Even if you didn't catch the run of “Illumination,” the Morton Arboretum's dramatic and innovative holiday-season lighting of trees on its grounds, you've probably seen some of the other work of John Featherstone and his lighting and visual design firm, Lightswitch.

To name just a few from Chicago, Lightswitch did the big central rotunda at the Museum of Science and Industry, the lakefront Oceanarium and the “Jellies” jellyfish exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, the Wit Hotel at State and Lake streets, and the aquatic-themed lobby at the new Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

Or maybe you saw The Smiths — lit on stage in subtle, striking blues and greens, a stark contrast to so many bands' flashing-color overkill — back when Featherstone was an English teen “who basically ran away to join the circus,” as he put it.

Now 49, Featherstone went on tour with The Smiths in the mid-'80s just as the Manchester, England, band was breaking big and was there when it broke up too. From there he headed out on one major tour after another, including Janet Jackson, The Cure and Van Halen, all of them spent trying to portray in lighting the credo about the essence of pop music that Featherstone had learned from a book on Jimi Hendrix: “Simplify, simplify, simplify, then exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate.”

His colleagues on the audio side of concerts, he remembers, would tease him that “people don't go home humming the lights,” but working in the intensely collaborative environment of rock tours paid off when it came time, after a dozen years, to get off the road, live with his wife and firstborn daughter in the northwest suburbs and co-found Lightswitch. The company has gone global in its two decades but still keeps a home office in Chicago, where Featherstone is the lead partner, despite a recent family move to Arizona.

We talked to the voluble Englishman about the under-appreciated art of lighting and visual design and what from the rock 'n' roll world can be applied in more static environments, such as a Chicago brewpub, the mile-long outdoor nature walk of the well-received Morton show or even some day, he hopes, along Michigan Avenue. Here's an edited transcript:

Q: Okay, so the dark side of the rock-and-roll world, the dark side of the business world: Which is sleazier?

A: I think the dark side of the corporate world is sleazier because it's less genuine, if that makes any sense. The guys that are off the deep end, and there were certainly people that I worked with both onstage and off, who were living and breathing the rock-and-roll dream, were doing it without a veil, without a mask, without any pretense.

The people that have rubbed up against my integrity in the corporate world, it feels less honest, because they're still wearing the suit but they are very much the wolf in sheep's clothing. So I would rather deal with a bottle-of-Jack-in-one-hand rock-and-roll artist who is very much warts-and-all about the way he is, than a client — and fortunately we don't really have very many of them — from the corporate world where you never really know where you stand, but every hair on the back of your neck stands up.

Q: You've seen a lot over a long time. You still design rock concerts, including, recently, for Imagine Dragons. What's wrong with rock-and-roll shows these days?

A: Well, I think there's a lot right with a lot of rock-and-roll shows. Let me personalize it. One of the performers I really respect in a large show — and this really surprised me, because I went in dragging my heels — is Taylor Swift. My youngest daughter is a big fan. I think Taylor Swift uses those (elaborate) techniques in a way that communicates a real essence of who she is. The technology, while there's an awful lot of it on her show, a lot of it gets out of the way really quickly. There are a lot of other performers who went down the a la carte menu from the rock-and-roll scenic company: "O.K., I want to fly through the audience. I want a giant video wall." But there's a little bit of production ADD about it.

Q: So just because you can put a Stonehenge replica and elves dancing around on stage doesn't mean you should.

A: (Laughs.) Nice analogy, my friend. Well played, sir. Yeah, it doesn't mean you have to.

Q: You say you lit The Smiths in a "very narrow color palette" of blues and greens, and I hear that as "simplify, simplify." But where was the "complicate" part of it?

A: Well, the "exaggerate" part — and some of this is a through line at Morton — is, when it's blue, it's blue and there's a lot of it. Use a bold brush, if you will. Have it be a beautiful, beautiful blue that you spend a lot of time making sure the color is right, and then use a lot of it. Or if it's red, you get this rich, warm kind of color that sort of wraps itself around you, and you can almost feel it from a temperature standpoint as much as from a visual standpoint. So that's the exaggerate piece. You simplify the essence, but you exaggerate the execution.

Q: You said earlier you don't think of what you do as art?

A: (Laughs). Yeah, when I said that, I thought, "Oh, I don't know if that's necessarily true." I think there is a continuum, and I would certainly not put what we do in the same category as that which is considered traditional art. Let's use an example: (the glass artist) Dale Chihuly. We've had the opportunity to work with Dale on a couple of occasions. Dale's work came from a part of his soul that was so focused in terms of his vision that the fact that then people have subsequently commissioned him and he's been very successful — I would suggest — is less important to him than the purity of his vision. Because what we do is very collaborative and we're helping other people execute their vision, I just feel that we need to pull back on the "precious" fader a little bit, if that makes any sense. Don't get too precious about what we do. It's not throwing one's hand to one's head and saying, "Oh, but it's my art!" "Yeah, that's great. And now can you change it to the color that the client wants?" I'm not saying there isn't art in it, but theres a balance between the pragmatic and the visionary.

