When we met Kael Gillam she was fearlessly dropping multicable from a tension grid down to a box boom for an array of wash lights in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now, this was 2012, so where is she now? Kael, a Senior Lighting Designer at Nulty, is in London, England, on one of the most dynamic international architectural design firms. The projects Kael sees have changed in both scope and scale in the past years -- but Kael hasn't. The world of lighting architecture may require a different approach, but once you get on-site, there is something familiar. Much like that tension grid in 2012, "smelling the sawdust, climbing up ladders to literally put your head through the ceiling, it's all brilliant," Kael's favorite part of a project is in the trenches.
Kael's roots lie in the theatre. She enjoys the storytelling quality design can bring to any application. "In theatre, you're creating moments in time that complement the trajectory of the story," she says. Something is refreshing, though, about her perspective for architectural projects, "For us, we create an environment full of these moments." Read the full Q&A discussing how she transitioned from theatre to architecture, her hobbies, life away from the firm, advice she would give young female designers, and more!
ENLIGHTENED is a series spotlighting women in the field. Visit Nulty Lighting's website here.
How did you get started in lighting?
"I started doing technical theatre in highschool on an absolute fluke and it just totally engrossed every minute of my day. I would stay long past hours crawling all over scaffolding trying to get everything perfect for the performances, blasting music over the sound system, and having a laugh with my fellow techs. My last year in high school I found out that you could actually go to university for theatre, and that's all it took for me to apply to conservatories across the country."
If you could go back and tell yourself something when you were first starting out, what would it be?
"Calm the fuck down! I spent so much of uni not allowing myself to enjoy the process of design, but was rather just really frustrated with myself and others when things didn't go as expected. Learning how to roll with the punches has been so integral in learning how to grow and mature as a person and a designer."
What led you to get into architecture?
"It was at the recommendation our lead lighting professor at CMU; several alumni worked at Focus Lighting in New York City, and my professor said she would put in a good word for a summer internship if I wanted to give architectural lighting a shot. I was eighteen at the time, and I knew you didn't say no to an opportunity like that even if it wasn't exactly what I had had in mind and to my surprise I absolutely loved it; I was floored by the quality and breadth of the projects they worked on. Christine was an incredible mentor to me, and through working with her and the rest of the team I knew that that kind of work was what I wanted to do once I graduated."
What is unique about arch lighting?
"I think the biggest thing that has struck me in recent years is the incredible amount of skill sets and different personalities you get in an architectural project. "Architectural Lighting" is such a broad category; we work on museum exhibits, city masterplans, product launch parties, hotels... So some days you're working with a massive interior design firm working on six-star hotels in the middle east, while some days you're talking about how to make an immersive experience for children where they get to explore what it's like to be a gorilla (not something I made up)."
What is your favorite phase about an arch installation project?
"This is where it's obvious I come from theatre; I absolutely love being onsite in the final stages of a project. Smelling the sawdust, climbing up ladders to literally put your head through the ceiling, it's all brilliant. Of course the concept phase is always very exciting and fun and promising, but there's nothing like watching your dream actually come to life. Genuinely makes me miss tech, which I never thought I'd say!"
Can you talk about how theatrical lighting might have influenced your work in the arch sector?
"It's pretty cliche, but the story-telling element is what bridges the most between the two disciplines. You want to make a person feel a certain way when they walk in a room, and you're using light to draw their attention, shift their focus, and really appreciate everything that the whole design team has collaborated on. Someone a lot smarter than me once said that you should treat light as a material, as something to be molded and shaped and applied to provide the best experience for the end-user. In theatre, you're creating moments in time that complement the trajectory of the story. For us, we create an environment full of these moments."
How do you stay learning and growing in your craft?
"We're lucky to have regular CPD with manufacturers and other designers to keep sharp on new tech, standards/guidelines, and projects of note. We're inundated with new technology all the time, so it's a full-time job just keeping up with things like wireless mesh networks, new gens of LED chips, and revolutions in optical design."
What are your hobbies outside of lighting?
"Hands down favourite hobbies are cooking and playing video games. I genuinely think cooking is like therapy for me, there's something really satisfying about following a recipe and having something delicious come out at the end. Video games are pure escapism, and I've been playing them since I was able to hold a controller properly; currently very obsessed with the Witcher 3 and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild."
What advice would you give to aspiring females in the lighting industry?
"I spend a lot of time these days being the only woman in a room full of clients, architects, and engineers, and it can be hard because you sometimes get pre-judged just by the fact you're not a man/male-presenting. Don't feel like you have to be 'the girl' or 'one of the boys' to find your place in the industry. Those kind of binaries aren't good for your mental health, and we need to embrace our diverse personalities and expressions."
Check out these images (some renderings, some realized projects) from the Nulty Lighting Past Projects
ENLIGHTENED is a series spotlighting women in the field. Visit Nulty's Website here.