Leading light

Weekend Glitz | Lisa Kao 4 Oct 2019

The interior designer often receives the most credit for a well-designed space. But for a space to be truly perfect, a good lighting designer’s work must also not be overlooked.

With a career spanning over more than four decades, Tino Kwan knows how to make magic with lights and shadows.

Kwan’s journey toward becoming the famous lighting designer he is today started at an early age. “I was interested in art, drawing, watercolors and crayon,” he recalled.

However, it was initially interior design that piqued his interest. “I did a summer job at my uncle’s interior design company, and was excited to see the drafts done by designers.”

While his job was solely to deliver the drafts, he still fondly remembers the texture of the tracing paper and blueprints, along with the strong smell of ammonia.

Realizing Kwan’s fascination, his uncle encouraged him to study interior and industrial design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic (now Polytechnic University).

But Kwan was hesitant at first. “I chose to do the science stream in high school, as it seemed to offer more job opportunities. So I did design in the morning and engineering in the evening during my first year.”

After a year, her recognized that design was his calling. “Engineering is tangible, but not art and design. They are more interesting.”

Though interior and lighting design are similar, it took some time for Kwan to leap from one industry to the other.

In the beginning, he thought lighting design was about making chandeliers, though he soon learned “customizing lighting is a part of the job, but the main duty is to decide where the lights should be to create atmosphere.”

His basic knowledge was augmented when he was sent to Greece at the age of 24 to work as a lighting designer. “I was the youngest and newest, but I was lucky to be sent over,” he said.

But it was not solely luck. Kwan worked hard, arriving an hour early every day to observe his colleagues’ drafts and sketches to catch up.

Living abroad was an eye-opener for the young Kwan. Siestas conditioned him to sleep for hours in the day, and he got opportunities to explore new culture and architecture.

“All those small pictures in reference books became big in front of me,” he recalled.

Travelling in the 1970s, before Google Maps and mobile phones, he visited new places such as Italy, France and Egypt every three months, armed with a book and a map.

The abroad experience also allowed him to fulfill his dream of owning his own company by 30, making it with a year to spare.

“The London company I was working for wanted to be more effective,” he said. “Rather than keeping a lighting design department, they wanted to subcontract it out and offered to give the contract to me if I opened my own company.”

Kwan originally had no plan to bring to his London-based company to Hong Kong. But a visit back home in 1981 changed his mind.

“When I was visiting my family in Hong Kong, a friend in the industry told me famous designer Jose Durso was in town and wanted to work with a Hong Kong designer.”

This lead to a collaboration for a private club project, which then lead to more projects across Asia, from mainland China to Japan and Korea. “I am happily stuck for 40 years,” he said.

That’s not to say there were no ups and downs. He recalls one of his favorite projects being The Peninsula Tokyo hotel.

“The client appreciated my ideas. But the reason I like it is not just about the lighting,” he explained. “The builder, architect, operator, interior designer, hotel staff all worked together to make the project successful.”

Of course, there were unhappy ones, too.

“For a project in China, the client wanted the building’s external lighting to be color-changing like the building next door.”

Kwan then designed jewel-like lighting to cater to the client’s love for jewelry. “But she still preferred the ones from the other building. As I didn’t feel that would look good together, I resigned from the job.”

For Kwan, the secret to lighting is to first understand the interior design. “For me, 80 percent of my time is used for understanding the draft, while 20 percent is to plan the lighting. You have to first understand what the designer wants to express to bring out the best.” This can mean numerous briefings by the designer and going through 300 to 400 pages of design drafts.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Tino Kwan Lighting Consultants, his company will host a lighting exhibition from October 11 to 22 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

It will feature several short films, his latest projects, and include a new lighting installation showing “how lighting can make limited space look larger.”

He will also launch his new 450-page book.

He hopes all this will attract not only industry insiders, but the general public too.

“I hope parents can tell their children that they can not only be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, but also a lighting designer.”

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