In a relatively saturated field of work, like architecture, it is a rare feat to be designated as the “only one” of something in an entire state or region. But with a professional architecture degree from Louisiana State University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Lighting Design (MFALD), Danielle Johnson is just that. “I’m the only person in the state of Louisiana with a MFALD, and maybe the only person in the region with the combination of architecture and lighting,” she says. Parsons The New School for Design, New York, where Johnson completed her master’s, is one of only a few schools in the country to offer the program, and with typically small graduating architecture classes, combining the two studies gives you a highly specialized profession.
Parsons’ lighting program not only focuses on the aesthetics of design, but human physiological and psychological factors, as well as sustainable practices. “Our education included everything from understanding the [human] visual system and how we perceive, all the way through the cultural context of lighting and how it varies in different cultures, to the practical end of laying out light fixtures, calculating lighting levels, and specifying fixtures,” Johnson explains.
The designer captilized on her education, quickly moving from school to real-world practices when she landed a job at Arc Lighting Design in Manhattan. The firm specializes in high-end hospitality work, ranging from luxury hotels and restaurants to resorts and nightclubs all over the world. “We worked closely with Tony Chi associates, a world-renowned interior designer, providing the lighting systems for all of their jobs,” she says. “We did Hyatt Hotels all over the world, several Wolfgang Puck restaurants, a number of resorts in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Las Vegas. We’ve done work from Egypt to Australia to Asia.”
While at Arc Lighting, Johnson welded a partnership with a friend she met at school, forming Materical, a smaller and more specialized lighting design company. The duo mostly worked on high-end residential lighting systems. “One of the biggest jobs we did was in the Dominican Republic. We designed a system that was an interactive lighting façade. The outside of the building became a big screen, and each node was a pixel. You could display words, pictures, moving graphics. It was a big job for us right in the beginning, and allowed us to make big investments in the company.” The pair designed fixtures that all had a special component. “The whole idea of Materical is to cross super-technical types of building lighting with a handmade feeling to them. We would hand-draw our sketches, then transfer them to the necessary programs and insert the high-tech parts.” They also have a knack for adding a little quirk to their lighting fixtures, which include a chandelier made from multiple laser-cut guns, and a fixture that could be Cousin It or an unspecified sea creature. Materical’s work has been published in magazines like Architectural Record and AL Magazine.
Though moving in all the right directions in New York, Johnson chose to move back to Baton Rouge after starting a family, to be close to her own. There, she worked for several years as Professional in Residence in the Interior Design department of LSU, before stepping into her current role as project manager at the Architectural Studio in Baton Rouge. “It was a really hard decision, and a big transition to move back here. There just isn’t the same type of work. But I learned so much in New York. The amount of detail that goes into those huge jobs is incredible. Learning to draw to such a high level of detail on such huge jobs is something that I’d never get in many places. And the type of documentation that is produced for such large-scale work at such high quality is much different than building something in the south, but I feel I’ve brought a valuable skill set with me.” And Johnson is using that skill set to the fullest, carving out a new and unique space for creativity in Baton Rouge.
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