Mary Rushton-Beales, founder of Lighting Design House

Mary Rushton-Beales, founder of Lighting Design House, is one of the industry’s leading specialists in the specialist art of designing lighting for airports.

Anticipation, anticipation, anticipation – whether a visit to an airport is for business or leisure almost every traveller experiences this emotion. Will the trip be a success? Will the family enjoy themselves? Will they be safe? Will they check-in on time? There was a time in my life where you could also add to the list of concerns, ‘Will there be anything in Duty Free for my family?’. This was because, sad but true, I felt guilty at having abandoned my family to go out and ‘bring home the bacon’.

I have been lucky in the course of my work to have visited many amazing airports in the Far East, Australia, Middle East, USA and Europe – and, often working with The Design Solution, have designed the lit environments in many of them. Experienced airport designers know how to imbue the fabric of an airport with a sense of place, how to guide customers efficiently to their departure gates, how to inspire them with interesting commercial offers and, ultimately, how to make them feel excited when they travel. Light is a hugely influential factor in that passenger experience.

Having travelled at many different times of the day and night it often hits me how difficult it is to get the lit environment right according to the real-time body clock of a traveller. I’ve felt assaulted by the extra-bright lights of Dubai Duty Free when travelling back on the 0230 flight; I’ve been bemused by the very low light level at T5 LHR when checking in for an 0615 flight and inspired by the soaring colours of the archways, perfectly enhanced by just the right amount of daylight at Madrid’s famous Barajas airport – noticed in passing whilst running for a connecting flight from Gate 4 to Gate 94 (yes, really).

My professional instinct is that if you get the daylight and artificial light right then that creates a perfect background canvas upon which to build the functional and commercial spaces of the airport. Grand examples of this are Shenzen Bao’anl (by Fuksas) and Mumbai’s curved concrete (by SOM).

In both cases the combination of light and shade by day calms and cools the spaces and creates visual interest. In darkness the structures are enhanced from outside and within, once again creating a calm backdrop for the retail and food and beverage offers.

Other human-scale examples of daylight and artificial light balance are Alicante-Elche and Lisbon airports.

Alicante controls the strong daylight using clerestory windows and central skylights. In the evening, suspended circle lights back up into the structure and also provide low levels of background light to the concourse. Artificial lighting details built into the food court tables add to the final picture.

Lisbon uses a mixture of oval shapes in the ceiling – sometimes daylight, sometimes artificial light – ensuring an even light level for circulation.

Having established a calming backdrop it is then up to the airport interior architects and travel retail designers to inject excitement and curiosity into the minds of airport customers. One of the most exciting sights I have ever seen is the digital artwork at LAX Los Angeles airport.

Editorial credit: Joseph Sohm /

I had seen photos of it but in the flesh, beyond doubt, it is the most ambitious and effective public space branding/art that I have ever seen. Co-ordinated over several types, shapes and sizes of digital media, the overall impression is extremely powerful. At the same time it is commercially viable for the airport through the use of sponsorship.

On a more prosaic level the massive bank of 50 or so plasma screens in the Duty Free shop at T5, all coordinated together has a more edgy, urban and ‘in your face’ impact. It’s engaging, entertaining and effective – I bought something.

Choosing a favourite among travel retail environments is difficult; not least because there is such a huge variety of lighting techniques to choose from. But for longevity of concept and overall powerful impression I would have to choose the West Duty Free offer at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Originally designed in 2006, in 2012 the rules for advertising of Liquor and Tobacco changed drastically in Thailand and an entirely new design concept based on different finishes and lighting techniques was created by The Design Solution – and led to a 25% increase in sales. Travelling through Bangkok earlier in the year I was pleased to see that the offer looks just as enticing and interesting as it did 4 years ago – emphasising the power of light.

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