ByD+ Hervé Descottes


In 1993, Hervé Descottes co-founded the lighting design firm L’Observatoire International in New York City after eight years of design practice in Paris, France. Descottes personally creates the lighting concepts for all projects designed by L’Observatoire, and oversees project development through project completion.

ByD+ spoke to Hervé from Milan.

Hervé on light(s)

HD: I always say, working on projects is like having kids. You love all of them and you take care of all of them. We don’t have favorites, but some require a bit more attention, the difficult ones shall we say? It’s a collaborative and a long process. It's a lot of dinners, breakfasts, lunches and of course, wine.


packing light

Photography Maxime Verret, courtesy of Hermès.

HD: Being here for Milan Design week is super exciting. However, it's not unusual for me, traveling is a part of the job. This is the job description for lighting designer- you have to be able to travel, work on a ladder and enjoy working at night! Without these criteria working in my profession would be a challenge. Travel is especially important- we have projects all though the United States; including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and we work in Australia, Europe, the UK and we have projects coming up in Africa. I actually recently completed a project in Accra, the capitol of Ghana.


Manhattan to Milan

HD: Milan is buzzing like crazy! We opened on Monday, but last week it was already almost impossible to get a reservation at a restaurant. I think it would help to have relatives in the hospitality industry, just to secure a table!

L’Observatoire has set the lighting for the Salone of Hermès. Hermès presents new furniture, fabrics, art, tableware… many things, every year. We collaborate with Hermès to make these exhibits happen and it is a delight. We started working with Hermès when we created the lighting design for their store in Paris, on the Left Bank, in 2011. Some of the projects we have collaborated on have come to fruition and some haven’t, this is normal. This particular Salone that opened on Wednesday has been an 8 month endeavor.


permanent fixtures vs temporary fittings

HD: Temporary is good. The pressure is different. Mind you the stress associated with temporary exhibits is that everything must work on opening day! Some of the older projects I have worked on need renovating, I’m getting so old now! People call me and ask if I can renovate a project I completed 25 years ago. Renovation can be adopting new technologies and sometimes there will be updates to a floor plan. For example- if a wall moves in a gallery you need to adapt the lighting accordingly.


ter·roir /terˈwär/ (noun) the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

HD: The environment we create through lighting design in is a very important part of our philosophy. We put the project in context by acknowledging; the location, the identity, (which can mean; who is the architect, landscape architect or designer) and then of course, the purpose. With those three elements every project is extremely contextual and therefore are all unique.


bright lights

HD: I have experienced great collaborations with many very strong architectural identities. There is this story from very early on. I was working with Steven Holl on a museum and with Frank Gehry for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I would have a meeting with Steven, who would say, “I don't want to see the light source, it must be hidden, you must create light pockets." So we would separate the wall from the ceiling to hide the light source. When I went to a meeting with Frank, he said, "there is no way I will separate the wall from the ceiling, my spaces are about volume and I don't care where in the space you put the light. But don’t separate the wall from the ceiling!" Both brilliant strong willed architects but very different. When I commenced those projects my English was even worse than it is now, but actually the language barrier helped me a lot- I was working with naivety! It also really helped that I wanted to find a solution for everything. I couldn’t consider failing.



HD:To me, the worst thing that could happen is that someone would say, 'it looks like a lighting designer worked on that project.' I want my work to be so integrated in the philosophy and the spirit of the building, without any ego. My ego should be invisible. It's the same in the cinema, you have for example a director of photography; if they are too strong it overrides the whole, the images take over the story. The image has to compliment the story. What I am lighting is the story. If the lighting has too much of a presence it's not correct.


luminous flux

HD: I have a fabulous team around me. The only way to do great projects and good work is with such a team. They work really hard and they believe in what they are doing; they must because it's super demanding at every level. We are 40 people in the office, with sometimes 5 people working on each project. We are very busy, we do great work and without the team, we would get no where.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photography by Studio Dubuisson

shedding new light

HD: I would love to show you my favorite example of my lighting of an existing object, The Metropolitan Museum. It will have to wait a week until we are back in New York. I use this example every time I do lighting design lecture. When we were engaged the building was lit from the other side of the street. It made the building look so flat. We brought the lighting onto the façade itself and hid every light source. The result, is that now the building glows from the inside out.


good design and why is it important?

HD: Good design is when my heart beats faster.. it's important because I like to feel something.


lightbulb moments?

HD: I do nothing specific. I live life, drinking, partying, seeing my friends and flying on airplanes. I wake up from dreams with new ideas and I dream when I am awake.


Thank you Hervè for your time.



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