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Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day

The principals at lighting design firm Visual Terrain consider a successful project to be one in which the lights are not noticed. Not ignored by a visitor to, say, a shopping center or seated at a concert or strolling by a fountain, just not noticed because the lights blend in with the overall environment. Lighting isn’t only about safety and function, it’s also about creating an environment and particularly how the visitor engages with that environment. “It’s all about connecting people and creating an excitement and emotional control that people have,” said Dawn Hollingsworth, one of the three principals at Visual Terrain and the one most involved with the daily business operations. Hollingsworth and partners Jeff Ravitz and Lisa Passamonte Green have long been involved with lighting design but didn’t come together as Visual Terrain until eight years ago following a merger. With 17 employees, the firm is considered large in an industry where designers often work solo or with one or two assistants. Each member of the trio has their role at the Van Nuys-based company and they insist no fighting takes place over any territory. Each recognizes the strengths the others bring. Ravitiz, for instance, travels the most, handling the live events that use Visual Terrain-designed lighting. While much of the country watched the Super Bowl on television, Ravitz was there in person to oversee the lighting for the halftime performance by Bruce Springsteen, a client for nearly two decades. Green also does a fair amount of traveling and handles projects primarily at theme parks and entertainment centers. That leaves Hollingsworth to work on smaller scale projects while taking care of the administrative and operational duties at the offices located in a business park. This division of labor was not by design but happened naturally as the three gravitated toward what interested each of them following the merger between Green’s firm and the one that Hollingsworth and Ravitz were partners in. Green, in fact, admits to being frightened about taking on partners as she had operated on her own prior to the merger. But discussions with Hollingsworth eased her concerns when he showed a willingness for the three partners to grow together to have a successful business. “You put them all together and they can answer any question you have about lighting,” said Rock Hall, principal and chairman of Technifex Inc., a Santa Clarita-based fabricator for themed attractions that worked with Visual Terrain on the “Titanic: The Experience” exhibit on the Fox Studio Backlot in Sydney, Australia, and a chandelier using crystal fiber optic strands at the Pechanga Casino in Temecula. Working in five areas architecture, themed attractions, concerts and live events, film and television, and special projects Visual Terrain lighting can be found all over the world. In addition to Springsteen, Ravitz includes the rock group Styx, country crooner Shania Twain and former Beatle Ringo Starr as clients using his concert lighting. Theme park attractions and displays include those at Six Flags parks, Kings Island, and Universal Islands of Adventure. In the Los Angeles area, the firm has designed lighting at LA Live in downtown and at the Americana at Brand in Glendale. Prior to the merger, Hollingsworth designed the lighted columns leading to Los Angeles International Airport in such a way as to give visitors a sense they were someplace special. Natural progression Green, Hollingsworth and Ravitz all have backgrounds in theater but then pursued different directions with their careers. Green went to the show lighting group at Walt Disney Imagineering, an experience that provided a strong foundation on which to start her firm when she struck out on her own. Hollingsworth and Ravitz met in Chicago. Hollingsworth had gone from the theater to consulting work, architectural lighting and the manufacturing of lighting fixtures. She considered it a natural progression to join Ravitz in a design firm with another partner. When Visual Terrain started in 2001, it was a time of mixing entertainment with other activities within a specially designed structure. “You weren’t going to dinner anymore, you were going to have an experience,” Green said. This convergence, exemplified by themed restaurants, has now evolved into lifestyle centers such as the Americana. For that project Visual Terrain designed all the lighting for the public areas and the building facades that brought all the architectural elements together to promote the brand of its developer, Rick Caruso. While architecture is perceived to be a daytime experience, the designers at Visual Terrain use light to reveal space in a different way when darkness falls. A private 1,600-acre project the company did in Dubai incorporated a double helix sculpture in a roundabout that appeared to spin when viewed from a passing vehicle during the daylight hours and then at night became a light source. Technifex’s Hall has found that the Visual Terrain designers understand the special needs lighting has to fill. When lighting moving water, the team has a feel for position and angle of the lights so it looks good from the guest’s point of view, he said. “If we are reflecting light off a mirror and don’t want the mirror to show. They understand how to make that work,” Hall said. Peaks and valleys By working in five different areas, the three partners find it easier to get through weak periods in any one sector. The partners also employed a strategy of containing the company’s growth and not accepting work if there was not the staff to do it. The global economic downturn has slowed the pace of large overseas projects, particularly in Dubai, that Visual Terrain contributes to. What may come out of this situation is a more thoughtful design process, Hollingsworth said, a process in which the proper time is given to how lighting will fit in. Taking time to make a better design can, in the end, save money. “It is challenging to get people to think that way,” Hollingsworth said. “But good design practices will have a resurgence rather than fast practices.” SPOTLIGHT: Visual Terrain Year Founded: 2001 Revenues in 2007: $2.1 million Revenues in 2008: $2.4 million Employees in 2007: 16 Employees in 2008: 17

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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