The hallmark of a good landscape lighting designer is to enhance an environment without distraction while accommodating the need for increased beauty, safety, and security.

I sat down with renowned lighting designer James Solecki – who is the founder and director of Island Villa Lighting in the Turks and Caicos islands and sits on the board of directors for ILLI – to discuss the evolving world of landscape lighting and the mission of the non-profit International Landscape Lighting Institute (ILLI), which offers instruction, hands-on training, and peer-mentoring to advance excellence in the field of landscape lighting design.

Linda Longo: What was the impetus for starting up the association?

James Solecki: As the lighting industry has been booming with the advent and adoption of LED technology, the landscape lighting industry has been steadily growing, too. There are more manufacturers than ever, producing a wider range of products than we have seen before. There are also more contractors, and Landscape Lighting has seen a steady growth in demand as people have become accustomed to improving their outdoor living spaces.

Tony Lato

The shadows that a fixture creates can be just as important to the overall aesthetic as the illumination quality.

With this growth in both demand and supply, the need for professional education has never been stronger.  ILLI was formed and continues to adapt to accommodate this need, focused squarely on teaching people how to design spectacular landscape lighting systems.

LL: With the advent of LED technology and the fact that it continues to evolve, what have been the challenges to landscape lighting designers?

JS: LED has been revolutionary to the landscape lighting industry. It has provided us with the ability to put exacting levels of light just where we need it and from a multitude of different types and styles of sources. High-output fixtures have reduced drastically in form factor and size, and all manner of new products have changed the way that we apply light to both landscape and architecture.

Keeping up with all of these changes has been a challenge! Thankfully, ILLI is supported by some fantastic, industry-leading manufacturers. These companies generously donate materials that allow us to keep our fleet of fixtures and components up to date so that our IC participants have the ability to use the latest and greatest materials in their mock-ups. All of the materials are updated regularly; it is inspiring to watch as IC participants come up with novel ways of using the components in real-world applications.

LL: The organization has changed a bit since it was founded in 1990 by renowned lighting designer Jan Lennox Moyer. Tell me how the focus has been redefined?

JS: Just as the lighting industry has been changing, so has ILLI. While the goal has always been to disseminate landscape lighting information in an effort to improve a designer’s skills, we have been hard at work to refine our process and make it more approachable and in tune with the market needs.

Landscape lighting design cannot be taught only by sitting in a classroom. At ILLI, we have an unparalleled opportunity to put lighting designers in a real world setting and allow them to design, install, and refine using a large fleet of components so that they can put all of the techniques that others talk about into action.

No one else in the industry has successfully empowered designers by allowing them to experience a job site without the pressure of a client, timelines, and budget. The Intensive Course (IC) delivers that unique opportunity. The course is taught by a team of industry leaders and guest lecturers, placing the participants in the highly capable hands of a team of mentors. Each small team of participants is charged with creating a design and then mocking up that design in a series of iterations until the final “reveal.”

The goal of the IC is to complete the landscape lighting mockup. The attendees share their installation with the public on the last night of the class. Typically, the “reveal night ceremony” hosts between 50 to 100 local industry and non-industry guests to enjoy the landscape lighting installation in person.

Landscape lighting School

IC participants utilize an assortment of innovative products from an impressive mix of manufacturers to effectively illuminate a challenging installation.

LL: What is the criteria for being a mentor?

JS: The ILLI Mentor Teams are made up of an exceptional group of people who share a passion for lighting design and want nothing more than to see better landscape lighting everywhere. They are all graduates of the IC, have diverse backgrounds, and continue to stay in touch and help each other even when the class is not in session.

LL: Who is eligible to become an ILLI member?

JS: We currently offer a corporate membership for $1,000 and will be rolling out our individual membership program this month. Eventually we will have different levels of individual membership, catering to various segments of the industry.  Individual memberships will be $150 and will be open to anyone.

LL: Is membership mostly among professionals in North America?

JS: ILLI is truly an international organization, with directors, members, and graduates from all around the globe. Lately we have seen a spike of interest coming from people outside of North America. We are lucky to have relationships with other organizations that continue to promote us. For example, the IALD has sponsored three attendees for many of the past classes from Europe and Asia. In 2017, we hosted a class in Japan and all of the graduates from that class were from Japan, Thailand, and India.

LL: The Spring 2020 ILLI Intensive Course is next month (March 26-30) at Mercer Botanic Gardens in Humble, Texas. How are locations selected?

JS: We are always on the look-out for willing partners with excellent venues that will allow the attendees to learn from exposure to challenging and lovely gardens with architectural features. Our Board of Directors and Task Forces work closely together to identify potential locations, and then we simply approach those places and hope to find some synergy and willingness.

We are very excited to be partnering with the Mercer Botanic Gardens and they, in turn, are excited to host us as we are bringing a new way of seeing landscape lighting to the public. They are hosting a party for the reveal night ceremony on Monday, March 30.

LL: Are the Intensive Courses the only educational opportunities for members outside of general networking, or are there other opportunities?

JS: Currently we are offering two ICs per year. In the near future, we hope to change our format a little by offering basic and pre-requisite online courses. Once these are up and running we may be able to reduce the intensive nature of the IC courses and introduce more portable and frequent programs.

Our Board of Directors and our various Task Forces keep a regular schedule of online meetings. The board meets online weekly and most of the Task Forces meet online bi-weekly. Beyond that, email is widely used to keep in touch with members, IC participants, and sponsors.   

LL: What are some of ILLI’s most immediate, as well as long-term, goals?

JS: One of our immediate goals is to engage more past IC graduates into the Mentor teams and Task Force committees. We are also going to be launching our individual membership program very soon and will be making a big push to get people signed up and engaged.

We are always on the look-out for more help in the form of Sponsors and Corporate Members and hope that as our membership base and reputation grows that more lighting businesses will see the value in becoming involved. Lastly, once we can move some of our programming over to an online model, we hope to be able to expand the IC offerings to three courses per year, with one being focused on an international location.