The Donn Salisbury Interview
Director, Electrolight

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Electrolight is one of Australia’s leading, (if not the leading) lighting design company, (if you consider awards won in 2015). Given this success it would not be unreasonable to expect they have big plans for the future. illumni met with Donn Salisbury, Director and credible James Bond impersonator to try and get him to reveal, amongst other things, his plans for the future.

Electrolight is now considered by many in the industry to be Australia’s leading lighting design firm. What’s your shared vision for the company and what are the milestones?

What a lovely compliment to start off with, thanks Tariq. We aren’t necessarily striving to be big, nor do we have a time-based program for international ‘success’ or expansion for that matter. I think that sort of aim would be a dangerous one. We’re concentrating on having the best people and working with the most interesting clients – this is what will inherently achieve the best results on the most interesting projects. Our vision and focus beyond this is being able to stay ‘boutique’ but being in a position where we can undertake anything, anywhere. The world is a big place and the future will no doubt present many opportunities. We’ll ride with these opportunities as the humble little Aussie firm we started out as and see where it takes us.

You guys are at the top of your game. You’re landing lucrative and interesting projects both at home and internationally. How did the team come together and what keeps you there?

We are definitely landing some interesting projects in Oz, London and internationally. I wouldn’t say lucrative, that’s not the right word. I think most Designer’s make very little money relative to input. It has to be about passion. It’s bloody hard work sometimes, but the rewards are huge if you just love creating. There are not many things more satisfying than creating an atmosphere or experience with a medium as tangible as light. I’m not sure how to answer the question except to say that it’s all about the people. We’ve had a fair amount of momentum over the past few years as a result of good work and good people. Paul, Jess, Elisha and I are ultra-committed, which is an essential part of this momentum, but I honestly believe we have the best people under our roof. This is what will drive us.

Sake Double Bay-1 - photo Rohan Venn

Sake Double Bay_2 - photo Rohen Venn
Sake Double Bay. Photos by Rohan Venn.

Hotels, hospitality and retail are three areas in which Electrolight excels. What do you think attracts these types of clients to your doors?

I think it’s a combination of things. These types of clients are generally more concerned with the visual result and they know how important the atmosphere can impact the final outcome. Sure we’ve have plenty of experience in these sectors and gained some exposure through awards – clients notice this – it gives them confidence. But you can’t ignore the fact that these sectors are typically more likely to seek a specialist lighting designer. Your more commercial projects, and public buildings too, will have a team of services engineers that more often than not have a lighting design division. So they already have a foot in the door regardless of expertise. But the door swings both ways.

The designs you create have a reputation for putting people first. Is this a written objective for every project or does it ‘just come naturally’?

I love how this question has been identified with us. Sure, it comes naturally now, but only because it’s always been part of our design approach. We don’t create spaces for cameras. It’s for eyes and minds. That’s the core purpose of what we all should do as lighting designers. The moment you forget this, you are merely specifying tools. How boring would that be? Everyone is different as is every space we work with, so it’s important to understand how the end user will experience the project long after we are done creating it.

Wollongong Central_3 - Photo Brett Boardman

Wollongong Central_4 - Photo Brett Boardman
Wollongong Central. Photos by Brett Boardman. 

What does Electrolight do to attract good people into its fold?

Good people are usually difficult to find. We discovered most of our team members when we were not actively looking. When I find someone who has that perfect blend of passion and talent, it’s easy to find where they will fit. All our studios work as a tight team, always as a pair or group on each project, so it’s not about one individual. Our designs are a shared experience. This ensures both a team bond and a considered design response.

How do you keep the team together?

The team keeps itself together. I try really hard not to be the ‘boss’ by the standard definition, as do Paul, Jess and Elisha too. If you get the right mix of creative minds, there is always a terrific buzz in the air when they are together, a real energy. It varies in flavour between teams, but it’s always there. This creates it’s own bond. People crave this in a workplace. Once you find it, it’s hard to imagine anything else. When I joined the Electrolight team to start the Sydney studio, building an environment conducive to creative energy was my primary goal. I think back to my days designing in a corporate office environment and cringe.

You established a London office in late 2014. What was the motivation? How’s it going?

