLANNERS ASSOCIATES BEFORE STARTING YOUR OWN FIRM. WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER?

In 2015, I was one of the first few lighting designers in the world to be accredited by the Certified Lighting Design Commission in the US. The process involved sending details about projects to show competency in collaboration, science and stewardship, among other factors. With the certification, clients and collaborators became more receptive to me as a lighting designer, as I could prove my proficiency. It definitely helped open more doors and jobs. But I got certified not really for the business but more to bring greater awareness about the profession and to be taken seriously. Despite all the challenges, I love my job and want to elevate the status of the built environment.

In 2018, I was shortlisted for Designer of the Year at the President’s Design Awards. I didn’t win but the jury wrote me a glowing commendation. That brought me more credibility and opportunities, because the firm had no previous experience in doing specific jobs. That said, we have a lot of projects that are a first for us, such as a car showroom, a pedestrian mall and even a national monument.

IT MUST BE DIFFICULT TO OVERCOME THE MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND EVEN THE INDUSTRY YOU’RE IN. WHAT KEEPS YOU GOING?

A project may take a few years to complete or we may be called in too late for a project, but it is seeing the end result that pushes me on.

Take for example the Tower of Light in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a 45m tall structure made of stacked glass. It was a challenging job not only for the technicalities but also because I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry. But seeing the comments on social media was very encouraging. People were saying the Tower looks like a stairway to heaven and it brought pride and hope to the country. So it was amazing that my design had an impact on a nation.

I feel accomplished and satisfied when the firm can change the norm and make a difference. Such as for the Love Bonito store in Funan, where we designed the fitting rooms to have different lighting conditions that enhance the shopping experience. I get to leave my mark in different places and I can say that very few Singaporean lighting design firms get to do that.