Creating an enlightening experience

Q & A with lighting designer Brian Toner.

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Lighting is the fairy dust at events, the invisible element that transforms a room from boring to beautiful. The most stunning centerpieces, table linens, menu cards and product displays are for naught if the space is poorly lit. Especially for evening events, lighting is critical. Brian Toner, owner of Eventions Productions in Philadelphia, Pa., says that a lighting designer is equal parts artist, electrician, installer and troubleshooter. I spoke with Toner to better understand how lighting design sets the mood for tented events.

Q: How important is event lighting in tents?

A: The saying “it’s all about the lighting” is 100 percent accurate. Inadequate lighting means you lose the subtlety and beauty of the decoration or the power of drama. But lighting is also about utility and safe egress. It all starts with a proper lighting plan, which incorporates food preparation and cooking areas, and stage and performance spaces, especially if there are video cameras or digital backdrops involved. One of the most important elements to light correctly is dinner tables. Nothing makes great food look worse than the wrong color light. Would you want to eat a green steak?

Q: Is lighting part of the event fabric these days, or is it still a struggle to justify in terms of budgets and planning priorities?

A: Five years ago, very few end clients were knowledgeable about event lighting. Due to publications, blogs and social media, times have changed. As a result, a new challenge has arisen. Many event professionals such as entertainment companies, DJs, venues, photographers, etc., have seen the increase and now sell lighting services. Nine out of 10 times this ends up being a disservice to the overall look of the event. Imagine a winter white wedding and then a DJ bringing in spinning red and purple lights, ruining the look of the entire space carefully crafted by the event designer.

Q: With other event professionals such as entertainment companies selling lighting, how does your approach as a lighting designer bring something more to the table?

A: A lighting designer¬†brings a wealth of knowledge to an event. The designers in our company have architectural, theater or event design backgrounds. ¬†We also understand how proper lighting affects the photography and videography of an event. We design not just for the look of the event on the actual day, but also for the proper lighting for the client’s images, which will last forever.

Q: How do you assess an outdoor or tented space for lighting?

A: A tented lighting design typically starts with seeing the drawing and/or plans of the tent(s) as well as the surrounding spaces. I need to know what the event is, timing of the event, as well as arrival and departure of guests. Parking and back-of-house areas are also important. An assessment of the electrical needs of the event, including catering, entertainment, sanitary and lavatory needs are all taken into consideration. The next step is to ascertain the power that is currently available onsite and the total electrical needs of the event.

Q: What are your favorite light fixtures for tents?

A: There are great battery-powered LED fixtures that illuminate a big tent without any cabling or electrical needs. This cuts installation cost and time dramatically. I also love to work with lighting textures as well as video elements on pole tents, especially the newer sailcloth tents. Sailcloth tents are beautiful yet challenging because the fabric is translucent.

Q: What lighting trends are you seeing in 2013?

A: Vintage fixtures popular in residential interior design really inspire me. We have an extensive collection of vintage light bulbs, fixtures and cords that will appear at this summer’s tented parties. I have also been designing tents where no light is used in the tent top at all, but instead all lights are focused down onto the event floor. This simple technique brings intimacy to the space.

Melissa Paul is owner of Melissa Paul Ltd. Paul is a brand storyteller for the luxury wedding industry.

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