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Beacons of Light: Kael Gillam

Beacons of Light: Kael Gillam

March 2021

DW Windsor is powered by people with a shared passion for light, committed to delivering outstanding lighting solutions. To celebrate those who share our passion, we’ve sought out individuals who are making a positive impact on our community and shining a light on our industry. Through this series of interviews, we are highlighting a number of unique and inspiring people who are leading the way as Beacons of Light.

An Interview with Kael Gillam

As well as her commitment to lighting design, Kael is an active contributor to Designers Mind; a community that raises awareness of mental health and wellbeing for designers through talks, workshops, and sharing stories.

Her work with Designers Mind to help spread awareness on mental health and implementing wellbeing policies in workplaces has been recognised and nominated for an award by the Women in Lighting collective. 

Here Kael shares more about her life, loves and inspirations.


When did you first become interested in lighting?

My high school was a boarding school, and sadly, not long after starting I became ill, so I wasn’t able to participate in sports as I had hoped. My roommate asked if wanted to go with her to our theatre, where I would be able to paint theatre sets. While there, I spotted someone arranging the lighting, and I realised very quickly that I was fascinated by this.

It was here I discovered I loved building sets; designing costumes; and rigging the lighting. It didn’t take me long to change my life course and apply to universities to study theatrical lighting. What stays with me is that it only took that one day being immersed in theatre to realise that lighting was for me. I like to think that lighting found me in my time of need - my enlightening happy accident.

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Kael Gillam

Kael Gillam is a Senior Lighting Designer at Nulty+. She worked at consultancies across the US before joining the renowned Nulty+ in 2016.

Have you therefore always wanted to work in the industry, or did you have other careers in mind?

I’ve been seeing psychologists since I was very young as I have always had anxiety. Luckily, I was raised in a household where I was encouraged to talk about my problems.

Because of my experiences, I took a psychology class in my senior year at high school. I was told it would be an easy credit and a lot of fun. I absolutely loved it and intended to continue studying psychology further at university, but things didn’t pan out that way. I didn’t end up being able to do a psychology minor as I’d wanted, but I now think that this was a sign that lighting found me instead.

This said, I’ve always kept this interest in psychology, and how it relates to my profession now. Lighting is such an integral part of how we perceive the world; it’s a joy to bring my two loves together.


What has been your lightbulb moment during your career?

My thesis at university was the lighting design for a play based on the work of Haruki Murakami. Coincidentally, this was both my and my director’s favourite author, and she did a fantastic job creating a script that captured all of the magic in his plays. When I was finally sitting in the audience watching my thesis come to life, it was an incredible moment. I remember thinking, this is exactly what I want to do, to create environments like this for people to enjoy.

Fast-forwarding to my career, my big ‘aha’ moment was when I commissioned my first professional project. I felt I really messed up the project, and the design company I worked for at the time had to send out another designer, all the way to Mexico, to tidy everything up. In the end, everything worked out really well and I learnt so much from the experience. I felt that if I can keep creating spaces like this, then it’s been a life well-lived.

Designers Mind Kael

How did the excellent initiative of the Designers Mind come about? 

I met Kaye Preston, the founder of the project, at a Thanksgiving meal for Americans and Canadians at the Ned in London.  My colleague from Nulty+ told me that Kaye was keen to launch an initiative on mental health, so I spoke to her about this over dinner and we clicked immediately.

Kaye, I, and our other contributing members met not too long after to flesh out our ideas for this forum. Kaye had done most of the groundwork, and we were more than happy to support her in reaching out to the industry network and spreading the word of the project.

Our small team started adding resources, stories and much more to the website. The lighting industry responded to Designers Mind so well - we are a close-knit sector, but the response was overwhelming and really touches my heart.

It’s been amazing to have arc media and Light Review as partners, as they have really increased our profile. So many people have been incredibly supportive.

Meeting Kaye was another of my happy accidents, and I couldn’t be happier to be part of DM.

"We really want to grow a community of people who are sharing their stories and providing assistance to individuals and companies on improving wellbeing. We want to empower people to speak and be heard."

What is your vision for the Designers Mind community over the next couple of years?

The team had a virtual meeting recently and our objectives are very clear and ambitious. We want to increase our content on our social media channels, add to our monthly newsletter circulation, offer more free talks and events, and involve people from around the world.

