Flipping the Switch
The award-winning design studio Lightswitch celebrates 20 years in the industry
by Breyanna Knoll

When John Featherstone and Norm Schwab set out to establish a lighting and visual design studio in 1993, it would have been easy for the two experienced designers to call the firm an iteration of Featherstone-Schwab. Instead, they considered that the company’s name would someday symbolize innovative design practiced by a coterie of creative staffers. “We’d rather Lightswitch be a rallying flag, if you will,” Featherstone says. On the edge of its 20th anniversary, principals Brad Malkus, Chris Medvitz, and Howard Werner have rounded out the management of the company, and Lightswitch has established offices across the world—all while completing a number of riveting projects. What follows is a look at some of the milestones in Lightswitch’s history.

Fremont Street Experience
By 1992, 80% of the Las Vegas casino market was on the Strip. In order to draw visitors downtown, a coalition of
hotel and casino owners sought to revitalize the area with The Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall laid out beneath a 1,500'-long barrel roof that also functioned as a video screen. Lightswitch designed the screen, installing lighting strobes in the dome and automated searchlights in a very short amount of time. “It was so much more a team-based project,” Schwab says. “Everyone was marching so quickly in a new direction, there was really no bad source for a new idea.” The screen was later refitted with an LED wall, but the original, installed before the proliferation of LED technology, used red, green, blue, and white lights to create a variety of stunning visual effects.

McDonald’s Worldwide 1998
Every other year, McDonald’s hosts a global meeting that brings together its owners/operators, suppliers, and employees for a range of events, which include general sessions, exhibits, awards ceremonies, and celebrations. When Lightswitch was invited to design the four-day McDonald’s Worldwide event in 1998, it saw more than the opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with a corporate client. “We really wanted to show McDonald’s and the show producer what Lightswitch could do,” Featherstone says. “The project demanded a mix of the intense focus of a high-level business meeting, attention to the details of a great theatre production, and the excitement of a rock show. It was the first of the ‘mega meetings’ we have subsequently lit for McDonald’s and other clients, and we are very proud not only of this show but also our 15-year relationship with McDonald’s.” Lightswitch helped the restaurant chain celebrate its 50th anniversary in Chicago in 2005, and it has since designed many events for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

“Men in Black” at Universal Studios
When it opened in April 2000, Universal Studios’ “Men in Black: Alien Attack” was one of the first attractions Lightswitch had designed in its entirety, giving it an extremely cohesive environment, Schwab says. “‘Men in Black’ wasn’t so siloed that one firm was working on the ride while one was working on the line, retail, façade, and of the area surrounding attraction. We were able to think about it as a whole and break down those traditional boundaries. Sometimes, when you’re spat out of a ride and into the gift shop, you think, I’m only money to these people, and now I’m out of the ride, my experience doesn’t matter. Universal wanted to avoid that and make it feel like a big, cohesive experience. Fifteen years later, which is an eternity in terms of theme parks, it’s still a viable ride.”

Nintendo Wii Launch
The Electronic Entertainment Expo 2006 was the perfect place for Nintendo to unveil its much-anticipated gaming system, Nintendo Wii, an active and animated game platform that departed from the increasingly realistic graphics of other systems. To lead visitors in, the booth designer created concentric circles of soft goods that culminated in a large display of LED fixtures pixel-mapped to video content. “It blurred the lines between media and lighting design,” Medvitz says. “That’s why we call ourselves a visual design firm. The lines are so blurred that we’ve done everything from high-resolution content creation to giving an entire audience active pixels. This was our first big foray into pixel-mapping. It was incredibly efficient from a lighting standpoint because treating the massive number of LED fixtures as video pixels, not lighting devices, is flexible, dynamic, and logical.”

Nissan Auto Shows 2006
One challenge of any trade show is that individual exhibits can feel lost in the overall event. This is especially true atauto shows, and, in an effort to address this, Nissan “wanted to pull ahead with the way they use environmental media, integrating the booth design so that it feels part of a cohesive environment and not just an add-on,” Medvitz says. “Sometimes environmental media looks slapped onto a trade show booth. By integrating them more effectively into the architecture, the video and lighting felt more coherent and cohesive to the design as a whole.” This meant working hand-in-hand with the exhibit designers as early in the process as possible. “Sometimes we’re brought in later, but for Nissan everybody is engaged in the design process, and we have the synergy of putting the technology right into the DNA of the booth.”

The US King Tut Exhibit Tour
In concerts and theatre, light can be a creative force that drives emotions and highlights important elements of the show, but in the museum world, it positively destroys artifacts, damaging any kind of natural media in its glow. “Because of this,” Malkus says, “Lightswitch was careful in its presentation of artifacts from the traveling exhibition of King Tutankhamen’s possessions. We did this by being extremely careful about light levels, maintaining fixtures in their cabinets, and keeping a very tight level of control.”

