iilluminati: Rachael Stoner, Lighting Designer


Rachael Stoner follows the light in every sense of the phrase. Throughout her eight-year career in lighting design, Stoner has traveled from coast to coast to hone and share her talents with the world. After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture, she interned at an architectural lighting firm in New York City. She eventually switched firms and experienced everything the fast-paced metropolis has to offer a rising star in the field.

Her brilliance impressed clients and colleagues alike, and before she knew it, Stoner was on her way to Los Angeles to help the lighting firm open its new office. The West Coast presented her with new leadership opportunities, ways of doing business, and colleagues and rep agencies to collaborate with on exciting projects.

Now, Stoner works at EXP, an international architectural engineering firm. Stoner is based out of the firm’s Chicago office, where she’s expanding the lighting department’s capabilities and presence. Read our interview with Stoner to learn more about her work, design inspirations, go-to lighting techniques and predictions for the industry’s future.

What inspired you to pursue a career in lighting?

I went to study architecture in college, and halfway through my schooling realized I did not want to become a licensed architect. My boyfriend at the time was a theatrical lighting designer, so I became more involved with theater at the community level. Knowing that lighting has such a great influence on the built environment, I decided to become an expert in that.

If you could articulate your philosophy about light in one sentence, what would you say?

Light is like music: it can be soft or harsh, quiet/dim or loud/bright, and each individual has their preferences.

How would you describe your lighting or artistic style?

“Less is more.”

Tell us about one of your favorite lighting techniques and why?

You must pay attention to the vertical surfaces in the space. People live in elevation, not plan. Light the walls! Light the columns!

What types of spaces or projects do you enjoy illuminating?

Hospitality and gaming are my bread and butter. I love restaurants because the time between taking pencil to paper and opening day is so fast that you can see how everything turns out–what worked and what didn’t. Casinos are great because there are usually playful focal elements.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite lighting projects? What was it about the final product that made it a standout project for you?

StripSteak Waikiki was a great project because it came with a site visit to Hawaii. But, in all seriousness, it turned out very well. The concept of a “villain’s lair” is something the interior design team and lighting team worked on together. It uses warm dim sources that are often hidden from direct view. The project, from concept to realization, stayed true the entire time, which makes it a standout project to me!

Who or what do you look to for inspiration?

I follow many design accounts on Instagram, including: @nultylighting; @artechouse; @witenry; @anti_reality; @devolkitchens; @dovneon; @archdaily; and @designmilk.

What’s one of your most profound memories as a lighting designer?

Any visit to art installations—James Turrell and Dan Flavin of course come to mind. They are a break away from the footcandle recommendations and code requirements. Visiting a Turrell exhibit is a reminder that lighting is creative. It is an expressive art form that should not be put into a box.

What advice would you give to lighting designers starting out in the field?

Get involved with other young lighting designers. Also, don’t be afraid to borrow office fixture samples and take them for a spin in your apartment or in your backyard. See how light works on different materials and in different settings.

What should lighting designers be discussing today?

I think we should be looking ahead to when our LED drivers and various electronics fail: what happens then with the materials? We’ve got a LEED Platinum project or WELL building job filled with renewable resources. Do those failed electronics get tossed in the garbage or is there a way to recycle or refurbish the equipment?

What should architects be discussing in terms of lighting a space today?

Architects should share their goals for the lighting on the job with the entire team, then trust the experts to come up with products and installation methods that support their vision. Architects should also be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

What’s the most valuable lighting tip you can share?

Mock. It. Up.

Can you share an interesting example of something you sketched and built from scratch?

For the illuminati regarding a mockup sketch, attached is a PDF of various photos of building my own dimming socket testing system. I built it about 1 year ago in my spare time. It allows me to test various E26 base lamps and how they dim on a standard wall-box dimmer. I can also swap out the wall-box dimmers if the project requires.

Where do you think the lighting design industry is headed? How do you feel about the direction it’s taking?

I think the technology of programming (both on the front user end and the wiring back end) will continue to accelerate. We will have to learn more about wiring, programming and interfaces in the future—which may not be what some of us signed up for.

In terms of product innovation, what are you most excited about in terms of future products or technology still in the early stages?

IoT is very intriguing. I’ve attended several talks at conferences recently and it seems we are headed that way for all jobs, not just retail or airports.

Tell us about your favorite Luminii product? What do you enjoy most about it?

The Kurba family is my favorite product by Luminii. I like that it has multiple end feed options, is very flexible and has no pixelation.

About Rachael Stoner

Rachael Stoner has been a practicing Lighting Designer for the past 8 years. She began her career in New York City, then traversed across the country to Los Angeles, and currently is taking the Midwest by storm at EXP Chicago. Her project work is focused on hospitality and gaming, but also includes themed entertainment, commercial, and transportation. She is an IES member and associate member with the IALD. Notable projects include: TAO Downtown NYC (Focus Lighting), Virgin Hotel Chicago (BOLD), and the AON Observatory Deck. In her spare time, she bakes while listening to history podcasts.

Connect With Rachael Stoner and EXP