The motivation was diversity and opportunity mostly – with a little bit of Paul (Beale) wanting to be back in his homeland. Fair enough really. There’s only so much sun and salt water his British skin could handle. The London market opens up the potential to work on more substantial international projects, so it was a logical next step for us. The local market in London is a fickle one though, bit of an old-boys club it seems, but we are finding our fair share of work. Paul has a charm about him and Christopher and the team are super-creative.

Pier One Sydney_1 - Photo Rohan Venn

Pier One Sydney_2 - Photo Rohan Venn

Pier One Sydney_3 - Photo Rohan Venn
Pier One Sydney. Photos by Rohan Venn.

Electrolight San Francisco. How did that come about?

Paul and Claudio have known each other for many years. Claudio is a great designer and an awesome character, the perfect ingredients for us to kick off in that part of the world. We are very excited about how the USA will magnify our dynamic.

What have you been working on recently?

A diverse collection of work from theme parks to Christmas decorations. Most of our work is hospitality, commercial tenancies and retail centres, and the creativity of the architects we are dealing with makes it so much fun. Right now we are just finishing up a stunning holiday house on the South Coast of NSW that I’ve sort of fallen in love with. I can’t wait to see it finished.

We have just kicked off our largest international project yet with an architect based in Sydney, Melbourne and London. The project design has been split between these three cities, so it’s perfect for us being in the same locations.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth Melbourne_2 - Photo Peter Clarke

Corrs Chambers Westgarth Melbourne_1 - photo Peter Clarke
Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Melbourne. Photos by Peter Clarke.

Perfect. Do your three teams work closely already?

Sydney and Melbourne are pretty much the same thing as far as we are concerned, and we are in constant communication with Paul and his team in London. This new project will take it to another level though, a true project collaboration. We are certain San Fran will present these types of opportunities too. It’s definitely an exciting time.

Some of Electrolight’s success can be attributed to its knack for developing and maintaining long term client relationships. Is this a gift or is it just working hard and doing things right?

That’s a seriously difficult question. Sort of like asking an athlete if it’s talent or training that wins them races. I can’t speak for our clients, but what I can say is that we would hope they recognise the effort and passion we pour into our work. We don’t actively smooch our clients, that’s just shallow. To us, our clients are always part of the design team. We find they appreciate being involved in the process. When it comes to the more challenging concepts we have tabled in the past, it has paid off to have some level of emotional involvement from the client’s end. It’s all about the journey; it provokes a higher level of satisfaction on completion. Nothing is taken for granted. If there is an increase in commitment required, be it risk or funding, then they need to have confidence in where our ideas are going and why.

MONA Hobart_1 - Photo Courtesy of MONA

MONA Hobart_2 - Photo Courtesy of MONA
MONA Hobart. Photos courtesy of MONA.

2015 saw another huge haul of awards for Electrolight in Australia, including the Inauguaral AIA Lighting Prize plus several awards for lighting design at the state and national levels of the IES Awards. Any tips

We had a good year. I think we have been lucky to work with some amazing clients, in particular the architects and interior designers. Our work is always a collaboration, so credit to them for allowing us the freedom to explore our ideas, but also for providing such amazing spaces to begin with. But at the end of the day, the biggest tip I can give you is that it’s always going to take an effort to get a polished result. Nothing comes easy, and it comes down to commitment all the way to final commissioning.

Have you had any feedback recently from clients that you would like to share with our readers? We hear people have been saying nice things about you.

Yes – it’s great to have positive feedback, particularly with something as subjective as lighting. We have received some really beautiful letters from clients, but I’m not sure about sharing them.

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Garangula Sculptures. Photo by Donn Salisbury. 

So, the future must be looking pretty rosy. What do you see on the horizon for Electrolight?

We are focused on doing good work. I genuinely feel comfortable that the industry in general has a rosy future, so progress is inevitable. It’s an evolving industry, maturing into a new wave of technologies and possibilities. Everyone in it has a great deal of respect for the craft and each other. The recent PLDC event in Rome was pure enlightenment for me. I met some amazing characters there. There is such an exciting level of spirit and dynamism within the world of lighting design; it’s hard to imagine anything dampening this momentum.

http://www.electrolight.com