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
In collaboration with the designer Kyle Cooper, Lightswitch began work on the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in 2008, creating a multimedia system for video playback and content for the show’s environmental design. Through PRG and the Mbox media server technology, Lightswitch developed a program to track video imagery on moving LED panels, using software that identified the on-stage location of the displays at any given moment. “We wanted it to be the physical manifestation of a comic book—poppy, dynamic, exciting,” Werner says. “Mood, tone, and pace changes are very difficult to convey with physical scenery, but this is larger-than-life. The design for Spider-Man captures the sense that a comic book can manipulate the audience’s focus through scale and size. One page can be several smaller frames, while the next is a giant one-or-two-page frame. The team experimented with that scale throughout the production.”

City of Dreams Development and Casino
For its opening in 2009, Lightswitch’s concept for City of Dreams Development and Casino included a marine fantasy show and domed theatre in the middle of the casino’s entrance. “Melco [the developer] was focused on making it an amazing experience,” Featherstone says. “They didn’t say, ‘That’s only a little bit of the show. Let’s cut that.’ They maintained the remarkable pieces and were really vested in the creativity of the project enough to spend the money on short effects. Often, when you cut little moments, you end up with the lowest common denominator. In the process, you gut all the spectacle out of it.” Schwab adds, “It was amazing to be given the opportunity to reimagine the entertainment venue with domed projection interlaced with LED pixels within an elliptical-shaped space with lighting embedded into every nook and cranny. It was fun to spend a million dollars on an effect that lasted 30 seconds and have everyone agree it was worth it!”

theWit Hotel
As a Chicago hotel inspired by the lighter side of travel, theWit seeks to give homage to creativity and expression. Therefore, it was important to the developer that the hotel, which opened in 2009, have a design at once creative and unified—all while meeting the equivalent of LEED status. To accomplish this, the developers tapped Lightswitch to design the entire property, so that every fixture guests saw would be specified by a single company, something quite unusual for a large architectural project. “It really fells like a cohesive space,” Featherstone says.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Unveiling
The dream of private space travel took a big step forward when Virgin Galactic unveiled SpaceShipTwo (SS2) on December 7, 2009 at a remote airport in Mojave, California. While the remote nature of the site forced Lightswitch to be completely self-sufficient in its task of lighting the runway as well as the spaceship, which has the wingspan of a 767, the project was further complicated when hurricane-force winds swooped down on the event after the unveiling. Fortunately, planning on the part of the event producers allowed the production team to evacuate everyone smoothly and no one was hurt, even when the event’s tent collapsed. “I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of our team. It was an incredible event, but when a freak of nature happened, everyone rallied to make sure guests and crew alike were safe,” Featherstone says.

Lionel Richie
Lightswitch designs a variety of concert tours—from Kid Rock to Imagine Dragons—but one of its most lasting artist relationships has been with Lionel Richie. “A hallmark for concert design is understanding what makes a performer tick. Any proficient lighting designer can come up with a cool truss layout,” Medvitz says. “But a show is an extension of the performer’s personality. Lionel was an artist we worked with year after year—he understood what we were doing, and we understood his personality and goals. That symbiosis was crucial, and it helped successfully shape the lighting and media.”

“Drama of Creation” Virginia Natural Bridge Update
If there is one thing the light show at Virginia Natural Bridge has, it is history. The land it sits upon was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and the corresponding light show was inaugurated by Calvin Coolidge in 1927. Many families return annually to see the bridge, so when Lightswitch was commissioned to update the show for the 2013 season, Malkus says it was important that those families “not show up and say, ‘What happened? That’s a landmark in my life, and they’ve destroyed it.’” Thus, the company used a gentle hand in its update, acknowledging the history and the way it was lit by using past presentations as a creative road map, even using the same soundtrack with the improved efficiency of LED lights.

The Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
When Lightswitch was called upon to design the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012, it also took the opportunity to honor one of the company’s foundations—electric light. The 1915 World’s Fair was held in San Francisco and was a touchstone for the proliferation of electric light, the entire area being illuminated by General Electric. The Scintillator, a battery of searchlights on a barge in the Bay, beamed 48 lights in seven colors across San Francisco’s foggy banks. If somehow the city was free of fog, a steam locomotive was on-hand to generate artificial fog. “We wanted to have a nod to the history and how lighting was a really important part of 1915 World’s Fair, and this was the first time some people saw electric light,” says Schwab. In its own version of The Scintillator, Lightswitch loaded a barge with Syncrolites, which it had towed around the harbor, leaving the fog up to Mother Nature.