Toh Yah Li is in a little-known, but exceptional, profession. As a lighting design specialist, the 39-year-old uses light to mould the character of a space. It gives architectural spaces definition and has the ability to lift moods, says the founder of Light Collab. “If you want people to be more active or relaxed, certain lighting techniques can achieve it.”
Toh is among the first five lighting designers in the world to be certified – and the only female – that United States-based Certified Lighting Designer certified when it started registering professionals in this field in 2015. This year, she was named one of 40 under 40 at the Lighting Design Awards in London, which recognises the world’s most talented lighting designers.
“This aspect of architecture is growing in importance, because there has been a lot of research on this subject,” she says. “The current trend is circadian lighting for interiors because we have more information now on its impact on the quality of life and how it affects even animals and plants.”
Toh graduated as an architect from National University of Singapore in 2002 and earned her masters in Architectural Design Lighting in 2005 from Germany’s Hochschule Wismar, University of Applied Sciences: Technology, Business and Design. She spent the next four years at the Singapore office of one of the world’s leading lighting design firms but felt opportunities to grow were limited.
So in 2010, she started Light Collab with a former Japanese colleague, who operates a branch in Tokyo. “Singaporeans have the talent to be as good as the best international experts and I want to help prove this point,” she says. Currently, Europeans, Japanese, and Americans dominate the profession.
She made a national impact in 2013 when, through the recommendation of a former colleague, the Bangladeshi government commissioned her to light up the country’s newly constructed Tower of Light in Dhaka. The 45m tall national monument commemorates the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month war. Although the building is made of glass panels that let light through, her design gave the tower a luminescent glow with a beam that shoots into the night sky, allowing the structure to be visible from miles around.
“After that, we started getting more overseas commissions – from an Audi showroom and cafes in Japan to two office towers and a hotel in Myanmar, and retail outlets in China and Malaysia.”
At home, though, her footprint is smaller in scale. Notable projects in the past year include a supermarket and dining concept Habitat By Honestbee and Singapore Buddhist Lodge. “Honestbee has a high volume of space with large amounts of sunlight,” she explains.
“The idea is to fill it with daylight experiences and to allow shoppers and diners to feel the ambience change throughout the day, which we did with indirect lighting. We were also able to bring out the natural colour and freshness of the food there.”
As for the newly renovated Singapore Buddhist Lodge, it needed certain levels of illumination in the prayer hall. “The toughest part is the large golden Buddha in there, and we had to illuminate it while taking into account the lighting fixtures around it.” The result is a gleaming yet well- defined tableau of Buddha and his disciples.
Toh’s recognition in last year’s President’s Design Award, where she received an unprecedented commendation from the judges, has helped burnish her name in an industry where foreign companies from Japan and Europe, with mega projects from their own countries in their portfolios, often have the edge over local professionals. “People in Singapore now know what we are capable of,” says Toh. “The commendation has helped open doors and we are working on projects with Capitaland, like its One Pearl Bank residential project and a mixed development at Sengkang Central.”
To attract more Singaporeans to the profession, she lectures on the subject at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. She also conducts workshops at Singapore Institute of Technology and Singapore Polytechnic. Her work as regional coordinator for the International Association of Lighting Designers reaches out to students in South-east Asia. “I want to introduce the importance of lighting to our future designers and architects,” Toh emphasises.
“Lighting design illuminates the soul of a building and can even make an inferior material look fantastic, just like magic.”
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