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A journey in time and light

The 20th century saw significant changes in the way we light spaces. From incandescent to LED, countless opportunities are now readily available through the innovative progressions which have transpired through light. 

Fresh-faced to the industry, Keith Ritchie stepped into his first job with global leader Thorn Lighting Industries in 1968. This is where Keith began his extraordinary journey in the world of lighting.

Keith is the founder of Lights & Tracks (a supplier of commercial and architectural project lighting). His experience commenced with Thorn, where he learnt all facets of the manufacturing and marketing functions of a large company. “I thought about training to be an electrician, but then decided that a suit and tie was a better career choice for me,” Keith remarks. Going on to explain that the huge initial salary of $30 per week was too good to refuse.

Keith explains that he rose through the ranks of the company to become an outside representative responsible for sales in Victoria and Tasmania. Back then the market was dominated by a few main players including Philips, Osram and Thorn, all of whom operated in a much more limited market. The fittings, fixtures, lamps and tubes were manufactured out of the same head office and production factory in Melbourne, Victoria or imported from the UK. It was during this period that Thorn would make significant innovations that would pave the way to their long-term success. An early example was to make extruded aluminium high impact resistant IP rated fluorescent fixtures. Keith says this was really groundbreaking at the time. 

A display of various architectural and decorative luminaires in the Lights & Tracks showroom. Doncaster, 1974.

Keith says being immersed in the lighting industry for over five decades means he has witnessed the exponential advances that have completely changed the industry. “The most significant change was the products themselves, they were constantly evolving, especially at a time when we were limited to incandescent, compact fluorescent and halogen types.” Keith goes on to explore the design freedom that the new age products of today have allowed for; such as having the ability to illuminate artwork or pictures with more compact and efficient directional fixtures.

As Keith reflects on the progressive developments within the industry, he recalls when halogen had six or eight different beam spreads and a few wattages. “There was no colour temperature variation or anything like we have today.” He speaks of a time when everyone thought halogen would be the biggest thing to happen to light; “To us, it was the mobile phone of lighting.” These indeed were the times when one light source did the job, and with this perspective, we must consider how far the nature of lighting has come. Keith laughs; “Light was much simpler when there was just a fluorescent tube or a couple of incandescent lamps in the fixture – I’ll tell you that!”

Keith explores the various changes lighting design has seen over the years but reinforces that no matter how much time passes, the process will always call for trust. 

“Get your clients thinking – it can be as simple as suggesting a light by an external door that they’ve never thought of.” He states that once the client knows you’ve dedicated yourself to a good lighting outcome, you will have their confidence in the design process and from there, the projects will follow. 

Through his expertise, Keith demonstrates that a good lighting outcome will always come down to knowledge. “Quite often it doesn’t cost more; it’s just about rearranging the lighting points on the drawing.” He says that you can gain the trust of architects and designers by showing less is sometimes better when it comes to the design. “I’ve always liked a bit of light and shade,” he says. “I’m not one for uniform lighting (unless it has to be done by code), but if you are going for an effect, mood or a feeling, having a defined gap between the light source works best.”

Undoubtedly, lighting has seen exponential growth since the tungsten filament for incandescent light bulbs. Keith clarifies that people took a while to embrace LEDs, but it gained traction after the initial scepticism of the innovation died down. “Clients wanted to wait and see what it could do, where it was going, and if it would be around in five years.” It was a time when the biggest thing working in LEDs favour, was its size. The advantages being that you could get far more lumen output for the wattage and that translated into fewer fixtures that needed to be purchased by the client. 

It’s hard to imagine a time when LEDs weren’t a driving force behind the lighting industry, but it was a certain reality for Keith – one that entirely revolutionised his business. 

“The technology came along and then it was integrated into lighting,” he explains. Today, we see so many more innovative uses for LED technology. Keith reveals the most apparent for him being strip lighting. “It didn’t exist before LED came along – well it did but cove lighting back in those days was little incandescent 5W lamps that lasted fives minutes,” he states. With LED, came the complete control of what we could do with light.

Keith elaborates on LED in its efficiency; stating that it was a new dawn when it first came to light, even in its earliest form. “It was 20% of the energy for 100% of the light.” With LED being a pivotal change in the transition of technology; we’ve seen a complete transformation in the way we design buildings, with greater energy-savings, the ability to miniaturise fixtures, and a better quality of light. This innovation gave us the ability to create moods with light; with more beam angles and various colour temperatures readily available to us. Keith confirms the movement in technology was truly great; “LED meant that you were able to offer so much more, it really was such an innovation.”

