On the sofa with

Ellie Coombs

April 26, 2019
Lighting Designer & MD, Nulty Lighting
What they do:
Lighting Design
What we do for client:
Public Relations

Ellie has worked on lighting solutions across retail (from high street to high-end), hospitality, residential, and even the public sector. Her clients range from shopping centres in China and Bangkok, to the London Underground, London Open House and cancer charity Maggie’s. She ensures schemes devised by Nulty are creative, functional, and sustainable.

How did you begin your career in lighting design?

When I was at school I didn’t know lighting design was a job.

At university I studied Museum and Exhibition Design which encompasses all elements of design in different spaces, and how to communicate with people and make information accessible. When I left Uni, I found work in theatre, TV and film, but for me, those arenas felt a little bit like learning how to survive in a job and my priority was to be a better designer.

A friend’s boyfriend suggested that I work in architectural lighting. I didn’t know what that was, so I googled it, found a couple of jobs and applied immediately. I started working at BDP (Building Design Partnership) where I worked across multiple disciplines – architecture, interior design, acoustics and lighting – with a lot of inspiring people for seven years. Then Paul Nulty asked me to join Nulty Lighting.

What does your day-to-day role involve?

I tend to be a morning person, so I get in nice and early to answer my emails and sort out my admin.

We have 24 designers in the London office working on about 100 projects a year which makes us one of the biggest lighting consultancies in the UK right now. Our projects are very fast moving with deadlines changing several times during the week, so communication is very important as I need to make sure everyone has enough resources and support.

I might go to a concept meeting, sitting down with a retailer to understand their brief, or join a brainstorm with the team to ensure proposals are functional as well as creative, or I could be on site testing everything is working. If I have a new business client I like to go and meet them in person to build a better understanding of their needs and aspirations.

Two days a week a lighting manufacturer comes into the office at lunchtime to give us a presentation on their new products. Some projects may take up to five years to come to fruition, so this helps us to stay ahead of the market. Tech moves so quickly it’s important we future-proof our designs so they are still current when the project is finished.

At what point in the design or architecture process does lighting design kick in?

Ideally at the start of the project but that’s not always the case. Clients and the rest of the design disciplines have learnt the benefit of bringing in a lighting designer early on in a project. Even if we just talk through plans at the start, we can make sure the lighting is integrated rather than an afterthought.

We always try to start by making the most of natural light and only use artificial light when we need to. Lighting is such an essential and basic part of life – you probably don’t stop to think about it, and just expect it to be there.

What has been your favourite project and why?

We get to see and learn about so many amazing people’s lives and businesses and work with so many unique spaces that it’s difficult to pick a favourite.

We’ve just completed a project on Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel by Waterloo which is right on our doorstep. We got to collaborate with our local community and made lots of new friends, despite some technical challenges. The graffiti artists were quite concerned that it would no longer be their space, but we took time to talk to them, find out what they wanted, and focus on the art.

What are the current trends in lighting design?

Sustainability and wellness continue to be the hot topics and are particularly relevant to lighting.

Our industry used to be one of the biggest energy guzzlers, but LEDs have changed that, and we are also reducing costs to produce better lighting schemes.

Lighting also has a big impact on your physiological and psychological wellbeing, and thankfully businesses are now investing in their offices a bit more as they want to get the best out of their staff, with less sick days etc.

Where do you find inspiration?

For me personally, it’s mostly from people, how they interact with spaces and how they use them. Science is a huge inspiration for us lighting designers.

Do you have a personal passion project?

I am part of the organizing team behind Lewes Light Festival, which is a charity event set up four years ago. I grew up in Lewes, which is just outside Brighton, and it’s lovely to give something back to the community. The Festival celebrates culture, history and the environment in and around Lewes – all the light installations we create focus on something local.We work with young people and students to mentor themand give them the opportunity to work with us and help up deliver some of the installations.It’s held every October but this year we’re moving to March 2020.


At Clerkenwell Design Week, Nulty is presenting a talk on how lighting in a hotel room can help people get a good night’s sleep. Give us your top tips.

There seems to be a bit of a hotel trend offering windowless rooms for business travellers. We started talking to designers about what we can do to make these windowless rooms more inviting and what you can do to create an environment that offers the perfect night’s sleep.

Most people know we shouldn’t look at a screen an hour before bed. Not just a screen – any lighting source – but it’s the blue light within that spectrum that’s most dangerous. If that’s present then your body thinks its still daytime.

It’s also important to be mindful of light through your whole day. Expose yourself to natural daylight at lunchtime, even if it’s not sunny – try to ensure nature is a part of the rhythm of your day.

How can we all be more thoughtful about lighting design in our own homes?

The most important thing is to think about the tasks you have to do at home and how you use the space. People always think about putting a light in the centre of the room. But why? Unless it’s a dining room, you rarely use the middle of the room. Put in your functional lighting first, then bring others in – is there a wall or artwork you want to light ? Avoid the grid of ceiling down lights. Turn off all the lights. Grab a table lamp on an extension lead and play with it – put it into different places and see what works.

If you ask most lighting designers, they will mainly have table and floor lights at home.

Any exciting future projects that you can tell us about?

We are working on a new natural history and science museum in Germany which I’m thrilled about. And we have a client whose staff has to work in a windowless workspace. They’ve come to us to see what we can do to help improve their working environment which is an exciting challenge.

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