Toolbox: Rachael Stoner


The smallest details can make or break a guest’s experience in hotels, restaurants, casinos and other hospitality spaces. These details can also impact hospitality management teams and their ability to run smooth, effective operations.

Seasoned lighting designers ask a variety of questions to understand these nuances, allowing them to create the perfect ambience for guests and clients alike. What emotions should guests feel when they enter and spend time in a space? What lighting approaches should be implemented to support clients and their operations?

Lighting designer Rachael Stoner of EXP, an international architectural engineering firm, explores these questions and more before beginning hospitality projects. When illuminating casinos, for example, she must implement creative lighting techniques to prevent glares that interfere with security cameras.

Continue reading to discover Stoner’s lighting design tips and tricks for bringing hotels, restaurants, casinos and other hospitality spaces to life. You’ll also learn how to determine the best lighting solutions for your clients, avoid costly design mistakes and maximize client budgets, among many other insights.

Can you briefly walk us through your career path?

I went to school in Ohio for architecture. I was a lighting designer in New York City for four years, Los Angeles for three years, and have been in Chicago for about 18 months.

What inspired you to pursue a career in lighting?

While in school for architecture, I got involved with community theater. Lighting has such an influence on a space, and when I decided to specialize in an architectural sub-set, lighting was it.

Tell us about your favorite lighting project.

The Virgin Hotel Chicago has moody lighting, custom fixtures and dynamic backlit Barrisol. It has great custom fixtures. It’s also the first project I completed backlighting Barrisol.

How would you describe your lighting or artistic style?

Fairly minimal.

What are some essential techniques every lighting designer should know?

Vertical illuminance has more of an impact than horizontal illuminance. However,most codes and guidelines only account for the horizontal plane. Choosing to light the walls and columns has a major impact on how a guest feels.

How do you determine the best lighting solution for your client projects?

It is a combination of:

  • goals for how the space should feel
  • intent of how the space is to be used
  • code requirements
  • budget
  • timeline for delivered design/product

What are some technical factors lighting designers should keep in mind when illuminating spaces? For example, retail and restaurant projects require very different approaches.

Casino gaming floors are darker than you think they are. Security cameras work well even at 1fc. Most gaming floors average 5fc at the work plane with the slot machines turned off; sometimes, this number is even lower because it is known that the slot machines put off tons of light and that gets accounted for. The important thing on gaming floors is to keep it as even as possible and prevent glare at all costs. Security cameras can’t do their job if the angle of incidence on a shiny playing card reflects directly into the camera lens.

Casinos are also the only job type I’ve worked on where all trades move around the cameras, instead of all trades moving around the FOH light fixtures.

How do you leverage light to enhance the human experience in a space?

I use light to create a mood, especially in restaurants. Guests want to feel happy and comfortable. They’re going out because they want to have a great time. If the lighting could stand to be improved, they will have a less great time than if the lighting is executed properly.

What steps can lighting designers take to hone and perfect their craft?

Doing your homework is key. Visit the spaces you are designing if that’s an option and watch how guests use the space. Is it too dark to read? Is it so bright that people leave the room? These subtle observations could have a profound impact on how you approach your design.

What should lighting designers be discussing today?

Lighting designers should be discussing how to get the best design for the appropriate material cost. This is important because more and more, clients are entering a project with a final budget in mind. In order to stay within that budget, the lighting team needs to be in the know. Then, we can prioritize treatments and manufacturers. The “Design – Bid – Build” process is going to the wayside.

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

Architects should work together with the lighting designer to create the intent and goals for the lighting of a space. Then trust the expertise of the lighting designer to find the best way to implement these goals.

Not giving away all of your secrets, can you share one tried-and-true way you make spaces and objects within them look their best with light?

If the wall is textured, graze it.

What questions should you ask your clients before beginning a lighting project?

Have you done a project similar to this before? What did you like about it and what did you hate about it?

What approaches do you take to help you and/or your clients maximize budgets?

We request pricing within the design development phase for our own records to make sure we are on track. This is especially critical if a contractor has already performed a budget estimate based on an earlier design phase.

What steps should you take to avoid costly lighting design mistakes?

Speak with your mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What’s your favorite Luminii product? How does it help you achieve your project goals?

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.

What questions should lighting designers ask their clients before working on a project?

Did you sign my contract? I don’t work without a signed contract.

What’s your favorite way to stay connected with clients?

There are benefits to in-person meetings with the team; ideas and collaboration comes more organically. However, even before COVID-19, I have been meeting virtually more and more. In those instances, screen sharing is important so everyone has a visual idea of what is being discussed.

How do you gauge a client’s satisfaction with your work upon project completion?

Whether or not they hire me again, or at the very least are open to getting lunch.

Tell us why the world needs lighting designers?

The world needs lighting designers because we bring art and science into a project all at once…a high-efficiency luminaire with a dramatic blade of light!

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

Work Address: 205 N Michigan Ave, Suite 3600 Chicago, IL 60601