When it comes to the impact lighting has had on society in its infancy, convenience is the most obvious and notable result. “Automation means everything can be controlled exactly how you like it,” Keith states. With lighting automation comes the ability to change levels to affect mood, emphasise architecture, illuminate art, and influence action, it can be paramount to the success of any project. 

Keith believes that as a human race, we have embraced anything that makes our lives easier, and lighting automation is just one aspect of this convenient nature which we desire.

Of course, no one can predict the future of lighting or what direction the technology is headed, but for Keith, he believes that it will inevitably keep moving forward; “Nobody can afford to stand still, especially in lighting,” he states. He identifies that the use of 2700K is more prevalent than ever, as it provides a warmer tone which is more conducive to comfort in spaces such as hotel, restaurants and residential spaces. Concerning luminous efficacy, Keith explains the dramatic improvements LED technology has made since its inception, as it now takes far less power to get the same lumen output from an equivalent light source.

Keith also believes that a significant focus for lighting will be placed on workspaces and amenities, stating that builders and architects will incorporate smart lighting design into their builds. As time progresses, modern architecture is becoming very edgy and hard, Keith believes that softer lighting in these new buildings will make workspaces far more user-friendly and help people to be more productive in their daily lives. 

In an industry that is progressing at such a rapid pace, all we can do is be ready for the next change, adapt with the market and try and be ahead of the rest.

“You’ve got to be innovative with your ideas, and don’t dismiss anything – especially if people think something is just going to be a fad. A lot of fads from my time quickly became the norm,” Keith expresses.

As designers discover the growing importance of natural light to people, Keith says we must learn to replicate this into the design of buildings and the spaces we live. He believes this gives users the feeling of being in a healthier environment and in turn, makes a difference to people’s capacity in what they can achieve.

Keith reflects on a particularly memorable project he took part in 1997. “We were involved with the Stonehenge Group, Joanne Blesing and Miriam Mahemoff with the lighting for the Australian Consulate-General’s residence in Kobe, Japan,” he begins. This project involved the use of Australian building materials and practice to create a unique structure that called upon other well-known designers of the day. Including Ken Done and Mark Browning to contribute their expertise. This experience was eye-opening for Keith to understand what integrated design by a committed team truly meant. Described as a merge of Japanese and Australian culture it showcased what a cooperative relationship delivered to this creative design. Keith used custom-made directional luminaires to highlight the Australian timbers and enhanced the Japanese culture with modern lighting that made everything jump out at the end user. 

The Consulate-General’s residence in Kobe, Japan had a great emphasis on Australian architecture and lighting which proved monumental and historical to Australia’s design progress.

“The highlighting effect of the features and materials was one of my most satisfying achievements. It was great to see how my experience and expertise had contributed to a fantastic outcome,” Keith reveals.

Another historical project Keith took part in was the restoration of 19th-century crystal chandeliers that were placed in the dining hall of parliament house in 1987. The chandeliers weighed more than two tonnes, were suspended by cable, lowered onto scaffolding and dressed with 5700 individual pieces of leaf crystal imported from Ireland. John Cain had reinstated the chandeliers which his father had pulled out from generations before when he was the premier of Victoria. Keith says the public works department has decided to repaint the ceilings and reinstate them back to their original glory. “We ended up putting warm light fluorescent battens behind the backplate on one of the fittings to highlight the freshly painted new ceiling,” Keith states.

Another significant change that occurred in the industry for Keith was when the government introduced the BCA (Building Code of Australia) for lighting. This change meant the market had to supply more efficient LED fittings to meet the introduced maximum wattage per square metre allowances and comply with regulations. 

Unquestionably, Keith has seen exponential growth and developments in the 50 years he has spent illuminating the industry. “Who would have thought of all the things we have in lighting now that we didn’t have then.” He further elaborates that from a technical side, there are more tools readily available that makes product information extremely accessible.

Keith reflects on his career, and the critical role lighting still plays in the built environment; “There’s always going to be a place for design input into a lighting project, it’s just a matter of keeping that on the forefront of client and specifiers’ minds.” He emphasises that lighting is always about the product, what it can do and how you can get the best use out of it. Keith also alludes to the importance of people within the role; “You need a team to pull it all together – I don’t think it can or ever will be done at the push of a button.”

The shift in lighting technology has entirely transformed the design process and opened up countless opportunities for the aesthetics and use within a space. What we can take away from Keith’s extraordinary career is that change is inevitable and to stay at the forefront of our competitors, we must learn to adapt to change quickly. “It really has come a long way…” he concludes.