Ross Nicholson was playing in an obscure rock ’n’ roll band eight years after leaving high school, when one day he saw the light.
“I realized that the only culture I was absorbing was bacterial in nature,” he says, “so I went to university to expand my horizons.”
Nicholson initially studied industrial design before completing a masters degree in architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Born in Gatineau, Que., in 1958, he had grown up in the nation’s capital where his father, James (Jim) Nicholson, worked as a chemist for the National Research Council.
While at university, he gravitated toward lighting which, the way Nicholson describes it, seems to hold a connection to the better aspects of his rock ’n’ roll past.
“It’s emotional, perceptual, almost visceral, technical, but mostly it’s fun,” says Nicholson of his (ahem) brilliant career as an award-winning lighting designer. “It’s also quite intrinsically rewarding, and cheaper than therapy.”
Nicholson’s first job right out of university was with Ottawa lighting designer Phil Gabriel, whom he credits for giving him a solid background in design principles and practice, as well as access to project opportunities.
Eventually, he was creating his own lighting fixtures, or luminaries as they are called in his industry, relying on a software lighting algorithm and interface he developed which accurately reflects natural lighting design processes.
His job can be complicated but in essence he creates and controls brightness on large-scale architectural projects, ranging from shopping malls and illuminated bridges to museum exhibits and urban planning. “I juggle the sometimes conflicting needs of the functional requirements for lighting, the desire to create an aesthetically appealing visual landscape, the need to help people intuitively navigate the spaces they travel in, reinforce the strengths of the architecture, minimize equipment cost, figure out how it’s controlled, and control how hard and expensive it is to maintain,” Nicholson explains.
His current projects include the faculty of social sciences building at Ottawa University, the Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts at Queen’s University and the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa.
In his spare time, he creates light-art projects for the Candela Light-Art Exhibition in Ottawa, the IIDEX design and architecture show in Toronto and LightFair International in New York.
Allowing that it is hard to create good lighting without good architecture, Nicholson generally works closely with architects, including Diamond and Schmitt in Toronto, Snohetta in New York and Douglas Cardinal in Ottawa.
Some of these collaborations have resulted in award-winning projects, among them the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Grand Hall exterior and Les Promenades St-Bruno shopping mall in Quebec.
After a decade of working with others, Nicholson, a single dad with a 10-year-old son, started his own practice.
He says he is now committed to sharing the light, so to speak, with as many people people as he can.
“I run a one-man shop,” he says, “but I get the opportunity to pass on some of what I know by teaching part-time at Carleton in the school of industrial design.
“Teaching is a blast, because there are lots of keen, sharp minds looking for new avenues of exploration.”