June 2020

Matthew Tirschwell, MIES
Founder, Tirschwell & Co., Inc.

Q: How did you first get started in the lighting industry?
Like many others, I am a product of the theater world. I was born and raised in Manhattan and attend a lot of theatrical productions. In high school I was quite active in stage production which included renting lighting equipment from Scott Thurm who owned Universe Stage Lighting - more on that later. My undergraduate degree from Ithaca College was in theater arts, but while studying in London during my junior year I happened upon an architectural lighting show called HiLight. Compared to the six or so lighting fixtures available in the theater at the time, here were hundreds if not thousands of different lighting products. At first, I had the naive concept of using architectural fixtures in my theatrical productions (low-pressure sodium anyone?), however quickly realized that this was not going to fly. It was a lecture back in New York City given by Mark Kruger on his use of theatrical techniques in a furniture showroom that really set the stage for my entry into the architectural lighting world. Mark happened to be a professor at Parsons School of Design, which is where I ultimately enrolled and received my MFA in 1995.

My first “real job” was with Flack and Kurtz Consulting Engineers (F&K) which lasted all of three weeks. The highly corporate environment was not suited to my disposition, nor to Gary Gordon, my mentor at the time who a week after I started at F&K announced that he was leaving for Horton Lees and would I like to join him? This lasted for about an 18-month run at Horton Lees. I then joined up - in the "only in NY" small world - with Scott Thurm. He and I did turnkey design and supply for the hip Costume National store with its all black interior (my first Lumen Award given in 1998), Emporio Armani stores nationally, and residential projects. In 1999, and after three years at Universe, I decided it was time to open my own shop. That shop happened to be in the basement of Linnaea Tillett’s mother's townhouse on the Upper East Side. In the winter, the pipes banged so loudly I would have to hang up the phone on whomever I was speaking to. Looking back, I can trace my interest in residential lighting design from a project that literally walked through the doors at Horton Lees. An electrician, Greg Sanza, showed up on the doorstep with a loft project on Greene Street. I was fascinated. Twenty years later, with hundreds of projects completed, we continue to embrace the unlimited potential found in residential commissions. Coupled with many residential projects, we found that lighting art was of critical importance to our clients. This led to many opportunities to light galleries and exhibitions. One of our favorites was Calder Shadows, the lighting conceived and installed by my design director David Burya. This project, in conjunction with the Calder Foundation, placed the mobiles as supporting actors to the shadows they created. The effect was mesmerizing.

Q: How did you first get involved in the IESNYC?
I honestly do not recall my foray into the IESNYC, though I am confident it was during the Horton Lees years. I definitely attended a number of industry events, and also was placed in charge of one monthly event where Leni Schwendinger pre-recorded a talk about her work for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. People used this new technology called cell phones to dial in while they walked around admiring her work. I recall being asked by the IESNYC to give a lecture about Costume National, which for a young member as I was at the time, was absolutely terrifying. An older audience member thought my backlighted fiber optic shelves were glaring. Because I was so nervous, and perhaps a little arrogant, I told him that the store wasn’t really for him.

Q: How do you see your role as member of the IESNYC?
I am a terrible member. I will be the first to admit it. I let my membership lapse too often. I don’t participate in the same manner that I used to when I was young and had fewer responsibilities. Of course, it is all a matter of priorities. At Ithaca I became a part of the city’s fire department as a volunteer. I also received my EMT license in college. And for decades I have volunteered for a number of wonderful organizations which has certainly kept my focus. Recently, I started a foundation called EMS Access Inc to help volunteer emergency medical agencies in best practices. It coincided with my own company's leadership and management changes. And I hope that in short order I can use this platform to get the lighting community to embrace what I am so excited about. For starters, I think it would be great to get the entire IESNYC community CPR and First Aid trained, and to continue that training every two years. It is only an afternoon commitment. And proceeds could benefit the volunteer agencies that operate in NYC. Returning to IESNYC, I suspect that once I have kicked the kids out of the house, I will be able to to help an organization that has given me more than I have given it.

Q: In your opinion, what are the best assets of the IESNYC?
The best assets of the IESNYC, like any strong association, are its members. So many people step up to volunteer their time to better the organization and the lighting community as a whole without thought of personal benefit. Adrienne Shulman (who was my master electrician at Plays in the Park during the summer of one college break), Clara Powell and the Lumen Committee are my heroes for all they do to create the Lumen Awards. I have always enjoyed this celebration especially in 2009, when I won a Lumen for Bar Boulud. For me it has become a reunion as many of my colleagues come to this event. At the same time, I look around at all these young faces that I do not know and am excited about what they will bring to the table as they grow. As some would say, the best is yet to come.