It’s Monday morning. Brett Ronald-Howell bounds into the cafe and orders his first almond cappuccino of the day. The staff at 8Days all know it’s more about the daily ritual of this lighting designer than any desperate need for caffeine.
That’s what they tell me, anyway, as Brett pulls up a chair to talk about his job that, quite literally, ‘lights up his life’.
Brett came into the lighting business in a fairly roundabout way.
He grew up in the port city of New Plymouth, in the Taranaki region of New Zealand’s North Island. He dabbled in the food and hospitality industry as a chef’s apprentice. Then he turned his attention to tourism. He moved to Wellington, qualified as a travel agent and explored various travel-related positions.
Brett had always been attracted to design, though, and along the way had also completed a Diploma in Interior Design. In his mid-twenties, opportunity knocked and he made his first venture into retail lighting. For several years, he operated his own store in Wellington.
Eventually, he heard London calling. He decided to answer, upped sticks and left the Land of the Long White Cloud. He stopped off in Melbourne to avoid a mid-winter arrival in the Old Dart.
Twenty years on, he’s still in Melbourne, and for most of that time, he’s been working with Custom Lighting’s clients.
While perusing the newspaper for cheap flights to the UK, he happened on a job advertisement for Custom Lighting. It struck him that he’d previously met one of Custom’s representatives, who had walked into his Wellington store to discuss the distribution of Custom’s products in NZ.
“I still had the business card. I looked them up, and that was how it started”.
Brett is a man of movement, though these days he burns his left-over energy at the local gym.
Once upon a time, there was always room for other pursuits. A physical fitness enthusiast, he taught ‘jazzercise’ in New Plymouth, and aerobics in Wellington.
“Those were the days of peak Olivia, headbands, leotards and leggings,” he reminds me.
Brett also had a long involvement with the NZ Opera, as well as theatre, music, and ballet. He even dabbled in TV advertising.
In Melbourne, he worked in amateur theatre. He’s a fan of musicals.
“My favourites are Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – I had a role in that – and Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which I wasn’t in.
“And it might not win me too many fans, but I hate Cats – the musical, that is!”
At Custom Lighting Brett has the opportunity to work in a bigger commercial enterprise – he’s very much a hands-on lighting designer.
The most satisfying aspect of his work is to have customers say how thrilled they are with the results.
He’s also aware of the responsibility it involves.
“Customers sometimes need to have a lot of faith in my recommendations. I remember selling a chandelier that cost almost $100,000 – that’s a big investment. So it’s really important customers are always happy about their choices.”
Brett is a great believer in the central role of lighting in the overall design and decor of a living space.
“As a lighting designer, I take a whole room approach. After speaking with the customers, asking a lot of questions, looking at photos and even doing home visits, I’m in a position where I can give sound advice about function and placement, and make suggestions about the style of lighting that will best complement the overall effect the customer wants to achieve.”
Most customers browse for products and styles, including the latest ‘looks’, online. They might fall in love with a particular design, and Brett’s job is to track it down or show them something similar from Custom Lighting’s wide range.
The limitless number of options can be a mixed blessing.
“Sometimes they see so many possibilities online, they can’t decide. Other times, they see a trend that just isn’t right for their home or lifestyle. The challenge then is to steer them gently towards a far better solution”.
“Lighting is fundamental to the whole design statement, so it makes a lot of sense,” Brett tells me.
Brett excuses himself politely and heads to the door with a smile on his face. It’s time for this lighting designer to cross the road and open the Custom Lighting studio to clients. No longer does he need the smell of the greasepaint, but he still very much relishes the roar of the crowd. The waiter tells me Brett is also partial to a second almond capp before lunch.