Lighting designer extraordinaire Nathan Orsman proves that, whether it’s a living room in need of beautifying, an office in need of brightening or a garden in need of bewitching, the darkest hour is the one before he gets there.
When he arrived in the United States from Australia more than 14 years ago, self-taught lighting designer Nathan Orsman had no idea he’d eventually be running his own business specializing in illuminating the lives, both indoor and outdoor, of residential, commercial and institutional clients from St. Barths to Palm Beach to NYC and the Hamptons.
“Do you see the undulation?” he asks on a gusty March afternoon inside the West Village’s Maccarone Gallery, where he’s responsible for lighting the art. He talks about the play of light and dark on a wall, which at first is tricky for an untrained eye to discern. His design, consisting primarily of flexible tracks mounted with “heads”—with six LEDs each (a choice he largely avoids in residential installations)—is flexible so it can flatter a variety of the gallery’s exhibitions, often on temporary partitions or with new windows cut clear through an exterior wall. Among the recent beneficiaries of his talents are works by artists Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Carol Bove, though elsewhere he’s had the “enlightenment” of many an Old Master under his charge.
Standing a rangy 6-foot-4, with a twinkle in his eye and a “sixth sense”-like ability to see things others can’t, Orsman is likely hard to resist when he’s putting forth a plan, whether for a pool, a pergola, an elegant dining room, an outdoor sculpture garden, a rooftop garden or a dramatic colonnade.
Though he never formally trained as a lighting designer, he learned the trade on his first jobs, and five years ago hung out a shingle for Orsman Design Inc. He now has more than a dozen employees and operates offices in New York and Southampton. He’s become an essential player in early-stage conversations with architects and landscape designers, particularly when speaking in the vernacular of dimmers and modulators and diodes and knife-edge coves.
When planning lighting schemes, the flow of movement and the experience one has in a space are of paramount importance, Orsman says. Like an architect, he discusses “hierarchy and ceremony and procession” with his clients. After developing his concepts for a project, the designs are rendered and documented using CAD.
After approval, procurement and installation can begin.
Among Orsman’s most exciting projects of late are a 170-foot yacht that gave him a “massive sense of satisfaction”; moving light walls; and residential architectural light features resembling giant cubes (one with a bathroom inside) that are lit from within—pink, lavender, pick a color—through intricate fretwork.
“It’s far better for me when the client is involved in the process—if they’re to be happy, they have to be involved,” he says. “It’s difficult to design in a vacuum, because it’s not about me.”
On the technical-innovation front, less-than-ideal color rendering is one of the reasons that the switch from incandescent light sources to LEDs—particularly on interior residential projects (where 80 percent of his clients remain devoted to Thomas Edison)—has been gradual rather than abrupt, Orsman says. But things are changing.
“Dim-to-warm technology will be the next big thing to hit residential lighting,” Orsman says. “The concept is to mimic what happens with incandescent/halogen technologies, which naturally become warmer when dimmed. LED temperatures remain constant, so this progression will truly allow us to create the warmth we’re so innately attuned to.”
As for the future of the field, Orsman, who derives most of his commissions from personal referrals, is optimistic.
“Lighting design is most certainly becoming more important as the years progress. Too often [in the past we learned] post-installation how much the medium of lighting can affect your interpretation of a space. Through light, we can cover up the ugly and make the ordinary beautiful.”