Senior lighting and industrial designer, Dave Kavanagh received the 2022 LIT Lifetime Achievement Award.
November 19, 2022
Senior lighting and industrial designer, Dave Kavanagh has been working for 44 years at the 110-year-old lighting manufacturer Planet Lighting, Australia. Dave has a unique and impressive career, with an impressive design contribution to the Australian and International lighting community. Dave has been successfully navigating extensive technological changes in the industry!
Not shy of a challenge, Dave has helped bring to life some of the most ambitious custom architectural lighting projects across the globe. He’s worked on renowned projects of architects such as Renzo Piano and I. M. Pei, and helped design and deliver a suite of iconic lighting concepts from South-East Asia to the Middle East, including lighting for Larry Oltmanns Hong Kong Handover at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, I.M.Pei’s Bank of China in Beijing and Caesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
As described by former CEO of Planet Lighting, Brett Iggulden, Dave has easily designed more light fittings for architects than any other designer in Australia. “He would literally save architects’ lives, turning their crazy concepts into working, safe and reliable light fittings.” Dave’s work is found everywhere from Australia to Dubai.
Dave also developed, improved, and expanded on a range of important and award-winning Australian medical and task lighting products. His design adaptations of the prestigious Prince Phillip Australian Design Award- winning U-arm, and his work on modernizing task lighting resulted in a range of quintessential Australian medical lighting products such as the MSE, UMH, UGP and include the important redesign of the 7 LED head for the ULED – one of the most prevalent examination lights in Australian hospitals. He designed the iconic Continental C arm, a spring-balanced desk lamp and in 1992 his Ninox Workstation Tasklight won the Luminaire Design Award of the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia and New Zealand Award (IESANZ).
ULED Medical Light with Planet Lighting unique award-winning floating balance U-arm and fully enclosed springs.
Dave’s successful design and technical proficiency, which his colleagues agree includes his exceptional penmanship and eye for detail, is equally matched by his creative ability to adapt and navigate extraordinary technological and industry change. He saw the transition from pen and ink hand drawings to CAD, and from incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes to modern LEDs as well as the transition from hand machining to Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machining.
“Dave’s legacy is extraordinary,” says Sinclair Park, Dave’s colleague and fellow industrial designer who raised the idea for nominating him for the Award. “He even managed to become an expert in glass mould design when Planet Lighting built their own glass-blowing facility in the 1980s.”
Dave promptly designed a screening process to quickly generate shapes in plaster as patterns for sand casting, equipping Planet Lighting with semi-mass production capabilities. As a result, there was a time when every Starbucks in the world had custom glass luminaires, all of which were glass blown in Planet’s factory and company headquarters in regional Bellingen NSW. Planet Lighting subsequently became the biggest glass-blowing operation in Australia.
Dave’s use and demonstration of scientific and supporting evidence and use of emerging technologies married well with his unhindered propensity to “tell it like it is” to his customers and architect partners.
Dave recalls a successful job tender “a half-inch thick” for Australia’s Parliament House. “They wanted 400 lamps with a hot and inefficient 100-watt globe. So I showed them a light head with 13 watts that had even better light output, and for good measure demonstrated that the entire cost of the light fittings could be recovered in reduced power consumption and lowered air conditioning costs over 18 months.”
DG “Boat” chandeliers to commemorate the Hong Kong handover. Each chandelier is 8.4 meters in length with strips of slumped glass. Each weighs 500 kilograms and is suspended 30 meters in the air.
DG “Boat” chandeliers to commemorate the Hong Kong handover. Each weighs 500 kilograms and is suspended 30 metres in the air. Also showing Dave’s engineering plans for the construction.
Dave graduated with a Diploma in Design from the National Art School, Division of Design in 1975. After college, he was invited by Paul Schremmer and Associates, a leading Sydney design consultancy where he began his first professional role. In April 1977, and less than 2 years out of college, he was hired by the iconic Australian lighting manufacturer Planet Lighting after an interview with then-CEO of Planet, Brett Iggulden. While his current employer thought he was too young, Brett was impressed enough by his interview to put him on a 9-month contract. Now, 44 years on and one of Planet’s oldest and most accomplished staff members, Dave jokingly admits: “I’m still waiting for my probation period to end.”
