I’m conscious that this interview has been quite a while in the write-up. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself and the busy-ness of life since I sat down to talk with David Walters beside a cosy fire after a delicious dinner on the last day of July. However, I’m also going to blame him (at least in part) for the vast amount of fascinating material I’ve had to sift through; I recorded our chat and took copious notes that night.
David Walters is a softly-spoken, articulate, and passionate raconteur. He is also particularly modest about his own achievements and I had to probe to find out more about his work. That night he was genuinely enthusiastic in sharing his vast knowledge on the subject of light itself, something that clearly engages him. What I had thought would be a simple chat about his work as a lighting designer and the challenges of Water Wars – the show we were both then working on – became a wonderfully rich tutorial for me on the philosophy of light, technology, art, and sustainability.
I feel privileged to be where I am right now. I have at my disposal ways of creating light no one else has ever had.
As we get started, David sets the scene like an expert tale-teller. He riffs on the philosophy of light as a metaphor for goodness and knowledge, and moves on to the social history of light creation.
In order to light cities some species of whales were hunted to extinction for their oil, and I learn that the probably well-lit streets of Denmark in the 16-17 centuries were fragrant with the smell of cod-liver oil! Candles were once a marker of wealth – ‘Staying up all night was very fashionable in the 18th century,’ he tells me, ‘if you could afford it.’ Such conspicuous consumption means that one night’s revelling could burn up the equivalent of a worker’s annual salary. However, this form of lighting was also a sustainable product. ‘People ate their tallow candles when times got hard.’ We head then towards the introduction of gas lighting, and I find out why ‘limelight‘ got its name. We move right along in lighting history to the coming of the incandescent bulb and the invention of whole new kinds of light throughout the 20th century. This culminated in the development of the LED (light-emitting diode) which, David tells me, has been around for a while, at least since the 1990s. ‘We’ve learned how to mix white via the RGB spectrum but,’ he notes, ‘LEDs were not very powerful or useful.’ Apparently it just took a bit longer to learn how to ‘cajole more light from them using chemical elements.’ At the mention of physics, my eyes may well have glazed over, so David moved on swiftly to art history. Continue reading David Walters (Interview 27)