Musician and lighting designer Mike Brannon of Lightlink Lighting in Texas bridges the creative gap between the natural and industrial design worlds.
From left to right: the Dichroic Temple accent lamp, the Northern Lights suspended sculpture made of fiberoptic mesh between two layers of dichroic eco-resin internally lit by LEDs, and Sputnik made with 25-inch fluorescent green acrylic rods lit with LED (photo by A. Hoertz).
EnLIGHTenment Magazine: How does a professional musician become interested in lighting design?
Mike Brannon: I’ve always been interested in the psychology of music/art and that has expanded into the psyche of design and architecture. It becomes the ‘why’ of our choices in living, the surroundings we choose, and what resonates with us. It reflects who we are, like a signature.
I see as many similarities in music and art/lighting as there are differences. I think there are both left and right brain components to creating, relative to one’s personality. In music I’ve found great musicians running the continuum — there are flat-out soul-based (intuitive) improvising players who trust in their ears, memory, and the moment to create in real time and then there are the highly analytical types who practice and plan incessantly, often sounding mechanical in performance.
I seek a balance, or Zen perspective, between the left and right sides of the brain. In lighting, the original draw was a need for both lighting and furniture after my home renovation with my dad, so I started designing and building both. In the process I realized I had a modern aesthetic drawing from Mid-Century modern, Asian modern, and Arts & Crafts. During that process, I ended up learning more about myself. I picked up skills beyond woodworking and wiring. Ultimately [as a designer], you wear a lot of hats. I have a lot of very talented friends, too.
EM: Growing up, what career interested you?
MB: I was drawn to everything from geology and paleontology to psychology, art/drawing, sculpting, woodworking/industrial arts, and even rifle range competition. I also did a lot of rock and fossil hunting as a kid and being amazed at the array of forms and diversity under our feet just throughout a given area. We walk among the most amazing natural structures every day. In art and design, we see in one way; in science, another, but we’re all expressing and learning aspects of the same thing from different perspectives.
I was definitely interested in music, art, and composition [as a hobby], and later professionally. I get inspiration from geometric forms, fractals, astronomy, constellations, and images (i.e. northern lights, planetary motion, stellar events, bioluminescence), natural forms (i.e. crystallography and desertscapes), modern architecture, and abstract art.
EM: When did you become interested in lighting?
MB: In high school, I loved black lights and posters [and noticed] various frequencies of light reflected back different effects. I still have a lava lamp!
Looking back, I realize that some of my first inspiration came from the awareness of sunlight’s effects on what it hits throughout the day as well as from starlight refracting light into its respective red and blue shifts. The Northern Lights have always been intriguing, along with the science behind them. Even the relationship between the Sun and the Earth is inspirational visually and magnetically. The more you learn about something, the greater the mystery. I’ve also been inspired by fireworks, stained glass, lasers, holographics, fluorescents, and prisms. Some materials set up a visual rhythm, be it shadows and light created by geometric forms, bamboo blinds, or perforated metals.
Almost anything can be made or repurposed into lighting; inspiration can come from anywhere. There are relationships between even the most disparate forms and underlying elements to the universe to use as we will.
Northern Lights is an illuminated sculpture made of fiberoptic mesh sandwiched between two layers of dichroic eco-resin illuminated internally by two low-voltage LEDs and suspended by thin stainless steel cables.
EM: What was your first experiment with lighting?
MB: The first light I ever made as a kid was a plywood light box with one wavy glass brick backed with Christmas Lights that would flash on a delay in various ways. I remember that it got so hot, I had to drill holes in it.
As a grown up, the first lighting design I did (which became the start of Lightlink Lighting) came from materials left over from a renovation: scrap steel, aluminum, hardwood, textured architectural glass, and hardware. The first prototypes looked like industrial versions of Japanese lanterns, with steel frames wrapped in handmade Thai art papers and operated by touch dimmers. I envisioned it as having Zen/Industrial balance; almost a metaphor for the natural and industrial worlds. The light through the paper was so intriguing, friends asked me to make more. I later sold them through home design stores and galleries throughout the Southwest.
EM: How did your skill set and level of materials evolve?
MB: Through the [design] process, I learned a lot about my own evolving aesthetic – Modern, Minimalist, Zen/Industrial – and found myself editing my spaces and life more and more, choosing less visual noise and quality over quantity. The less we have, the more we value what we have left.
Dichroic film/glass, diffraction gratings, and optical resonance materials have always inspired me. It’s hard not to see hints of sunsets, Northern Lights, and galaxies in the colors of their filtered light. Paired with perforated materials or architectural glass that bends/distorts light, [I can create] visual rhythms like in my Dichroic Twig and Temple series. As LEDs and OLEDs [improve] we can remove or minimize visual distractions such as wiring, suspension, light source, power supplies/feed. It’s about the experience, not the infrastructure. It’s funny about the resurgence of the magnetic resonance induction wireless technology lately. I’m all for it – if it’s healthy – but [inventor] Nikola Tesla was doing all this and much more 120 years ago. I love technology, but I am really just emulating nature.
