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Kanto | Light Talk: A Conversation with Lighting Designer Christine Sicangco of CSLDI

Introduction and Interview Gabrielle de la Cruz

Images Christine Sicangco Lighting Design Inc. (CSLDI)

CSLDI founder and principal Christine Sicangco says that the Philippine lighting design industry needs to step out of the shadows and affirm its value in the creation of memorable spaces

They say that success is like finding the light at the end of the tunnel. Such is the case for Christine Sicangco, founder and principal of Christine Sicangco Lighting Design Inc. (CSLDI). Her journey of choosing to become one of the first lighting designers in the Philippines traces back to childhood design and drawing lessons to literally knocking on clients’ doors just to gain projects. “I remember receiving comments such as ‘We have electricians and electrical professionals to do that,’ or even being asked ‘Can you do it for free?” Sicangco shares.

After almost three decades of continuously seeking the light, CSLDI is now one of the country’s few established and award-winning lighting design firms. Their portfolio includes the Samsung Performing Arts Theater, Ayala Triangle Gardens, Mind Museum, and more. They also recently represented the Philippines at the 2022 [d]arc awards with six shortlisted entries and one prize.

Kanto sits down with Sicangco to discuss her humble beginnings, memorable projects and milestones of their firm, and her observations and future hopes for the Philippine lighting design industry.

Our conversation follows:

Lighting Designer Christine Sicangco

Hi Christine! Thank you so much again for doing this. Can we start with your personal background and what got you into lighting design?

I’ve always been interested in design, even as a kid. I remember having weekend design drawing classes in Bacolod. They were facilitated by Titay Hagad, a painter who was based in the area. My cousins and I, along with other children, would gather there to learn more about art and practice drawing and sketching. That went on for years. Now, three of us who participated in those classes are in the design industry! One is Eduardo Sicangco, a cousin of mine who is a costume designer and the second one is Rafe Totengco, a family friend who is a bag designer. Both are still based in New York while I decided to move back here to the Philippines.

After high school, I initially took up Interior Design at the University of Santo Tomas, but I wasn’t able to finish it as I moved to the States. I then completed a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design at San Diego State University, New York.

Lighting design was my master’s degree. I enrolled at Parson’s School of Design in 1990, which is among the most recommended schools for the program. Honestly, I took up lighting design because I didn’t know anything about it and just wanted to learn more. I had no Filipino classmates, and I don’t think there were any other Filipinos who sought formal lighting design education the way I did at that time.

After graduating in 1992, I worked as a lighting designer for Horton Lees Lighting Design Inc., a company based in New York City. I trained under the late Jules Horton, one of the pioneers of lighting design. It was in 1994 that I decided to move back to the Philippines and start my own firm, CSLDI.

Wow, so passion for design really runs in your family! How was the experience of choosing lighting design in particular? Can you share a few special memories back when you were starting?

When I moved back here to the Philippines and decided to start my own firm, it was not at all easy. Lighting design was literally unrecognized that I had to knock on the doors of architecture firms and other industry professionals to introduce myself and what I do.

I had to prove myself because I was not at all tried and tested. I had to build my portfolio and team from the ground up. I would say that a breakthrough was when we landed Ayala Land as a client. From then on, the firm grew into around 20 people, and we had recommendations and referrals coming in. I will never forget how there was a time when we were handling at least a hundred projects and how I realized that we were slowly making it.

It was in 1997 that I met my husband, who is an electrical engineer. We got married in 1999 and he joined the firm a few years later. Now, I have him to take care of the science side of lighting design, while I get to bask in the artistic side of it.

You say that lighting design is both a science and an art. What would you say is your firm’s driving principle or philosophy when it comes to working on projects?

Jules Horton has this quote: “Glare is the result of incompetence” and it inspired CSLDI’s philosophy, which is “to only put light where it is needed.” We don’t want to saturate any space or make any place too bright. We hide the light source and try to eliminate the glare. Sometimes the glare is still there, but we try to hide it as much as possible. Whenever I see glare, it’s as if Jules Horton appears in my head and repeatedly tells me that quote.

Kidding aside, what’s important for us is that we adjust light configurations and pattern our designs in accordance with how the users will make use of the space. I think many of us fail to see the importance of lighting in the day-to-day. Sometimes we’d wonder why a space feels so good and open, then we will realize that it’s the lighting. It could also be the other way around, as some lighting designs are intended to feel gloomy or sad.

As designers, it is our responsibility to make sure that this importance is highlighted, and the message is delivered. It is our duty to find out and contribute to how the lighting will enhance experience. What do you want people to feel? What story do you want to tell?

You say that your designs are always for the end users. Does this mean you don’t claim a personal style when it comes to lighting design?

I don’t think I can, and I don’t think I should. Lighting is so diverse, and there are many ways to do it. It all depends on how much light the project needs, or sometimes how much light the client wants. What’s bright for me may still be dark for others. It’s all subjective, honestly. To me, what’s important is that I get to talk to the users or the client and ask about what they need. It then gets a little easy to step into a space and envision it illuminated.

