Let There be Light

PROFILE-Nov/Dec 2011

BY Rebecca Falzano | Photography Irvin Serrano

David Brearey and Randall Cushman took an unconventional path to lighting. Now, they use unconventional lighting to make paths.


Humans have always sought light.

Since the beginning of time, we’ve looked for ways to harness it. We lived by the flicker of firelight and candlelight long before we figured out electricity. Light does so much more than just illuminate what’s around us—it envelopes us. Light is the opposite of dark. Light is life.

If done right, lighting design determines how we interact with a space and how we discover it. When done expertly, it becomes an art form.

David Brearey and Randall Cushman, principals of Hill Road Lighting Design, are experts at using light to make spaces unfold. Which is why, when I showed up at their home office in Wells, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find them working beneath a sprawling canopy of light fixtures. But there were just so many. Dozens and dozens of them, running the gamut in materials, styles, sizes, and types: some made of glass, others fabric; some elaborate, others minimalist. Traditional and high-tech. LEDs, sconces, pendants, recessed, spotlights, and globes. And numbering more than the fixtures themselves were shelves upon shelves of lighting catalogs—“fixture eye candy” some might call it all. But for Brearey and Cushman, they are more like volumes of one massive lighting designer’s bible.

“I don’t expect anyone to have this many fixtures,” says Brearey with a smile. “I just want to be surrounded by them.”

Brearey and Cushman are partners in business and in life. They met in 1982 and started coming to Maine together in the mid-1990s (but Cushman is quick to state he was born here). In 1998 they started Hill Road Lighting Design out of their historic home in Wells, and soon the business shifted focus from landscape lighting to interior and exterior lighting design. While they each have distinct roles (Brearey does design and Cushman manages the technology and lighting-control systems), they both love light. And their home is proof; it’s a showplace of their talents at play. Fixtures adorn virtually every suitable square foot, many controlled by electronic dimmers and timers—the digital conductors of their symphony of light.

The real conductors of this orchestra, of course, are Brearey and Cushman. Their score is a lighting schedule, and together they have made a livelihood out of directing light for clients in Maine and beyond. In any field, nontraditional backgrounds often provide a richer store of experience to draw from. So is the case with Brearey. Rather than studying lighting design or stage lighting (a common start for lighting professionals), he started out as an electrician and a general operations manager for a large electrical firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. “For years, I was a grunt crawling through attics,” he says. “But there were all these great designers who were our clients. So I got to see it all.”

In the field Brearey met internationally acclaimed lighting designer Jan Moyer. Moyer wrote the book on landscape lighting (literally) and now leads the Landscape Lighting Research Institute at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where Brearey is also an instructor. A few years ago, he taught a course on the professional relationship between electricians and lighting designers. “I would tell students right at the beginning, you need to know something about electricity. It gives you an appreciation for what it takes to get this stuff in. It gives you a rapport and an ease with clients that a lighting designer might not necessarily otherwise have.”

The duo’s rapport with their clients also comes, in part, from their varied life interests and education. Cushman graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology and has years of computer programming experience. He also worked for a former San Francisco mayor. In addition to having his master’s and doctorate in ecology and behavioral ecology from Yale University and Durham University in England (respectively), Brearey is certified in aesthetic tree pruning, garden maintenance, greenhouse management, and landscape design.

Second to lighting design, Brearey’s next great love is pruning. While traveling the world, he came to believe that the defining feature of the most impressive cities and landscapes was their care for and layout of trees. These days, Brearey combines his talent and passion for trees and lighting—in fact, according to Cushman, Brearey will never light a tree unless he’s had a chance to prune it first. “There’s a lot of comparison between lighting and pruning,” Brearey says. “When you prune a tree for a focal point, you want people to look at it. Lighting is kind of the same; it’s a way to determine where someone’s eyes go.”

Directing the eyes is Hill Road’s specialty. When working with architects, the two bring clients into their office, and this is where the conversation—and exploring the fixtures library—begins. “People are amazed by what we have here, what’s out there,” says Brearey. “I always start by asking them: What are you going to be doing in that room? How do you want to feel when you’re there? Do you go there when you’re going to read? When you just need a little solitary moment? Are the kids going to be there? And then we determine just how all the different functions in that room work together, which is where the layering of light comes in.” Unlike typical applications that rely on grids of recessed lights, Brearey and Cushman’s preference is to try to fill a space with rich ambient light, relegating recessed fixtures to what they are meant for: task lighting and accent lighting. “I get called a fixture diva,” admits Brearey. “But I just want to help people find something that’s worthy of their house.” And these days, good lighting is as much about controlling natural light as it is about designing artificial light. “Daylighting is crucial for architects,” says Brearey. “It’s really become its own science.”

As a science, lighting design is as much psychological as it is mechanical. Instinctively, people want to be enveloped in light. “Light is like a path that unfolds as you go,” says Brearey. “Light makes you comfortable. ‘Wow’ is always great to hear, but you don’t always want ‘wow.’ While the look is important, function is critical. A beautiful fixture that does what it’s supposed to and is beautiful at the same time? Bingo.”