Light and Design From the Eyes of a Theatre-Trained Creative Director

When in doubt, Dennis Cheok, Creative Director of UPSTAIRS_ , a design studio in Singapore, goes for long walks. "Going for long walks helps me to unwind," says the family-centric design guy. His path to spatial design hasn't always been a walk in the park. ​

​Originally trained in theatre and arts, Dennis made a switch midway, hoping to go into industrial design. As luck would have it, the school rejected his application and offered him a spot in architecture instead. "The most beautiful thing about architecture is that it allows me to draw from my arts background and shape the way I approach design," he adds. How would you define light? Lighting is something that took me the longest time to grasp as a design tool. Jests aside — light, or the lack of, can define the way a space is experienced. It sets the character and mood, and lends a space its soul.

According to Dennis Cheok from UPSTAIRS_, not only does light sets the character and mood, it also lends a space its soul. Pictured above: Line and Isa.

What is the moment you most enjoy in the design process?

Each stage of the design process is hugely enjoyable for me – from conception till fruition. But if I were to really choose, it will be the initial conceptualisation — the early moments in a design conversation with clients or my team, or when I’m randomly musing or sketching in isolation. That's when something just clicks in my mind to tell me that I’ve found the answer.

What do you think about ambiance and atmosphere that light can help create?

A poorly designed space can still feel somewhat right with the right lighting, usually low-lit and atmospheric. A beautifully-designed space, on the other hand, truly comes to life with a sensitive lighting strategy. Beyond functions, light is about enhancing the way that surfaces, forms and spaces respond to illumination, colour and shadows, and in turn, shaping a physical experience.

"A beautifully-designed space, on the other hand, truly comes to life with a sensitive lighting strategy," says Dennis Cheok of UPSTAIRS_. Where are your inspirations from? As cliché as it sound, inspirations can come from anywhere, be it from memory, research, imagination, or a great conversation. But the most impactful source of inspiration usually comes from personal experience. The imprint is more lasting, and also more visceral. How important do lights play a part in designing a home? A poorly lit home is not a functional home. That is how important it is. The unfortunate thing is, lighting is almost the last thing that designers think about in the design process, and I was guilty of this too. I have however, grown to appreciate that the way spaces are illuminated, and that it should be an integral part of a designer’s intuition, and not an afterthought.

Lighting itself is definitely more than spacing light fittings evenly within a room, or picking a pretty pendant lamp. Pictured above: Thea, Halo Mini and Kepler. Can you share with us your most recent project experience with Sol Luminaire? It was for The Ryokan Modern, and an immense part of my learning experience. We designed the spaces within the home in “moments”, and wanted to use light to define and highlight each of them.

The Ryokan Modern home designed by UPSTAIRS_ utilises Nula 8 and Halo Mini. My conversations with Kai from Sol Luminaire revolved around expressing light in lines, planes, and spot-lighting spatial elements and artifacts.

What advice would you share with young aspiring designers?

Keep an open mind, and take everything as a opportunity to learn, solve, and re- define what you know. It will be appreciated by clients, co-workers – and ultimately, yourself.

If you were to recommend one thing to not overlook in lighting, what would that be?

Dimmer switches, or at least cater multiple switches instead of looping all into a single switch. They lend so much more flexibility in controlling ambience within a single space.

Buster + Punch dimmer switches works for the design-centric individuals. Available at THE LAB 2.1.

What factors do you consider when designing a project?

The functional and aspirational brief, the context, the budget and timeline, the users’ personalities and lifestyles, and for commercial projects - the brand ethos.

What is the most common question you faced with regards to lighting and what would be the answer?

People always ask – warm light or day light? I’m an advocate of the perfect balance that 3000K provides, so it’s always my answer. Day lighting, if at all, is appointed in the form of task lighting, preferably through lamps that allow for adjustment from day light to warm light. The next common question would be, “will it be bright enough?” and “will it be too bright?” This to me, is more subjective, and optiong for dimmer switches and multiple lighting loops always helps.

How do you unwind after projects?

The comfort of family, friends, and there’s always music. Most recently, I started to enjoy long walks for as far as my legs can take me.

What spiked your interest to enter this industry?

By pure luck, actually. My background was in theatre and the arts, although I gravitated towards the backstage and production design. After finding that the university education system failed to gratify my needs to learn and develop more in those fields, I quit school in order to return back as a fresh applicant. I was rejected a place in industrial design, and the school offered me a spot in architecture instead. I’ve never looked back since then, and the most beautiful thing about architecture is that it allows me to draw from my arts background and shape the way I approach design. It’s brilliant.

Our galleries will adhere to a maximum capacity of 10 or less pax at all times. Our consultants will be available for physical and virtual appointments from Monday – Saturday.Sol Luminaire is located at 395 Guillemard Road, Singapore 399791.the LAB2.1 is located at 399 Guillemard Road, Singapore 399793.

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