As a designer, I believe that design appeals to the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and hearing. Lighting is only one part. It sets the ambiance and the mood. It’s a balance.

Speaking of diverse projects, congratulations on your six diverse entries to the 2022 darc awards! You brought home one award and even did the lighting for a mausoleum. How was this entire experience for you? What would you say was the most taxing project? What about the easiest?

All the projects came with their own challenges, so I really couldn’t say what the most taxing one was. I would say that the easiest would probably be Tayap. We were able to do this quickly. We physically visited the site and immediately knew what setups to do given the location.

We also enjoyed working on the Rockwell Balmori Tent, which is a multi-events space surrounded by landscape. This won Fourth Place under the Spaces-Low Budget category.

Café Bob’s was also a memorable project. This is owned by my eldest sister and is inspired from our family’s restaurant business, which is called Bob’s. Here, I was surprised with how we were able to play with lighting design strategies such as casting shadows and adding texture to the walls through lighting.

One of the things I particularly liked doing for Café Bob’s was lighting the screen so it can become a backdrop for the seating area. The screen is designed with the logo of the café. So, whenever the light goes through, the screen casts a shadow of the café’s logo over the walls and the floor. I’d say that is a unique way of showing a café’s logo and making sure patrons remember it!

What a cool execution! Was that your idea? Do you often suggest mechanisms or measures as such to your clients? How do you help them with certain decisions, such as the typical choice between white or yellow light?

Honestly, I cannot take credit for that of Café Bob’s. It actually just surprised the entire team when it happened. I’d say it was possible because of everyone’s efforts.

Lighting has its own color temperature. It usually starts at 2,700, which is the temperature often used for typical light bulbs. 3,000 is essentially warm, while 6,000 usually depicts daylight. The higher the number, the cooler the light. Of course, we follow this whenever we guide clients in making decisions, but all that matters is user comfort and what is bright or warm enough for them.

The use of white and/or yellow light usually depends on the task at hand. You’d notice that yellow is often used to characterize warmth, so it is used for dining areas and the like. White, on the other hand, is often utilized for workspaces or areas for reading and/or writing.

Color rendition is also very important. We often suggest what certain warmness or coolness would match the client’s furniture, fixtures, and overall interior design. I believe that aesthetic should only be a byproduct of sensitivity—finding the right temperature, prioritizing the user’s needs and wants, and being sensitive to color and other aspects.

We’ve designed for a range of clients and have completed around 400 projects now. Some clients are keen on what they want, while some will give you a bit of freehand. I would say there are certain rules that need to be followed, but the most important one would be to deliver on that experience and be sensitive to the users’ needs. At the end of the day, lighting is supposed to make you feel good.

CSLDI has designed for various clients over the years. Is there any building type that you haven’t done? What typologies do you especially enjoy working on?

I’m sure there are building types or projects that we haven’t done; I just can’t figure out what! But we are always open to trying new things.

I personally love doing churches. We worked on the National Shrine of Mt. Carmel in Broadway, New Manila. I didn’t take photos but now I wish I did. Carmel is known for its restraint and elegance and we had to make sure that the lighting reflected that. Controlling softness and intensity is very important as well. We also had to make sure that lights were not too close so that they would not create hot spots.

Just to add, we also did the ASVL old vaccine building for Filinvest, Alabang. It was an abandoned building and there were even snakes when we came in. There were restrictions as it is an old building, but this project showed us that there are so many ways to do lighting without touching the building. There are small fixtures now that do not need to be attached directly or would not take up too much space. Before, you had to do a strip light or two up lights. New technology allows us to find more solutions.

Would you say that modern lighting equipment is the most helpful innovation for lighting designers?

New and smaller lighting equipment always come in handy. I would say that one lighting innovation that I particularly find helpful is smart lighting, as this is very convenient for home and office owners alike. It provides that ease of access and control for everyone.

We’ve used smart lighting for some of our projects and even for our personal spaces. I would say that this is a reflection of how lighting has come a long way since it started.

Are you hopeful about the future of the lighting design industry? What about your firm? What other projects do you have in line?

CSLDI is currently working on the lighting design for a spinning class gym in Bacolod. This is exciting for us as it is our first time working on something like this.

I am very hopeful about the future of the lighting design industry! Probably my only wish is that there will be more lighting designers in the Philippines. I think I only know an average of ten (10) people now. I look forward to seeing the community grow. From there, maybe we can start aiming for projects or just participating in competitions internationally. The bigger, the louder, right?

I also hope that lighting design, in general, would be further recognized and understood by many so that we can showcase its importance in our everyday. I hope we can all shine; slowly but surely. •

Gabrielle de la Cruz started writing about architecture and design in 2019. She previously wrote for BluPrint magazine and was trained under the leadership of then Editor-in-Chief Judith Torres and then Creative Director Patrick Kasingsing. Read more of her work here and follow her on Instagram @gabbie.delacruz.


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