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Matthew McCormick sees the light

On his first visit to the region, Debonair discusses trends, challenges and how to make light work for you with the Canadian product designer

Although my work has been critiqued as being very graphical and geometric, it can work in various genres because it’s so refined and paired back.

This is your first visit to the Middle East. What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve seen in Dubai these past few days at Dubai Design Week?

I’d have to say the architecture. Everything here is the biggest something in the world — the biggest aquarium, the highest restaurant, or the tallest hotel. That’s one of the things that make this feel like such a future city. Outside of seeing flying cars, like it’s mind-blowing being here and seeing the very unique architecture.

I’ve only just been able to do some rounds of the show. I got to go to the museum in the morning, which was really quite interesting. But I’m just blown away by the amount of design architecture that’s going on in this town.

How do you perceive the relationship here between the interiors and the exterior — the architectural versus the internal spaces?

You know, oftentimes it’s either one or the other. I’m thinking from my travels abroad where the architecture outside is so grand but it’s kind of a miss inside. But here the architecture is so over the top that when you go inside you don’t expect it to match it, but it does — at least in my limited experience.

I’m still pretty impressed. They spare no expense.

Although my work has been critiqued as being very graphical and geometric, it can work in various genres because it’s so refined and paired back.

And lighting is a very specific subject within the industry. What are your biggest challenges?

I work primarily with architects and interior designers, and when I first started I was very much into doing a lot of custom design, working with clients to build things that are very site specific — things that felt very cohesive in their spaces. Like the hotel I’m staying at, they have these 20ft tall chandeliers — things you can’t go to the lighting store and buy.

One of the biggest challenges we’d face is people waiting until late in the game to think about the lighting. By then they’ve probably spent the budget, or not considered things like reinforcing the ceilings to be able to hang something that heavy.

A lot of education is required, especially when it comes to custom-designed pieces. You can’t compare it to something off the shelf or ready made, because there’s a lot of engineering design, research development and certification that goes into it. But what some people see as design challenges I see as fun — that’s the part where we get to flex our muscles.

Did your product line then grow out of these custom pieces?

Yes. In doing all that custom work, we were kind of building a product line as we went along. Only later on did we have that “aha” moment — when we started doing projects and things started getting published, and people approached us saying, “Oh I love what you’ve done here. Can I get it in smaller sizes?”

As a company we diversified a few years ago, so we still do a lot of custom pieces but we also have our own select product line as well. Then we also have this kind of happy medium where we can modify our products to suit a specific brief, thus leveraging the custom innovation.

And of these, is there one that appeals more to you?

That’s like deciding between children! They’re very different. I’ve had the great fortune to have a lot of people give me cart blanche to do whatever I want, and that ability to flex our creative muscle and come up with something very unique is quite fun. At the same time — in the product development of both brand new pieces and existing ones — I’m always iterating and refining, much to the chagrin of the people I work with.

So even though a product like the Halo optically looks exactly the same since day one, it’s in its 13th revision. The Wire is in revision five. We’re constantly thinking how can we tweak things and make it more refined and simpler.

Added to that I imagine there’s the tension between aesthetics and practicality?

It’s funny, we say all the time in the office anyone can draw pretty pictures but it takes a lot more experience to understand what goes into getting something to delivery. So as much as I challenge myself and my team to design with reckless abandonment, I can’t help but consider how it’s going to be made or shipped or maintained. Or even how you’re going to get it into the space.

If it’s really big, you’ve got to think with the end in mind and kind of reverse engineer everything. It becomes part of my design ethos, if you will. I’m always thinking with the end in mind.

Last year we shipped a light that was 30ft by 50ft long and weighed 3,000 pounds. It took two 18-wheeler trucks to drive it across the country. It’s astonishing the amount of engineering that went into making sure that it could suspend from the ceiling, especially since it was going into a restaurant…

Which comes with its own set of problems…

Exactly, from the dimming controls to the colour temperature and even going down to the colour-rendering index of the light itself. So when the light shines on your food, does your meat look red or green? Everything has to be considered.

What’s the most exciting project you’ve been involved with?

Probably the one we’re currently working on. It’s kind of under wraps right now, but I actually just came back from London where the Design Festival was pitching to us to do an 80ft chandelier in the V&A. It’s funny — we’re doing a lot more culturally relevant stuff. Tomorrow I fly out to Brussels where we’re doing a big exhibition at this gallery that — again — blurs the line between design and art.

You know, they ask me to design these pieces, but they’re running alongside £100,000 works of art…

Again, it goes back to choosing your favourite child. Yes, we’ve done very large things, but I can very easily geek out over the little minutia of some of our products.

With all these projects you’re working on across the world, do you still see a marked difference between cultures?

It’s interesting how there are certain aesthetics that people migrate to, like in Canada for example we seem to be caught in the matrix of this kind of Nordic, Scandinavian style. Whereas I’ve gone to places like Milan for Design Week and seen these bold patterns and retro colours mixed in ways that shouldn’t work but do. In way design has become homogenised, but it’s about curation — how you put things together.

Personally, I’m more of an eclectic minimalist. I just like the individual pieces, and they kind of stand out on their own. But because they’re eclectic and very different they’re also harmonious and work together.

Although my work has been critiqued as being very graphical and geometric, it can work in various genres because it’s so refined and paired back. It can work in a contemporary home, it can work in a modern home, it can work in a Scandinavian home. It doesn’t fit into just one genre.

What’s the next big thing in lighting design?

I like to think our work can be very technically beautiful, where we take into consideration not only the artistic merit of it, but then marry it with a lot of great technology.

LED technology has come a long way over the past few years, and now we’re getting into smart lighting. We’ve also worked with a kind of nanotechnology that deals with your circadian rhythm, and integrating that wellness aspect through wavelengths that make you feel better is quite exciting.

How about your own home? What role does lighting play in your personal spaces?

A couple years ago I bought a new place, and I just moved into it with my wife and my family. I spent the past few months just ripping out all the ugly track lighting and replacing it with LED smart lighting so we can control everything. I’m a huge proponent of layering light — desks lamps, under-counter lights, floor lamps illuminating the floor or shining on furniture… And everything can be controlled to suit your mood. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but that works for me.

I obviously have my own work in my home, but there’s a lot more to it. You have to understand how light works. There’s no bigger compliment than when people come by and they’re like, “I love what you’ve done with the place, but I can’t put my finger on what it is — it just feels calm and cozy.”

That’s because they don’t realise that the interior design is such that things line up and everything feels very organised. There’s no visible clutter and the light levels are just right.

I think holistically it’s just being very well considered, from the objects you live with to the lighting you allow into your life.

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