A thinker and entrepreneurial spirit, Dave heralds from a family of engineers and inventors. “My eldest brother is an electrical engineer, and my older brother was a boat builder who became a hot air balloon manufacturer.” Dave describes himself as coming from a family of “have-a-goes” where it’s ok and even important to make mistakes. He even began his own Medical equipment company, Phoebus Design, while working in tandem at Planet in the 1980s. For 8 years he was an important supplier to Australian Medical Equipment, designing and manufacturing intermittent pressure therapy equipment designed to forcibly drain postoperative lymph fluid.
Dave’s passion for design and its importance in society is palpable. “Lighting is something which touches everyone, every day,” says Dave. “The performance of the most mundane tasks to the most demanding, particularly in medical task lighting is intensely rewarding to me, knowing the products on which I work contribute deeply to such tasks.”
Bank of China HQ, Beijing Architect: I. M. Pei Lighting Consultant: William Artists International. LTD.
“Wheel” Aerial sculpture & chandelier foyer centerpiece 12 meters in diameter and hanging below the 48-meter high ceiling. The wheel, constructed of steel and weighing 350 kilograms, had to be assembled fully and disassembled in pieces for transport in 20m shipping containers. “I had to generate a map of which part of the wheel went into the container first so the first piece that came out could be carried to the back of the assembly area – it was important they came out in the right order!” – Dave Kavanagh
Bank of China, showing wheel aerial sculpture & chandelier also featuring 30 meter steel beam grow lights suspended over bamboo planters.
The wheel, constructed of steel and weighing 350 kilograms, had to be assembled fully and disassembled in pieces for transport in 20-meter shipping containers from Planet Lighting, Australia.
Dave’s interest in design also seems inseparable from his personal interest in both social conscience and design consequence. As a result, he gained the friendship and acquaintances of many academics and pursued interests with like-minded people equally curious about sociology. He was the Public Officer for the establishment of the Bellingen Institute, a think tank endeavor of Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr. Richard Hil.
Dave’s design thinking overlapped and complemented educators promoting the importance of socially and ecologically responsible design. He was invited to guest lecture in the Kansas City’s Art Institute for students of the influential design educator Victor Papanek. “I remember my own final year thesis: Outside and Inside: Morality in Design which was kind of a shock to my lecturers who felt that the topic was a bad idea. I’ve always felt there’s no such thing as a bad idea – it only becomes a bad idea when you don’t express it.”
Dave’s deeply personal drive for social enquiry and social justice has also found him volunteering with his local community. In 2007 Dave worked closely with former Australian father of the year Steve Biddulph and candidate professor and Lecturer in Law, Beth Gibbings in the installation of the SIEV X National Memorial. The memorial consists of a series of 353 pole beams which were erected lakeside in Canberra and are engraved with commemorative artworks from over 200 schools and community groups across the country. The important monument commemorates the 353 people, including children, who drowned when the SIEV X boat sank on its perilous voyage from Indonesia to Australia in 2001. Most of the poles remain nameless as the victims were unidentified. “That’s what the ‘X’ in ‘Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle X (SIEV X)’ stands for, that is, representing the unknown victims,” says Dave.
The memorial is one of Australia’s largest and most extensive installation and collaborative efforts and spans 400 square meters of the peninsula along Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. It remains a solemn symbol and reminder to both the government and public on the plight of refugees and a persistent indicator of the still unanswered questions ordinary citizens have with regards to the circumstances surrounding the tragic event.
The SIEV X installation’s arduous process to becoming a permanent display lakeside and nearby Parliament House has become its own emotional journey for Dave and his peers. Originally, the poles were only temporarily “held up” by 600 people during a televised procession in 2006. Dave helped in the certification and engineering effort to establish their permanent installation in the Australian capital. “I met Beth and Steve through the Rural Australians for Refugees organization,” of which Dave is still a formal member. The memorial continues standing today 15 years on. “It still chokes me up when I see those poles.”
Dave Kavanagh continues to innovate at Planet Lighting today and is a valued member of the community.
