Illuminated Design

Marshall Erb, Hoiland Studios and Morlights talk about what it takes to blend aesthetics and technology to beautiful results for residential lighting programs.


If you’ve ever been in a restaurant and found yourself under an annoying spotlight, or at a party with unflattering fluorescents, then you know this statement to be true: People rarely pay attention to the lighting unless it’s bad.

Unless you’re Tom Ford, that is. “Tom Ford has a famous quote: ‘Nobody looks good in overhead lighting,’” says Marshall Erb, owner and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “He actually admitted to The New York Times that if he’s in a space with overhead lighting, he has no qualms about adjusting or removing the light bulbs. At Tower Bar in Los Angeles, he has a favorite corner table in the back where he made them black out the spots.”

Ford’s obsession with lighting has earned him the nickname of Virgo Vampire, but you have to admit… The man has a point. Hard light creates clear, crisp shadows and contrast, which is dramatic and intense. Soft light has very little to no shadows and low contrast, which makes for a romantic atmosphere. Top interior designers are being tasked with striking the perfect balance for their 2023 home projects. “Today’s savvy homeowners not only want soft, nuanced illumination, they want smart, preference-programmable lighting that can simulate natural light, problem-solve, and think for itself,” says Erb. “They understand the aesthetic wellness benefits of a lighting program that supports the circadian cycle, and want to invest in a plan that looks as good as it functions.”

For 505 Nashville, the tallest residential skyscraper in Nashville, Chicago-based Morlights collaborated with SBC architects on a lighting design program that seamlessly incorporates both daylight and decorative electric light. (Photo courtesy of SCB)

According to Erb, sophisticated home lighting is both an art and a science. “Any builder can put a grid of cans in a ceiling and call it a day,” says Erb. “But when it comes to custom architectural lighting, where the lighting is sculpting the environment in tandem with the interior architecture and furniture plan, where myriad outputs are being integrated at varying color temperatures for everything from ambiance and task lighting to spotlighting art, it’s a skill set that extends beyond what even the best architects, builders and interior designers possess. At Marshall Erb Design, we always collaborate with professional lighting designers for our luxury home projects.”

Think about the last time you stayed at a five-star hotel, where you were swept up by the ambiance of the lobby and wowed by the convenience of an all-off button in your suite. “Much like your interior designer, we use an additive approach to our residential projects,” says Kiersten Hoiland, the founder and principal lighting designer behind Hoiland Studios in Chicago, a frequent Marshall Erb Design collaborator. “We start with the decorative fixtures, and then layer in architectural lighting based on the design aesthetic, the function of the space, and the client’s preferences. We work closely with the interior designer to consider the visual hierarchy, art locations, integrated lighting details in the architecture and millwork, and lighting control to make a somewhat complex lighting control system simple to operate.”

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After reviewing the decorative fixture locations with the interior designer, Hoiland Studios added flangeless recessed lights into this dining room’s lacquered ceiling to wash the drapes and opposing cabinets as well as provide additional light on the table. (Photo by Aimée Mazzenga)

The credentials required for this level of highly customized, architectural lighting solutions are no joke. In addition to having a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Interior Architecture, Hoiland is a member of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), and serves on the associate board of Designs 4 Dignity (D4D). “Lighting technology is constantly evolving,” adds Hoiland. “Keeping an ear to the ground for innovations and vetting them in our studio is how we are able to consistently bring cutting-edge and reliable lighting solutions to our clients’ projects.”

Avraham Mor, the founder and lead designer at Chicago-based Morlights, has a background in theatrical lighting and, in addition to countless luxury homes, has designed progressive programs for some of Chicago’s chicest restaurants, including Momotaro, Swift & Sons, and the new Le Select for the BOKA Restaurant Group. “The biggest residential trend right now is white tuning — a.k.a. Kelvin changing, a lighting technique that uses LEDs to adjust the white color temperature and intensity of light in a room,” says Mor. “We are animals who are connected to the circadian rhythms that guide our wake-sleep cycle. If it’s daytime and your lighting is amber, it feels weird. If it’s nighttime and your lighting is blue, it’s unnatural. We can incorporate a sensor on the roof that tracks what color the sky is in Kelvins to adjust your interior lighting accordingly throughout the day.”

Mor also cites the beloved all-off switch as a modern homeowner favorite — and, better still, the all-off fade. “Electricity is expensive, and it’s not getting cheaper,” says Mor. “It’s convenient and cost-effective to have an all-off switch for large homes. When you leave, the lighting and audio goes off, and the security turns on. But we can also set it up so that the lighting turns off on a very slow fade, giving you time to get out of the house as the lights dim to off behind you, followed by a security mode for the land lights. We can even layer in motion sensors for enough light for your Roomba to clean room by room while you’re away. The customization is endless, which makes each project unique and fun.”

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In this high-rise bedroom, Hoiland Studios incorporated a linear LED within a new ceiling cove to wash down the accent wall and provide ambient light in the space. (Photo by Michael Kaskel Photography

Still wavering on whether or not the ROI is right for you? Erb has an anecdote that could sway your decision. “A few years back, we were working with a client on the renovation of their 14,500-square-foot home in Naperville, Ill. When they first built the home, they opted out of an automated lighting program to save money, only to realize later that it took them 40 minutes to turn off every light in the house because of its size. That’s 40 minutes gone from your day — every day. The moral of the story is that lighting should never be an afterthought for luxury home design. It’s more expensive to go in later and add an embedded lighting program than to build it into the architecture the first time. And don’t be afraid of technology. It’s not fragile, and you’ll be wowed by the quality of life benefits.”