My first basic forms were of cubes/verticals, then came columns, triangulations, bursts, planes, and rings. For example, the square Quads led to the tubular Dichroic Twigs – only the shape and material changed. I consider orientation and size, new materials (i.e. fluorescent acrylics, eco-resins, perforated metals, tech hardware, found objects), techniques, and light sources. From one design to the next, usually only two or three parameters would change; it’s been a natural design evolution.
EM: You are environmentally conscious. Tell us about some of the materials you repurposed?
MB: Being green and sustainable is no fad. It’s been important since I was a kid protesting the cutting of Redwoods for lawn furniture. My first series was created with handmade, recycled Thai art papers, bamboo and bamboo veneers, repurposed hardwoods, and found objects. I’ve made lighting out of a discarded metal CD tower, bamboo mats, glass vases, veneers, scrap acrylic, computer parts, and industrial scrap.
The ebony/calcite series came about when I was working with scrap milled calcite rods to combine with naturally harvested Texas Ebony; one of the hardest, heaviest, densest woods in the world. I sliced turned pieces to get a square channel inside for a light source and drilled lateral holes for the calcite rods to carry the light. To me, they look like natural stoplights.
EM: What has been your most challenging project?
MB: For TEDx Austin last year, the producers asked us to create unique art lighting that would inspire the conference and touch upon its theme of “Fearless.” In addition to amazing speakers, the five top chefs in Austin and one from Japan were working with an ancient Japanese cuisine philosophy involving five colors that were to be articulated in what we designed. To top that off, TEDx was held at the brand new $100 million Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 Grand Prix racetrack. Talk about disparate elements! Plus, it had to be designed without even seeing the space.
It took a lot of thought, but considering Ockham’s Razor (the simplest answer being the best), I started to collect relevant elements while trying to stay minimalist. Watching the latest Ferraris circle the track the day before, I considered the shape of the first turn of the track as well as the efficient contours of the F1 car’s body, which manifested as a sine-wave shape. For the color scheme, I knew multiple layers of dichroic film would create the colors requested – and what’s more, they’d act as both mirror and light filter, bouncing colors between the layers, which the LEDs would cycle.
At 3/8″ thick and 10 feet long, it was incredibly thin and needed very low-profile illumination – LED strips or edge-lit fiber – plus stability, so we threaded stainless cable through it to lock it into the wave shape. Since I also wanted it to appear to float, I chose the 1/16” stainless cable to suspend it with the power hidden in a suspended ceiling over the media lounge. The LEDs were set on a slow RGB color-changing program so there was a sense of barely perceived change over time. Shape, form, color palette, the element of time, space, and a sense of floating timelessness were all addressed as well as relevance to the site and event.
It was a definite challenge, education, and journey. It’s hard to believe it was all even possible. The outcome was unexpected; it looks like alien technology. It’s always good to be open and work without expectations.
EM: What keeps you inspired?
MB: I think vision and persistence keep you going; the desire to see it exist. Inspiration is a fickle thing, but when it hits you have to stay with it to find out where exactly it will take you. If you don’t, you’ll always wonder and never know what could’ve been. It’s a choice. If we stay with it over and over as inspiration appears, we build neural networks that are better equipped to handle the next flow. In recording music, I used to judge myself way too soon. Later, I learned to step away for a while and was glad I did. Sometimes what seems less than stellar is just a matter of perception.
I honestly don’t think I’ve mastered anything or ever will, which is good, as it keeps you striving and in the moment.
EM: Where do you see the company going?
MB: Right now it’s mostly me with an architect and artist friends as needed, so it’s a collective at times. Working with designers and architects to realize their visions and offering [an approach] they might not have considered to realize their goals is what I enjoy: that collaboration and interactivity, the synergy of combined creativity and the unexpected. After all the great shows, galleries, museums, clients, projects, and collaborations over the past 18 years, there’s still a lot to be said for being close to the creative action and making your own decisions. It’d be great to become a larger dedicated artisan shop, too.
Music and lighting design seem to feed and balance each other at this point. Besides [my music] with Synergy Quartet Synergy (www.cdbaby.com/synergy www.cdbaby.com/synergy2), I have three to four new recording projects developing and am starting to write new music again. I have a good feeling about 2014.
To see more lighting designs by Lightlink, visit Houzz.com/pro/guitarspeak, Pinterest.com/lightlink and www.LightlinkLighting.com.