Nikolay Kabluka is the founder of Expolight, which is engaged in architectural light design in Ukraine and abroad. For 20 years Expolight has implemented more than 1,500 projects.
In Ukraine the most famous are such as the interactive sculpture “The Heart of Ukraine”, Dnipro Light Flowers, interactive Art Boulevard in Dnipro, Freedom and Peace Square in Mariupol, media sculpture “Cube” in Chicago Central House in Kiev.
In his interview to Huxleў Nikolay told about how he managed to shape the lighting design market in Ukraine, how he combines creativity and management in a team, and about the meaning he puts into his projects.
ABOUT LIGHTING DESIGN
Architectural lighting design is an area that has just begun to develop in Ukraine. To build a building you need a huge investment. Light is 1% of the cost, but it increases the effect of the object many times over. It is a kind of catalyst, which enhances the chemical reaction.
In countries with a developed design culture, such as Germany, the United States, Britain, there is no question of whether a lighting designer is needed. It comes into play at the conception stage. Because light is not just about technique. It’s about conveying an emotional state – emotionality and sublimity, tranquillity and cosiness.
THE LAUNCH OF THE COMPANY
I started the company when I was in my fifth year of applied mathematics. It was an absolute startup: I even borrowed money for my first computer. The idea was born out of an interest in light: I was working part-time for a company that did advertising and the most exciting part of the job for me was the light experiments. On my first trip abroad, I saw churches in Poland and Italy being lit.
In 20 years we created a culture of light design in our country. At the beginning it seemed completely impossible. There were rolling blackouts all over the country, and I still remember the candlelit stalls.
Most of my acquaintances shrugged their shoulders and didn’t believe I would find orders. But I never had any doubts. The first significant objects began to appear in 2-3 years. About 10 years ago I had to explain to restaurateurs and developers how much the lighting changes the feel of an object.
Now we have the opposite situation: I do not want to grow a big corporation and realize mediocre projects. We chose to do things that interest us, and we turn down most of our inbound requests. We work with projects that allow us to use new approaches and technologies. That’s why we don’t have a firm belief that everything will work out and we often adjust objects as we go along. This is a huge headache, but we consciously chose this pace.
ABOUT THE TEAM
There are about 70 people in the company right now. We haven’t had any dramatic growth and that’s a good thing. A child who grows up too fast will curl up embarrassed by his growth. And a company that multiplies in a short period of time runs the risk of losing its value. Such a business becomes something separate from the founder’s soul, a business process rather than a team. I try to keep a connection between the founder and the employees.
We have a conceptual design department, which I essentially head. Those 10 people work with creativity, but the rest of us also pull up to understand the aesthetic aspect. We make models on 3D printers, we have a lab where we can experiment. All areas of our company – even the finance department, electrical engineers, salespeople – are quite flexible and feel like creators.
ON THE BALANCE OF CREATIVITY AND MANAGEMENT
If we were a collective of free artists, we wouldn’t be able to make serious objects. It’s a constant work – to develop management, structure, business processes, meet deadlines and leave the freedom for the main thing. And not just live by the principle of “if I have inspiration – I write, if I don’t have inspiration – I don’t write.
We build everything on a balance of the creative and technical, aesthetics and calculation formulas. Because our profession is half engineering and half creative. To do this, I pay a lot of attention to the culture of creativity, threading processes onto structure. That’s why, although we work all over the world, we have only one office – in Dnipro. It is our assembly point where the whole team periodically gets together and shares ideas.
At the same time, the team is geared up for business trips, we have developed planning and logistics skills, and everything that can be solved remotely is solved remotely. It includes negotiations with customers, administration and project settings. We had an office in Kiev, but when we built it, we realized it was better to let everyone cross over in one place, learn, experiment and then go around the world.
ABOUT THE GOALS OF THE BUSINESS
I’m not the type of entrepreneur whose main focus is numbers. I’m not interested in a business that will make a profit without my involvement. I’m at work almost 20 hours a day, and I clearly analyze what I’m putting my time into.
Of course, we have team leaders, and my main tasks are strategic decisions, creativity, negotiations with clients at the stage when it is necessary to consider a subtle request, because everyone expects something new from us.
I’m more of an inventor and designer who has entrepreneurial qualities without which nothing would work out. I feel a special joy when I manage to come up with something new. I prioritize goals and objectives, and money is a side effect, the result of making unique things. But by no means the other way around.
ABOUT INTERACTION WITH OBJECTS
In the Chicago Central House apartment complex in Kiev, we decided to make Europe’s first large-scale digital sculpture. Once people built with wood and stone, then with brick and concrete, to be replaced by lightweight metal constructions and glass, which allow you to create fantastic forms. And now the world has become semi-virtual, and we see it through a smartphone screen. So the pinnacle of construction evolution is the digital material.
