Harriet Forde discusses today’s challenges faced by interior designers when it comes to choosing lighting and accessories
Our latest design interview features globally established interior designer Harriet Forde, founder of Harriet Forde Design, based in North West London. Ross Thornhill, Focus SB product consultant and lighting controls expert, quizzes Harriet on lighting design challenges in a climate of ever-changing technology and asks how manufacturers and suppliers can assist designers and their clients to find the right product and finish for their projects.
RT: One of the common issues you’ve highlighted to me is that there are often too many light switches in any given room. How do you manage client expectations when it comes to striking a balance between desired functionality and simplicity, and does this vary by type of project?
HF: I think we as an industry are probably always forward looking to the ‘next best thing’, which is great in some respects, but clients are not necessarily tech-savvy. It’s important to strike the right balance between giving them a solution that we think works, in terms of scene setting or flexibility with their lighting, but without challenging them too much. More complex systems tend to be more popular with residential clients because they have time to get used to the various setting options. For hotel projects, it can be really challenging, as it’s unreasonable to expect guests to operate a complicated system during a short stay.
RT: And even domestically if you’ve got guests it can be challenging! I share that view because my background is as a lighting controls specialist. Clients who install the same lighting controls systems in multiple properties say in London, Geneva and Los Angeles, for example, typically expect to get the same understanding as to how to use the systems in the respective properties - and of course it doesn’t happen like that. Over the years one observation I, and many others in the industry, have made is that the bigger the project, the less the client seems to want complicated lighting controls. It’s almost going in the reverse of how things used to be.
HF: I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve had clients saying ‘I want toggle switches, just give me toggle switches… that’s all I want!’.
RT: Yes, because clients realise the complications with some lighting control systems, and the truth is if you use an analogy of the old video recorders, once someone’s got through the initial setting up stage there’s probably only two or three settings they’ll ever use… it’s almost a waste. Perhaps Bluetooth controls are right for some people? But again, people tire of these things in my opinion.
HF: I think the most useful thing about a whole building system is the ability to switch all lights off via one switch at the front door; a master switch is probably the best. And possibly the ability to have lights set up to switch on remotely when you’re not in the building for security. A master switch saves having to go up to the top of the building to turn the lights off in the kids’ bedrooms! But you can’t do that without wiring the whole house up.
RF: No, you do need a system of sorts. But it can be simplistic.
HF: Yes, for instance, my own lights are on a system which has an app, although I don’t have it on my ‘phone. I’m happy to stand up to change a light switch!
RT: We can make an excuse that we are of a certain age where maybe technology goes over our heads… but that’s not the case.
HF: No it’s not. And, say on a dark morning in the winter, or on a Sunday morning when I want to stay in bed and read my papers, it’s fair enough to control the lighting remotely. And I like the idea of having electric curtains, though I don’t have them myself. But I agree with you, you have to be careful about the level of complexity.
RT: As an interior designer, in terms of simplifying information from manufacturers like us, in electrical accessories, and maybe educating and getting over what we do, how do you feel we could do this better or more simply?
HF: Do you do CPDs?
RT: We don’t at the moment, but we’re gearing up to doing these in the near future.
HF: CPDs would be a good thing. Because of all the changes that go on; for instance with lighting, we specify less, because of all the LED fittings. When it was tungsten, we just needed to decide how to dim it; everything dimmed, it was all straightforward - now it’s not. So we often use lighting designers to assist us, and we might only get as far as the faceplates. It’s good to have some knowledge, and I do think educating us constantly about changes in technology is a good thing.
RT: You’re certainly correct about the compatibility of lighting, it’s constantly changing. And, you and I might sit down here and agree on a specification for a project and certain parameters regarding which luminaire or lighting control will work; the problem is that two years down the line when it actually gets installed, the specification could have changed. The client may have had carried out a value engineering exercise, you’ll go and install it, send your people down to commission the system and set it all up, and then... it doesn’t work correctly. Not our fault of course - unknown to us the client has purchased alternative lighting products without checking suitability for use with lighting control systems.
HF: Yes, exactly. So I think dedicated CPDs about specific things is probably a good way to go.
RT: From your point of view, in terms of information about products, where do you normally source your information?
HF: I would go on to the website, but it can be overwhelming. It took me a long time to understand that the plates were separate from the modules; what the modules did or didn’t do, and how the modules need to relate to what you’re putting into the ceiling or whatever.
RT: To make things simpler for the customer selecting our products we catalogue and list the products as complete assemblies (rather than individual modules and faceplates). For example, a 4 gang rocker switch which would typically be on a double sized face plate would be classed as one product and given a specific part number. Other manufacturers might list this as possibly 5 or 6 items. In the event of an unusual combination of switches and, say dimmer modules being called for on the one faceplate - we would simply give this product a unique part number.
RT: Are there any specific publications you refer to?