Q: How did you get started? Had you trained at school for lighting, or taken classes in lighting design at all?

A: It was training in the sense at school that, "Hey, at least there's somebody who's willing to climb up the ladder and make sure the lights are pointing in the same general direction as the stage." I was focused on becoming an architect, which is what my grandfather was. And the pipe dream fantasy was being a drummer in a rock band. And I was playing drums in bands at school, and a kid moved into the neighborhood who had a cooler drum set. So it was suggested that I might want to find something else to do. So, kind of scuffing my toes and grumbling under my breath, I muttered off and sold my drums and bought some lights and started doing lighting.

Q: Did that kid end up being the Smiths drummer?

A: No, he did not end up being the Smiths drummer. He manages a grocery store in England now, much to my never-ending teasing whenever I have the opportunity to Facebook or talk to him. So I kind of fell into it. I was lighting bands as they came and went through clubs and small venues in town, and that's when The Smiths came through, and I immediately hit it off with those guys. I was 18. They were essentially the same age. They were like, "Hey, it might be fun to have a lighting guy. You want to come along in the van?" And that was nothing but dumb luck and good timing. Two years later, a couple of world tours under my belt at a very young age, I look up and The Smiths fall apart. So, several weeks after, Johnny (Marr, the guitarist) got a call from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. She said, "I hear you're at a loose end, I'm looking for a guitarist." And Johnny, to my never-ending debt and gratitude, said: "Yeah, but it's a package deal. First of all, I don't go anywhere without my wife Angie. And secondly, the only person who stood by me when The Smiths fell apart was my friend John, who is our lighting designer. So if you want a new guitarist, you've got a new lighting designer." So at the tender age of, I must have been about 20, I lighted the Pretenders at Rock in Rio and opening for U2 and all this kind of stuff, and then it just kind of accelerated from there.

Q: And you're on the road with all these bands the whole time? It's not like you're sitting in an office, fielding phone calls?

A: That's what I do now, but, no, at the time, I was traveling. From a personal standpoint, during this period I met my wife, who's a Chicago gal, born and bred. We settled in the states. She was a travel agent back in the day when airlines actually gave a damn about travel agents. And so she would come and see me and everything was great and life was good, and then we had our first daughter. And I went back out with Van Halen. I went, "Oh, this is not quite so good." And Norm (Schwab), my founding partner at Lightswitch, had been basically daring me to get off the road for about six years or so by this stage. I called him up and said, "O.K., I'm ready." That's 20 years ago.

Q: So you get off the road and you set up a business and suddenly you're billing $5 million, and everything goes easily, right?

A: Oh my god, no. The first job that we did together, Norm and I, was a project for Apple. We're still very proud to work with Apple and to consider them Lightswitch Account 001. I vividly remember sitting up most of the night at a hotel room in Caesar's Palace, going, "Oh my God, what have I done? This is a huge mistake. Nobody's going to hire us. They're going to figure out that it's a theater and lighting designer and a rock-and-roll guy and we don't really know what we're doing." But somehow we managed.

Q: Did you like that rock-and-roll life? Did it work for you as a young man?

A: Yeah, exactly. You hit the nail on the head. It's something to be done when you're young. The daughter that was the catalyst for me coming off the road, she's currently at Arizona State University, studying theater production with a focus in lighting design. She wants to go out on the road after she's graduated, and I fully support it for the collaborative experience. You build friends that will be with you for life. And there is something to be said for doing that show, which is the thing people have been looking forward to for months — that moment when the houselights go off.

Q: Are there areas you guys want to expand into? Are there places where lighting isn't thought out as well as it ought to be?

A: Where we're seeing some exciting opportunities is in more of a public space kind of project. That means things like Morton, but Morton magnified. Maybe bringing a different lighting eye to urban environments. So that's not that everything ends up looking like "Blade Runner," but that you could walk down Michigan Avenue, for example, and you could have a defined, distinctive experience while you walk along this urban thoroughfare. Or through Millennium Park or Daley Plaza or whatever. Millennium Park is one of my favorite places in the world during the day. But in the evening it's Millennium Park in the dark. It doesn't put on a different personality. Those are the scenarios that really excite us. The opportunity to use the transformative effect of lighting to be able to change the way people relate to a known environment.