Dubai Metro – Red and Green Lines Consultant: Gulf Line International Trading Co Multiple custom lighting fixtures were designed including the “Water Wave” and the “Flying Carpet.” The “Water Wave” decorative light fixture in Burjuman Station consists of a wave-like dynamic effect created via LED edge-lit clear glass and is controlled via DMX. The custom-made fixture is made up of 21 pieces of 1-inch thick glass and each piece is made up of three segments. The wave is 40 meters long and 10 meters wide.
Designer Dave Kavanagh shared with us some thoughts on design philosophy, practice and the context of his career with Planet Lighting:
“Joining Planet Lighting in Bellingen New South Wales Australia in April 1977 as the sole Staff Industrial Designer for an agreed tenure of 9 months to design and develop an extended-reach task lamp, I was not too worried about being without experienced designers to mentor and assist me, as it was for such a short duration. Forty-five and a half years later I find myself still in the same job but having experienced massive changes to my work tools and the type of work I have undertaken, including running a small design/manufacturing business in my spare time.
Many designers have experienced the leap from the drawing board to the CAD monitor and I can assure you it can be quite intimidating at first. CAD arrived in my professional life at the age of forty-five, just four years after I first began working on large custom light fittings.
The first large custom fitting was feature-lighting in the Australian Darwin Parliament House. This quickly developed into an explosion of work including feature lighting in the main hall of The Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre for the Hong Kong handover in 1997 and the (then) world’s largest building/s the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, the head office of the Bank of China in Beijing in 2000 and some very large glass fittings in the Dubai Metro UAE. Some of these projects weighed many tonnes and called for engineering certification, including taking a Bellingen crew for installation on-site. We even employed a London-based crew of riggers for one of our higher/heavier fittings. These are just some of the highlights, there being many smaller, less prestigious, jobs along the way and since.
The CEO of Planet Lighting throughout this time was Brett Iggulden OAM who was solely responsible for securing and managing these jobs for our company, a very small business in a very small town in coastal New South Wales Australia. Even though I was integral to the process, it never ceased to delight me that, for instance, for a few years any Starbucks Café anywhere in the world included light fittings using hand-blown glass blown in Bellingen in our own glassworks. This engenders a level of pride in our company workforce that is second to none.
I have always held high moral standards as an important baseline for design work of all kinds and often struggle internally with issues surrounding my work, if not directly impacted by it.
The design process I find most effective uses a recursive progression: two steps forward, one step back and so on until after a few iterations I take many steps back to review the design progression and evaluate the results to ensure the project is heading in a healthy direction before proceeding any further, avoiding “vertical” thinking in the design. This re-evaluation applies to all aspects of a project or product and includes all stakeholders and has worked well for me over many years.
Perhaps the most important mindset to nurture for me as a designer has been that there is no such thing as a stupid question … ever. Question everything and everyone, and always have a reason for your choices and decisions.
Once a brief or work order is accepted, it becomes a personal responsibility for eternity. At no time is a job handed over with no further responsibility or “ownership” by the industrial designer, production designer or engineer. This demands a passionate embrace of the work and its consequences.
Finally, this award was an unexpected bonus in a long and as-yet incomplete journey which has been an enormous amount of fun and I unreservedly thank all those who have contributed to my success in this career.” Dave Kavanagh
Dave Kavanagh/ Courtesy of Planet Lighting
The “Flying Carpet” lighting fixture, one of six, was installed in different stations of Dubai Metro. The fixture is 27 metres in length, 2.5 metres wide and comprises 140 individual glass assemblies. Each glass piece weighs 70 kilograms and the total fixture weighs 11.5 tons.
About Planet Lighting: The Planet Lighting design tradition heralds back to the early 1900s when founder WA Iggulden set up Bentley Mfg Co in Melbourne to produce building tools for patented designs. Since the 1930s Planet has been manufacturing lights, including the iconic Australian classic, the Studio K desk lamp. Over the years, our facilities have expanded to include handblown artisan glassblowing facilities, a high-tech LED laboratory and state-of-the-art CNC equipment to ensure high-quality in-house capability and a comprehensive approach to lighting manufacturing.
Today, we are one of the leading Australian suppliers of Medical & Surgical lights, LED and custom lighting solutions and are uniquely placed to provide the expertise and know-how required to work with lighting designers and specifiers to realize creative custom lighting ideas and concepts.
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