The Martin Klaasen Interview:
Executive Member, Chinese Lighting Designer’s Association (CLDA), International Advisory Council (IAC)

Following the recent Lighting Design Agora at the Shanghai International Lighting Fair, illumni caught up with Martin Klaasen, of Klaasen Lighting Design and Executive Member of the Chinese Lighting Designer’s Association, to find out how the inaugural event was received.

Did you find the event a success in terms of your initial goals and how it was received in its first year?
To put my answer in perspective I would first like to clarify my role in and the aim of this event. The Lighting Design Agora (LDA) is the combined brainchild of the Chinese Lighting Designer’s Association (CLDA), it’s international advisory Council (IAC) of which I am an executive member and Messe Frankfurt Hong Kong (MFHK). The LDA aims to bring together lighting designers (international, regional and local), the design & engineering industry (architects, interior designers, electrical engineers), the lighting manufacturers and the key players in the industry like developers, operators, governments and other end users. Each play a role in the final success and quality of a lighting project/ installation and therefore creating a platform for dialogue, communication and value awareness is crucial in creating a better general awareness of the benefits of better quality lighting and lighting design. China is the birthplace of most of today’s LED lighting production so creating an event like the LDA that addresses the (quality) issues at source make total sense. Working from inside out, rather than outside in.

As there is a general perception and stigma attached to the fact that everything that is “made in China” is cheap and of poor quality there is a need to differentiate and separate the perceived “good” and “bad”. Many international manufacturers shun the Hong Kong and Guangzhou lighting fairs for exactly that reason. With the SILF, MFHK is keen to develop a high-quality fair environment that differentiates itself from these (cheap) OEM/ local product driven fairs. Ultimately creating a fair with quality, value and leading innovation that could potentially rival Light & Build in Frankfurt. With that in mind the LDA is an enclosed event inside the general Hall that strictly houses the international sponsoring manufacturers only. It is important to make that distinction and separation. The “centre-court” of the LDA is a speaker’s arena where international and regionally well-known lighting experts share their experience with the public in an intimate and controlled environment. The 3 day event, consist of a two day international event organised by the IAC with international and regional speakers and a third day with local well known lighting designers organised by the CLDA.

The first LDA was held last year on a small scale to try out its formula and assess the response from the audience, participating speakers and international lighting manufacturers. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive which motivated the organisers (MFHK) to dramatically expand the LDA event space for this year to double the size. While the overall Shanghai International Lighting Fair (SILF) is organised by MFHK (with the Guangyia Group), the LDA event program is prepared and managed by the IAC, so I had a vested interest in making this a success. The size and volume of the LDA (>700m2!) looked daunting in preparation, but right from the start on day 1 we attracted a near full house audience which as a big relief. The high attendance was maintained throughout the 2-day international event. In a post debrief we assessed that most our goals in terms of quality speakers, topics and audience reach was well achieved. As we speak the plans for an even better LDA are already set in motion!

How does the agora distinguish itself from the rest of the fair?
As mentioned before the LDA is an event within an event. The main hall is your typical fairground with (for now) mainly local manufacturers booths, similar as what you see in lighting fairs around the world. The distinction is that the LDA is enclosed to make a clear separation between the perceived high-quality international well-known manufacturers and the local manufacturers. With this concept, we aim to build the quality value from inside out.

Which sessions were most attended?
Overall all sessions were very well attended. As the LDA is technically an open walk-in concept, people can join or leave the speaker’s arena at any time depending on their interest in the subject. The event program consisted of 4 sessions. The first day saw presentations about the future of smart lighting and the challenges that the IoT brings to lighting design. The sessions on day two touched upon value creation through lighting design in hospitality and the benefits of good lighting design in commercial environments. At the end of each session I moderated the panel discussions with all the speakers providing a platform for the audience to ask questions to the experts.

Which points raised over the 3 days were most contentious and/ most exciting?
The session topics were selected because of their relevance to the Chinese market, which partly explains the continuous high attendance. There is no doubt that the quality of the speakers and their ability to capture the crowd played a crucial role as well. It is no surprise that smart lighting and lighting and the IoT had peoples interest. However there where two topics that generated my personal attention. The first by our keynote speaker on day two Arjan de Boer, who opened lighting designers’ eyes about how lighting design adds to the value creation and brand image of a hotel sharing actual facts and figures about revenues and brand loyalty. I thought that was real interesting outsiders look at the value of lighting design. The other being Paul Trainor’s take on “Light as a Service”, a topic very close to my own heart which I have included in my own presentations many times. I don’t think we can escape the fact that the world is moving to a service industry and therefore lighting will follow sooner rather than later.

What is your experience of working in china compared to the rest of the world?
To put things in perspective, I worked for Philips Lighting, based in Holland and France in the 80’s, before I moved to Singapore and started my own lighting design practice in the early 90’s. So it is fair to say that reference frame for work for the last 25 years has been mainly Asia Pacific. I started my first project in China in 1995 and have worked on projects in China ever since. Everything in China (and Asia) revolves around money first. If you don’t understand client decisions or contractor actions you can always boil it down to the dollars and cents. Quality is easily sacrificed in the process. There seems to be little pride in achieving quality results. However this is changing. The fact that we can hold our LDA in Shanghai is driven by this wind of change. Were manufacturers in China were initially copying the looks of lighting products, they are now managing to copy / produce the performance quality of lighting products. This is a big step forward. It won’t be long before (if not already) China will be leading innovations in lighting technology with the rest of the world copying the “copiers”.

How do you see practice in China evolving?
The lighting design practice in China is moving along the same lines. From my position in the IAC I have close contacts with the Chinese lighting design fraternity and I can say in acknowledgement that there are some very talented and experienced lighting designers in China. Some run big practices with very successful projects. It is not surprising that these lighting designers are spreading their wings and are starting to work overseas. At the same time we see overseas consultants entering the Chinese market, a big market with many projects, some very big. There is no doubt that there are potential culture clashes in both directions that will need to be overcome. This is where the IAC sees an important task of being the bridge and mentor to those seeking to work in China or abroad. The LDA was brought to life as one of the tools to help bridge these differences and create better awareness and understanding.

What have you learnt from this first event and what will you evolve for the next?
This year’s event was a big step up from last year, bigger venue, higher sponsor quality and nearly full house at each sessions. Still there is room for improvement. Considering the event is only in his second year, it showed great positive vibes for the future. The introduction of a sponsor café proved a great initiative and will be retained in an improved format for next year. The program sessions, speaker quality and level of expertise on display was excellent. Our focus for next year therefore will be specifically on further improving the quality of the audience targeting specifically architects, interior designers, developers and government authorities so that our quality message will reach more important decision makers.