We wanted the object to look volumetric and moving and not to make its movements seem random. So we had the beautiful idea that Kiev generates data flows: arrivals and departures at Boryspil airport, the number of flights per minute and their range, the average speed of people moving through Kiev neighborhoods, the density of mobile operators’ calls. We take these data online, calculate by special formulas and express form.
Besides, every Kiev citizen can feel as a sculptor. Not many people know about it, but there is a small cube in front of the big one, and you can change the virtual form by touching it.
Similarly, you can “communicate” with our other projects. For example, on the square in Mariupol, you can create and launch a laser figurine of a dolphin. You can choose a profession for it, dress it up, color it, and everything appears on the screen. Then the person presses the “Bring it to life” button, the dolphin jumps out and swims around the square.
ABOUT THE FOREIGN ORDERS
We have decided to stay in Ukraine. That is why we try not to take too many foreign projects. But we do collaborate with our international colleagues and participate in the major international contests. Every year we get on the short lists, become winners, take grand prix. It is important for us, living in Ukraine, not to be isolated at the local level, but to be the top in the global dimension.
For instance, I just came back from New York, where we launched a new Buddha Bar in the most expensive area of the city – lower Manhattan. Buddha Bar is a global brand, but we were able to convince them to move away from the basic thing: their sculpture of Buddha is always made of yellow metal, but we realized the first time in the world that it was made of holographic glass.
The multiple layers and multiple projectors create the illusion of a hologram, that is, a three-dimensional silhouette of the Buddha, which is filled with water and has fireflies flying around inside of it and beating on the inner contours. We caused a sensation even before the restaurant opened.
ABOUT EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT
I select people according to the principle of potential and energy. If we divide the plane by the axis of coordinates, we get four squares: what a person can or cannot do, and what he wants or does not want. There are practically no “can and want” people on the market.
Those who either can’t or don’t want to are of no use to anyone. So you have to choose between “I can, but I don’t want to” and “I can’t, but I want to. I definitely choose the second variant because if a person can’t do it, he can be taught.
Students from senior courses come to us. And that’s good, because if a person is stiff in his knowledge, it’s very difficult to retrain him. The main thing is to understand that the person fits the values and is ready for the right pace, creativity, and responsibility.
We have a list of qualities that are cut off at the interview stage with the HR manager. But the final interviews take place with my personal participation. I get a feel for the person, see if there is a match at the level of basic values. I know all the employees personally, and for me it is important that all the people fit together.
My constant challenge is to think about where to develop each person. Someone has been promising, but he’s not good at it, and it’s better to move him to another department where he can develop. If the person has nowhere else to develop, I can talk to them frankly. I try to make our cooperation lively, so people get not only money but also emotional return. There is no sap in a dead tree. Both sides have to give something of value. As a result, people work in the company for a long time, sometimes for 10-15 years.
ABOUT THE MOST INTERESTING PROJECTS
I like objects that have a social message. If you take Maslow’s pyramid, the first level for us is technology, the second – aesthetics, and the third – meaning, philosophy and positive social impact. When you manage to cover all three levels, I think it’s a perfect project.
My favorite installation is “The Heart of Ukraine” at Ukraine Wow. Because I saw masses of people with glistening eyes bringing their kids up to it and taking selfies. The sculpture pulsed with light, and when a person approached it, they felt a heartbeat. This symbolized that the “Heart of Ukraine” feels and loves each of us.
In Dnipro we turned the pipes into an art installation of Dnipro Light Flowers. It is about the fact that Dnipro is no longer an industrial city, but the chimney remained as a symbol of what once gave impetus to the region. Now, instead of smoke and dirt, the chimneys emit high-tech light with lasers, which blooms into huge flowers every evening.
I was also hooked by the project with 25 birds of peace in Mariupol, which is on the border with the occupied territory. There are lasers and lights built into the birds, and on the wings we placed embroideries of specific regions. We studied the ornaments, adapted them, drew light and shade. The birds are similar, but all ornaments are different, as Ukraine is diverse.
In addition, we made a website for this area. There is the statistics that 90% of the population of the Donetsk region has never left the region. That’s why we have made QR codes of every region, which lead to the site with the super beautiful photos. This project has become a novelty for Mariupol as we can see hundreds of unique scans even in winter. And the laser projection that covers the entire area is the largest permanent projection in the world.
I have seen the eyes of young children, their genuine enthusiasm, their joy. Even when they leave their hometown, they will remember how happy their parents were in the square. They will have bright impressions from their childhood connected with Mariupol. For me that gleam in people’s eyes is the most valuable thing.
Photos courtesy of Nikolay Kabluka