The creator and host of Grand Designs -— a British TV series featuring unusual architectural home-building projects — got his start in lighting. Appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2014 for services in sustainable design and energy-saving property refurbishment, he’s on a mission to extoll the benefits of upcycling in lighting and beyond.  By Jake Taylor

Although designer Kevin McCloud is best known as the resident architectural expert behind the long-time British TV program Grand Designs, he first got into the industry through his own lighting business in the late 1990s. Through decades of experience, McCloud is not only at the forefront of interior trends, but also dedicated to contextualizing the lighting industry – and design as a whole – within a revitalized culture of sustainability.

Before his big television break, the Cambridge University graduate had set up his first business – Kevin McCloud Lighting – and had published four volumes on decorating and lighting, including Kevin McCloud’s Lighting Book, written in 1995 and still considered a valuable text today.

Along with his degree in Art History, establishing his own lighting business gave McCloud a chance to be involved in some influential projects. His company was behind a series of iconic interiors across the United Kingdom, from the Rococo-inspired vegetative ceiling of Harrods department store to lighting fixtures in some of Britain’s longest-standing buildings, such as the Dorchester Hotel and Edinburgh Castle. McCloud was honored for his innovative lighting design in 2009 with an honorary fellowship of the Society of Light and Lighting. While he is perhaps best known for his architectural expertise, there’s something about the creation of light and lighting that continues to draw McCloud back to the industry time and time again.

“I think the interesting thing about lighting is that lighting isn’t a table, so you’re kind of dealing with the general quality of things,” McCloud explains. “Of course, you’re also dealing with the functionality of being able to see, and good lighting is that which provides you with enough ambient lighting and local air. A lot of what we think of as ‘lighting’ is also stuff we don’t admire as objects; the charming thing about it is that it doesn’t have to weigh three-quarters of a ton, it doesn’t need to be industrial, and it doesn’t need to support the weight of a family of five. It simply has to look beautiful at times.”

While McCloud sees “that Industrial Chic thing is still going on,” complete with “lots of clear bulbs that are glaring straight into the eyes,” his personal preferences are somewhat more understated.

“I’m a big fan of [designer] Tom Dixon,” he says, “I think what Tom’s doing with the materials is really interesting. He’s using lightweight materials and using coatings to create translucency for some lovely, magical effects.”

McCloud’s interest is also piqued by a modern trend for sustainable design. Upcycling, requisition of materials, and ecological ramifications – these are the concepts that excite Kevin McCloud as both a design expert and a keen advocate of sustainability and environmentalism.

“The relationship between making things and sustainability is so essential,” he notes. “In the West, as a society, we’ve lost touch with the value of made things; with the value of raw materials and of the energy required to make things. I don’t just mean fossil fuel energy, but also the human energy. I’m very struck by the fact we’ve got people making lighting out of bits of recycled industrial stuff, or people selling furniture that they’ve handcrafted in small workshops all over the country.”

It’s not just about the use of raw materials in design. Although the procedure intrigues McCloud from start to finish – “what goes in is something dug out of the ground, rough and unprocessed, and what comes out is such beauty” – it’s not enough to craft a beautiful object from a lump of unrefined iron. Modern innovation requires ways to adapt what we already have to a new direction by using the abundance of waste materials to tap into the latent idea of Western culture as a “making society.”

One of his favorite designs in modern day lighting is the Fresnel light created by Dutch designer Dirk Vander Kooij, who was chosen by McCloud as one of his Green Heroes at this year’s Grand Designs Live TV broadcast. “It’s this amazing light made out of melted, old CDs,” he enthuses. “It’s a fantastic example, not of recycling, but of upcycling, where you take something which is redundant, useless, and hard to dispose of, and then turn it into an incredibly beautiful object.”

Therein lies McCloud’s central mission: to reuse soon-to-be-discarded items to provide a fresh take on what’s fashionable in the world of design. “We are all attracted by the bling,” McCloud concedes, [but must] evaluate the strengths of sustainable design when compared to the timeless attraction of expensive, new, creations.

“We love the idea of the new and the fresh, the exciting and the sparkly,” he continues. “I know plenty of kids who are 18 years old and just want to own a Porsche and live in a glamourous flat on the Thames. We’re all vulnerable to the same yearns and deceptions; the trick, of course, is to make the sustainable desirable – actually more desirable.”

McCloud’s penchant for sustainability may, at times, fly in the face of modern-day expectations of new inventions. By his own admission, McCloud left the lighting industry just as newfangled ideas such as the LED were beginning to take flight. “Damn!” he ruefully exclaims about the timing, adding that he still likes to experiment with modern techniques in a way that uses low energy, but provides a great amount of light and desirability. 

“When we build our houses, we want to provide more light, higher ceilings, skylights, extra storage, we try – and basically produce – better architecture, which also happens to be sustainable,” he remarks. “The trick is to make it irresistible, which is why I mentioned the Fresnel light. Yes it’s recyclable, yes it’s LED, and yes it’s low energy…but it’s also beautiful!”

McCloud says he’s a big fan of LED, viewing it as a “very important leap forward in reducing our energy consumption when it comes to modern lighting.” Projects such as the Fresnel, for example, may be made out of the melted remains of defunct CDs, but it is still “lit with LEDs embedded into it.” He likens it to the equivalent of an electric car in terms of combining modern innovation with an ecological aim. “There are electric cars out there that are more exciting, more beautiful, and more sustainable than their petrol equivalent,” he comments. The Fresnel light is an example of modern design wherein aesthetic appeal and environmental friendliness are no longer mutually exclusive concepts.

“That’s the way to do it, not by saying ‘Oh look, don’t buy Versace, buy this hair shirt instead; it’s far more ecological,’” McCloud jokes. “The answer is to make the big surprise that the product is really well-made, that it lasts, and that we don’t succumb to the changing whims of fashion.”

Not that McCloud is in a hurry to stifle the continuous cycle of ingenuity. “My favorite bit of architecture ever is that exciting idea yet to be built,” he says. “Every architectural project starts with the idea, the dream, the reason we all – in my world – do what we do is because we’re fascinated by making, by trying to improve the world, by making it a better place by reinterpreting and altering our environment for the time we are in.”

The modern world is positively stuffed full of designers constantly striving to improve their own techniques and those of their contemporaries, but beset by severe ecological problems that must be considered at all times.

“We need the bigger manufacturers to use sustainable, organic materials, and use them ethically,” McCloud concludes. “If mainstream companies were dedicated to replicating the sort of upcycling that created the idea behind Vander Kooji’s Fresnel light, then the surplus of modern waste that causes problems globally may just become yet another raw material for designers to use in their own visions.

“If you want people to save energy, if you want people to drive electric cars, to walk more, to cycle more, to share more, to buy less and consume less rubbish, to recycle more, then you’ve got to make them value what we have,” McCloud states. “It’s that simple.” 