One of our big aims is to recruit more Designers Minds representatives, who can speak to their local community. Women in Lighting is a great example of this kind of community model that we want to work towards

We really want to grow a community of people who are sharing their stories and providing assistance to individuals and companies on improving wellbeing. We want to empower people to speak and be heard.


Over the last 12 months, how do you think the discussion around mental health has changed?

I think people are facing issues that they never even considered they could have and deal with a new reality of life that we as humans are not equipped for.

This time has really shown who cares about the collective and who doesn’t. It has highlighted who would rather be alone and others who definitely need company, and I have learned that I am really not as much of an introvert as I think I am! Everyone is dealing with the current situation of the pandemic in their own way, and because of this, I think many people have naturally become more introspective and willing to ask for help. The baseline is knowing that you will come out of this situation!

Designers Mind instagram post

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling in the lighting industry right now?

My first step is to be honest with yourself. This is a really hard step for many people: don’t be afraid of describing how you feel in detail to yourself. Saying your thoughts out loud or writing them down is a really helpful exercise to understand why you feel the way that you do.

Secondly, find the appropriate channel to then let those feelings out further. Make sure to find someone to speak to, who is in a position to be able to take on the information you’re about to tell them. Setting boundaries is an important part of being able to share in a healthy way; naturally, professional therapists will provide this but friends and family can also be your cornerstone. Finding the appropriate channel to speak to is so important.

In summary, be honest with yourself and know where to look for help. The resource section on the Designers Mind website aims to guide you in the correct direction, including organisations such as Mind, Calm, and Samaritans.


What are you most passionate about when it comes to lighting?

For me, the most rewarding thing about the design process is the collaborative process we go through with the design team. I really enjoy the nerdy in-depth discussions with architects and designers; I learned how to design with pen and paper, sitting around a table and throwing out ideas.

I’m incredibly passionate about the small details. To care about the minutiae makes all the difference. It teaches you how space works together holistically, so the end-user appreciates everything that you’ve done. In my mind, a successful design is like a jewel box – while it’s about the whole space, the individual pieces within it are all unique and special, and it all needs to be beautiful to work in harmony.


What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your lighting career?

At 28, I sometimes don’t get taken seriously because of my age; I even get called the ‘lighting girl’ a lot. People look at me and assume that I am inexperienced which is frustrating.

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my personal life over the last five years which has definitely helped to break the ice with new collaborators; a couple of grey hairs and an ex-husband makes you more relatable, I guess! But the stigma when I—a young woman—walk into a room primarily full of middle-aged is still there.

"In my mind, a successful design is like a jewel box - while it's about the whole space, the individual pieces within it are all unique and special, and it all needs to be beautiful to work in harmony."

How would you articulate your overall philosophy about light?

My philosophy is actually based on a thought exercise that I learned when I was working in New York. When you walk into the space, what is the first thing you see? Is it spectacular? If not, then you have done something wrong.

If you’re in a restaurant, when you walk to your table, what do you focus on – the floor, the people, the atmosphere? If you’re looking at the space and keep looking around and finding new things that catch your attention, then you’ve done a great job. Lighting is another material, and it should complement each intricacy of the interiors and architecture.

A successfully design really starts with understanding how people will navigate a space and what they are going to look at. It’s also about layering, creating focal points, and not letting everything blend together. The kind of designs I want to create should evoke a sense of enjoyment and wonder.


What do you think is the most important skillset required to be successful in the lighting industry?

Being able to take constructive criticism in a professional way and learn from your mistakes. I’d say this is life advice in general, not just for the lighting industry. It is important to take risks, make mistakes, and become a better designer (and person) because of it.

We recognise you as a Beacon of Light in the industry. Who is your Beacon of Light?

Christine Hope, Principal at Focus Lighting. Between my second and third years of uni, I was granted an internship at Focus, and returned there a couple of years later after I decided I wanted to get back into architectural lighting. I was placed in Christine’s team again and I couldn’t have been happier. I learnt so much from her as a mentor, and she had a profound effect on me.

She is a superwoman; I don’t think I would have started in architectural lighting if it weren’t for her. She has made such a big impression on me both personally and professionally; she is the mother and designer that I aspire to be someday. She showed me how to be successful as a woman in the industry, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her patience and kindness in mentoring me. 


Thank you to Kael for sharing so much with us for our Beacons of Light project. To find out more about Designers Mind, visit

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