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Storytelling with Light - Kaci DeLong, Partner at LightHive
July 09, 2022

A conversation with Kaci DeLong, Partner at LightHive

The lighting industry is a vibrant and diverse community. To celebrate this diversity, LightAZ is kicking off a new series of interviews featuring prominent voices in the industry. In this inaugural edition, we sat down with Kaci DeLong, Chicago-based lighting designer and Partner at LightHive to talk about her transition from architectural engineering to lighting design, her storytelling approach and some of her most memorable projects.

How did you get into lighting design?

I studied architectural engineering and didn't really know what the lighting design profession was until I had my first engineering job. I was sitting in a meeting, I was bored out of my mind talking about switchgear rooms not being big enough, typical, and where receptacles go, and I wanted something more to do with what the building looked like and what the space felt like. In walks the lighting designer and I thought, “This is it, that's where I want to be.” I found lighting design and it’s been my passion ever since. My company merged with that lighting design firm in the first year I jumped on board. My boss was phenomenal and taught me so much. At that time, I was in Orlando, Florida but I wanted to be back home in Chicago. So, I came to work here [Chicago] where I worked for two firms, then met my business partner, and joined LightHive.

What drew you to LightHive?

Jennifer Curtis started LightHive in 2015. She was looking for an opportunity to be her most creative self and use her passion for lighting design. She had found that there was plenty of opportunity in Chicago for another lighting design firm. She worked by herself for a while and then realized that she wanted a partner. She wanted someone to grow with, someone to bounce ideas off. So she reached out to me. We had known each other through industry events, and we started talking about the opportunity for me to partner with her and how we would work together. We took a couple personality tests, got to know each other, and it's awesome. We love it. We both work from home but we're talking all day and love being creative: "What do you think about this? Oh, yeah, that's awesome. Did you think about it this way?" It’s a great collaboration.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years?

I feel like most recently, compressed schedules - “How fast can we get it done?” - have been rapidly increasing in the last few years, and not completing the entire design process. Let's just skip the concepts and go straight to design development. How fast can we do this design without taking into consideration the time it takes to be creative and to work with other teams? It's not just me picking out a light fixture for a room. It's also about how it works with the architecture and interiors, how does it make the space feel. And that cannot be done in minutes.

"We use LightAZ because it’s the easiest and fastest way to get what we need."

Kaci DeLong, Partner at LightHive

Another challenge is trying to remember which manufacturer had that one fixture that I need. How do I find all these [fixtures]? Who else has a step light? I mean, there's 5000 light fixture manufacturers! So if you're just trying to keep all those straight in the line and get the most updated information, LightAZ helps with that. And if I create a specification, and then it gets modified, in the past, I might not have known it until construction. But LightAZ tells you if there's a change to your product and being able to react to that in earlier phases of the design process rather than waiting till construction is helpful.

Can you tell us about your design philosophy?

Every space tells a story and we can help tell that story through lighting. Whether it's a restaurant, or it's a lobby, or it's a corridor down a hospital, why are people here? And what are they doing? How should they feel in this space? How do we make someone feel like they should be in this space? Is it a laboratory? Should you feel like you're conducting exploding experiments? Versus a hotel lobby where you feel like you just arrived at your destination and you're excited to be there.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

Aiming is one of my favorites. When the furnishings are installed, furniture and artwork is coming in, and you aim the fixtures to just the right spot. The space illuminates. You get to really see and feel it. That's my favorite.

I do also love coming up with the concept. Hearing the architects pitch on what the space is and why they created it the way they did. Then we get to start talking about what the lighting can do to enhance that and tell the story. It's fun in the beginning, the middle part is a lot of the tough work and then it's really fun at the end to see it all come together.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable project?

London House in Chicago is one of my favorites. It is a historic building converted to a hotel. The architectural and interior teams spoke to the new use of the space but honored the history and architecture. We worked with Chicago’s Historic Preservation Division to highlight the architecture with new technologies and methods while concealing the fixtures. In design we asked, “how do we create this excitement about architecture without just slapping something on that's new and modern? Can we re-wire and re-lamp the existing fixtures? How do you create a connection between the warmer incandescent light or the original building with the new modern glass structure addition?” We spent a significant amount of time coordinating each detail with the architectural and contractor teams for a seamless appearance and an attempt at a seamless install.

Value engineering was tough though. The budget came in high. Everyone needed to pull back: the architect, interior designers, the engineers. It was a fun one with a great design team. The collaboration and excitement for the project inspire me today.

Before we wrap up, I see that LightHive works with underserved communities. What was your inspiration for this?

We feel that everyone deserves a safe, comfortable and enjoyable space. It does not matter where you live, lighting is needed to create that. There's no reason why consideration should not be put into the lighting of all spaces, no matter the socio-economic status of the area.

We're working on the National Museum of Public Housing right now. We're working with the content creators who are producing the exhibits. It is interesting to learn about the history of public housing in Chicago. Part of the exhibit is a historical five-storey walk-up (no elevator) apartment building with the challenge: how do you create an exciting museum that also has modern art and sculpture, but tell the story of historic public housing? Incorporate period fixtures and conceal the track lighting. There is also a low-income housing portion of the building so [we need to] make the exterior feel safe, comfortable and enjoyable for the tenants.

Before we got into the design and coordination, I did not understand the impact that the museum could have on people studying the changes in neighborhoods or where low-income housing is and how it impacts the people and the communities.