When John Featherstone and Norm Schwab formed design consortium Lightswitch in August 1993, the world went, “Huh?” This idea–an affiliated group of designers in different geographic locations, getting together to share resources, share knowledge, share some risk and help each other when schedules got tight–was novel. Sure, there were design firms, some with multiple locations. But they weren’t structured in the same way. Featherstone was based in Chicago and Schwab in San Francisco. They pooled resources when they could, blue-skied via telephone about design ideas and problems, but pretty much ran their own shows. A decade later, with a new partner in New York, Howard Werner, and two associate partners Brad Malkus in Orlando and Greg Cunningham in Los Angeles plus permanent staff and a large stable of freelance talent, Lightswitch has come into its own. And the tremendous growth in the last decade proves that–once they got it–the world went, “Excellent!”

A look at the combined resume of the design team reveals that the group covers everything from exhibits, corporate and business theater, entertainment-based architectural projects such as theme park attractions, museums and themed environments, musical and live entertainment and special events.

Because it’s always interesting to know how someone ends up in this business, each of the partners explains his path.

Norm Schwab: “I took an acting course when I was 16, taught by Dennis Aubrey, who was a Carnegie Mellon University student. I tried acting in a Moliére play called Scapin and loved every part of it–except memorizing the lines. Clearly acting wasn’t in my future. Dennis was hired to run a small theatre company at a local Jewish Community Center near Pittsburgh, and he asked if I would like to try being the lighting designer. This I loved totally. I applied and was accepted to Carnegie’s drama program. I got an internship at FM Productions in San Francisco my senior year. FM was riding high. I was quickly placed on a wide variety of jobs–concerts (David Bowie and Michael Jackson Tour), corporate shows (IBM PC launch), special events (1984 Democratic National Convention). Such is the birth of a lighting designer.”

The British-born John Featherstone: “My aunt Ruth was a huge influence; she was wardrobe mistress at the English Opera company Glyndebourne. I’d get underfoot every summer and got ‘bitten by the bug.’ I went to National Youth Theatre, a summer school staging major productions under the supervision of West End professionals. It still didn’t really click that I could actually do this for a living, so I went back home and continued to dream about being an architect. I was playing drums in several garage bands when a new kid moved into the neighborhood with a cooler drum set–it was suggested that maybe I could do the lights? Crushing to an artist, but providence intervenes. While going from homemade fixtures to a small lighting system, I met Johnny Marr, guitarist in a new band, The Smiths. I became their ‘lighting guy,’ and their career–and mine–took off. Roy Bennett took me under his wing and I worked with him for artists like Janet Jackson, Duran Duran, The Cure, Bryan Adams, Van Halen, INXS. Roy was one of two major influences and mentors to me in lighting design–the other is Norm.”

Howard Werner weighs in: “I was the lighting guy in high school. I think the thing that got me interested in the industry was the type of people that you get to work with. Much of my career has been spent working in the theatre and the people that I have worked with over the years have become my closest friends. Perhaps this is true in most professions but when I started doing shows I found people that I wanted to spend my time with.”

Schwab and Featherstone met in 1986 when Norm was designing the lighting for the Jeep Eagle Premier Launch in Detroit. Featherstone had just finished up a U.S. tour and had some time left on his work permit.

Featherstone states, “Upstaging asked me to stay and run the board for a business theatre show. Not being exactly sure what business theatre was, I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to!’ Norm had to leave for another show and left the gig in my hands. I enjoyed the show, learned a ton and went back to touring.” Over the next six years, they hooked up on various projects and always knew they’d eventually work together.

Says Featherstone, “Fast-forward to 1992. Still touring, married, living in Chicago, and my wife and I have Hailey, our eldest daughter. Take a break from the road and then go out with Van Halen. I’m totally bummed about missing so much of Hailey growing up. So I call Norm. The rest is, as they say, history. We wanted Lightswitch to be different. Both Norm and I thrive in collaborative environments and wanted this to be the basis for the organization. We wanted to try to work as many different fields as possible, and combine the best techniques, tools and people to offer clients unique design solutions. We wanted to offer everyone who worked at Lightswitch maximum flexibility, yet provide a supportive, nurturing environment where creative people could collaborate freely.”

Schwab adds, “We began to network with people who we felt shared some of the same beliefs, and this soon grew to a large family of subcontractors who did everything from draft, program and help design various productions. We met Abbey Holmes in 1995 and approached her about enlarging the family to New York City by becoming a partner in Lightswitch. We later took on offices in L.A. and Orlando to help service our clients in those areas.”

When Holmes decided to move on in 2002, Malkus suggested Howard Werner as a solution for New York. Howard’s expertise in large format projection and his background in the legitimate theatre were particularly intriguing. Werner explains, “I had known John for about four years, and we had very similar aesthetics. I had known Brad Malkus for years, having worked with him in his days as the premier Morpheus programmer.”

One word is often heard talking to the Lightswitchers–family. They believe the rapid growth of the company is due to factors all related to family. First, they have great repeat clients who grasped what Lightswitch was about and felt that it fit well with their own business model. The second factor is the great support they get from their friends in the industry. And last–but not least– is hard work by many talented people.

“We have always tried especially hard to make people feel like they were working with us, not for us,” Featherstone comments. Many people, especially Greg Cunningham and Brad Malkus, were instrumental in our growth. Lightswitch is sometimes referred to as a ‘family,’ and we all take that as a huge compliment.

“Howard’s involvement has given us a tremendous boost. His design sensibility, humor, collaborative spirit and unrelenting desire for excellence has caused an all-encompassing top-to-bottom review of the way Lightswitch operates that–while probably not apparent from the outside–has had tremendous benefits to the way the organization runs.”

When asked what has surprised them about the growth of Lightswitch, Schwab comments, “At the time of our partnership, we had never done a permanent installation, theme park or architectural project. In 1995, we were approached to help produce a spectacle in the old downtown area of Las Vegas. The Fremont Street Experience is a perfect example of taking lighting and turning architecture into theatre. The buildings, facades and street become the performance space for a light show that entertains thousands and has helped revitalize the old downtown area.

“By combining knowledge of entertainment, theatre and corporate marketing, along with an understanding of architecture and what it takes to get a project finished, we have been successful in the permanent installation arena. It is great to have a successful project stay around for more than one show. Since Fremont Street, we have moved into the world of museums and now have projects in Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Wyoming and Alaska. We just opened a museum project in Denver and are currently working on projects in Panama and ‘Action’ at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. This work is so rewarding.”

Finally, the partners weigh in on the vision for Lightswitch five years out. Werner starts out, “We are working hard to be the ones helping to find new places to apply the art and science of lighting design. We are also very interested in continuing our relationships with the manufacturers and developers of the tools that we use in our work.”

Schwab continues, “I think one of our goals is to work only on projects that interest us, while maintaining a company whose size is manageable. Luckily, lots of different types of projects interest us. It is important to surround yourself with smart, motivated people who share the same ideals. This drives creativity.”

Finally, Featherstone wraps it up. “We would also be remiss if we did not once again thank all the vendors, clients, producers, architects, technical directors, scenic designers, stage managers, stage hands, electricians and more who have supported us for the last 10 years, and with whom we look forward to a long, successful future. It’s a great ride.”