HF: I really enjoy reading darc (Decorative Lighting in Architecture). I thought I’d find it a bit dry, but actually, I find it very instructive. They’re always highlighting interesting projects and products.
RT: In terms of Focus SB, what kind of improved solution could we offer in addition to brochures and sample services. If we were to do CPDs as you’ve mentioned, or perhaps informative blog posts?
HF: Yes, agreed, both would be useful.
RT: How best do interior designers prefer to digest product information - manufacturer/supplier website or another platform?
HF: We don’t really use brochures anymore, so I will go onto websites and digest stuff. I think what might be useful is if you had a section on the website specifically for designers, maybe giving us some technical information, but without the level of detail that somebody else specifying might want. Perhaps giving us the option of viewing more detail. What we’re looking for is within the product ranges, what’s going to fit, and if we need something unusual. So finishes, how the box fits into the wall; we’re looking at the faceplate, screw or screwless; flexibility of special finishes.
RT: So essentially certain technicalities are not really what you’re after.
HF: No, for example, we might know that in those areas we’re going to need double sockets and single sockets; we may want USB ports - USB ports on faceplates are brilliant by the way! We’ll know we need a shaver socket in the bathroom, but we’re not going to worry too much about how that’s going to be wired back, we don’t buy back boxes…
RT: So, you need to know the plates will fit in standard back boxes because your installer will be putting those in. If it’s a bespoke unit you need to know more information up front. And obviously what the product looks like in as high definition as possible.
HF: Yes, exactly.
RT: To a degree, I think we’re achieving that with our website since its recent update. More of a trade type website before, we understand that our out front customers are interior designers and architects, so we’ve tried to tailor the redesign to suit. We continue to welcome suggestions from interior design professionals such as yourself as to how we can continue to improve the website - it’s useful to hear thoughts from your perspective.
HF: For interior designers and architects, you want really clear images without any colour in the background, so that they can be picked off and used directly onto mood boards, without having to get rid of that ‘yellow wall behind it’. Plus maybe a couple of tabs with technical specifications and CAD blocks, and then you don’t distract with lots of technical information. Some companies who offer light fittings like Astro have a nice clear website.
RT: I guess recommendation plays quite a strong part in your selection of manufacturers and products, and probably your services?
HF: Yes, as customers, the better the interaction we have with you, the more likely we are to buy from you. Simple. Good customer service is extraordinarily important.
RT: Yes, I agree. We constantly strive to maintain good customer service as a priority, and have recently appointed dedicated customer services staff, in addition to expanding the sales office team. We are mindful of how unexpected challenges arise when specifications change, and are keen to assist our customers as best we can during those times. The old days of the architect offering consultancy services have gone, it doesn’t quite work that way now. Yes, they’ll have an input in terms of technical consulting, in terms of electrical standards, but very often they’ll leave that open, and unfortunately it’ll be people like yourself that are left to deal with this aspect; and in many cases it’ll also be the electrical contractor where the VE (value engineering) part of it can creep in and rock the boat.
HF: Yes, exactly. We never have any complaints about your products, so you’re quite safe!
RT: In terms of the electrical contractor, do they influence your decision on anything?
HF: Only if we start asking for some of the more expensive finishes, but generally we don’t get any push back from them.
RT: Final question Harriet. How could Focus SB as a company further assist you regarding product choice for yourself and your clients? One thing we haven’t discussed is product samples.
HF: We have one of your samples that we liked. We’ve spec’d it a few times because it’s unusual - a white plate rather than a metal finished plate. I’m reluctant to have a lot of samples in the office, but a board of samples of switches and sockets that clients could touch and feel would be useful. Maybe you have boards you can lend us? The main thing for clients to understand is the difference between a flat-faced plate that has to have screws on it, and a plate with a slight profile that clips on, but with no screws.
RT: We do have small displays we put together for trade counters, the problem is, because we offer such a wide variety of finishes and styles, it’s sometimes difficult to tick all the boxes. Of course there is always the option of visiting one of our stockists and distributors. A number of these will have displays of our products and finishes. Fortunately, there are a fair number of these in London, many close to tube stations and often open on Saturdays as well as weekdays.
HF: Most of the time we’re choosing your flat plates, so if you could have a row of them in one colour to keep it simple, then you could have the finishes all along the bottom in chips. For some clients, even with this they wouldn’t be able to understand the options, but we do, and can order what they want. And how about a showroom that’s more appealing than an electrical suppliers, where we could take a client to view samples?
Please visit Harriet Forde Design to discover more about Harriet’s comprehensive interior design services for bars, restaurants, hotels, commercial property and homes.
Ross Thornhill was formerly Focus SB's North London product consultant. Please contact us to request brochures or for an introduction with your local consultant.
Focus SB has opened a showroom available for customer use, and we also offer factory tours at our head office in St Leonards-on-Sea. Please contact us to book an appointment.