Artist Spotlight: David Bergman, Architect and Lighting Designer

David Bergman of David Bergman Architects and Fire and Water in New York City believes strongly in the concept of well designed spaces that are ecologically responsible. For over twenty five years David has been conceptualizing structures with both eyes on the impact on the planet in the process. He firmly reasons that just because a design or product is deemed green it does not need to be out of reach financially for a client and that choosing green should be the paramount decision to ensure the client lives a long and healthy life in their space.

Describe a day in your personal or professional life.

One of the great (and sometimes difficult) things about having a multi-headed career is that I really don’t have a typical day. At any given point, I may be involved in my architectural projects (designing, researching, site visits) or lighting development for Fire & Water (design, research, production) or teaching (research, writing, grading, speaking).

As I wrote this, I noticed that research was the common element to all three. A hefty portion of almost any day is spent reading articles or books, or checking out new materials or just online searching. I’m not sure whether Bloglines has helped or hindered my day!

Though I risk succumbing to “green fatigue,” the never ending new information, new solutions and new ideas are a constant stimulus.

Who or what influences your work and why?

Oh, there are many. A professional model is the Eames. The range and originality of their endeavors, as well as the fact that they worked together as my wife and I do, is inspiring.
And though my father had his faults, the fact that he was the best at what he did (he was a science journalist, who covered, among other things, the early days of environmentalism) was, when I was younger, both a positive and a daunting example.

Is it your personal belief that creativity and the ability to create art is innate?

I don’t think I’ve ever given this much thought. For one thing, it’s a really loaded question: what is creativity and what is art and all that? Then I’d have to ask: does it matter where it comes from and whether it’s innate or not?

When did you first become interested in the planning and execution of building structures?

That probably goes back to the fact that, as a child, I had every conceivably building toy: wooden blocks, Lincoln Logs, Erector sets, Legos, Kenner “Girder and Panel” sets, etc. And there were the model railroads and the slot car tracks as well as Matchbox cars and trucks that I played with until I was way too old. Mountains and tunnels made of Plaster of Paris and chicken wire were great fun.

I recreated the Matchbox cars collection via the early days of EBay, so I guess I’m still playing with them.

My parents built a house when I was about 12. They had a messy falling out with the architect/builder — lawsuits and all that — so I was afraid to tell them for a few years that I wanted to be an architect.

Are you LEED certified? Can you explain that to us?
Yes, I took the test and got my LEED accreditation in 2004. (Being a bit nitpicky here: buildings can get certified, people get accredited.) LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a rating system for buildings. Depending on how many criteria a building fulfills, it can be LEED certified or silver, gold or platinum LEED certified. And the test for a person to become a LEED Accredited Professional looks at your knowledge both of the LEED system and eco building design in general.
I swore after passing my architectural licensing exam (which is an ordeal, often spanning several years), that I would never take an exam again. Twenty years later I had to break down and take the LEED exam.
What types of passive energy do you specify? How have your selections changed over the past decade?
Passive energy design is often the best way to achieve a green building since it is inherently less complicated and often less expensive. A lot of my work, though, has been in renovation (that’s changing now — more new construction projects) and many passive tools, such as controlling sizes and directions of windows and overhangs or ventilation are pre-ordained in existing structures. In my apartment renovations, light is a major theme and consideration. One recent loft had most of its light coming from one narrow side so the opposite (entrance) end was very dark. Our design opened this up so that the windows were visible immediately when you entered, there were very few full height walls and most those were translucent.
I’m working on a house renovation/addition now in which we’re adding a central two and a half story space that will act as a natural ventilation chimney and help cool the house in the summer, while the south facing skylight will warm it in the winter.

Are there products or materials you spec that may not immediately be viewed as sustainable but hold up better over time thus negating additional manufacturing needs?
I once asked a trade show exhibitor (not naming names, but it was one of the big chemical companies) if his new plastic material had any eco qualities. He answered “well, it lasts a really long time.” This is often the rationale for materials such as stone or, worse, vinyl and other not-so-eco materials. While there are times when durability can balance out other negative aspects, I try not to get myself into a place where I have to make that kind of choice. Today, there are so many great green materials, that there’s almost no excuse for deliberately choosing something environmentally nasty.
What materials do you feel can make the largest impact toward a healthier life by choosing green?
A little known fact is that we spend, on average, 90% of our lives indoors That means that, despite all the emphasis the environmental movement has put on clean air since the 60’s, we need to look even more carefully at the quality of our indoor air. We don’t, for example, want to use materials that offgas toxic chemicals such as VOCs into our homes and offices. Carpets, paints and cleansers are among the products we should evaluate for offgassing and other problems. And I don’t want vinyl in my home (or elsewhere for that matter) because, among other issues, its fumes are deadly in a fire.
How did your clients respond the first time you recommended a green product?
I assume you’re asking about clients who are not already into eco design before they come to me. I usually load the dice by framing the question like this: if we can create a green design that doesn’t add to the cost and doesn’t sacrifice design, are you open to it? Put that way, it’s pretty hard for them to say no.
For my already converted clients, I ask them where their green interests lie: (A) in saving their family’s health, (B) saving money or (C) saving the planet. More often than not, it’s all three.
Where did your first inspiration come from?
Probably somewhere in that mix of building sets and Plaster of Paris and artificial model railroad lichen, making a mess of my parents’ basement.

How long have you been teaching sustainable design at Parsons School of Design?
I’ve been teaching there around 15 years. Though my early courses weren’t about sustainability, I began to sneak some elements into them. Then when the topic started to heat up (around 2001), the chair of the Product Design department, knowing my work and interest in the field, asked me to create a syllabus for a new course. Following that, I developed courses for several other departments as well.
Have you seen an increase in interest from students in this field of study recently?
Definitely, and perhaps more significantly, their “eco-literacy” coming into the courses is stronger than in the past.
I’ve also seen an increased emphasis on sustainability in their theses. I’d like to think that’s at least in part due to the influence of my courses.
Can you tell me about your creative process?
I’d say it goes back to that emphasis on research. What usually happens is a series of explorations in various directions which simultaneously engenders a deep level of familiarity with the specific issues and goals involved while showing which paths are fruitful and which aren’t. In the end, there is often a synthesis of those results and paths that I like, with the result being a solution that seems inevitable when looked back upon.
Were you influenced by the Green Movement?
Of course, though I’d have to say it came in two waves. I missed being a hippy by only a few years, but I still got caught up in the early environmental movement and then literally caught in the 1973 gas lines. I had just gotten my driver’s license, so one of my chores was filling my parents’ cars. It wasn’t so much about price (as it is now) as it was about the lines and availability and rationing. The eco movement on a local level at that point consisted mainly of sporadic protests and paper recycling drives. I recall heading my high school’s “Ecology Club” and volunteering for local wetlands surveys.
My involvement took a hiatus in the eighties. Eco design didn’t exist in architecture school back then, and was barely, if at all, on the radars of most architecture firms. In the early nineties, though, I had started my own architecture practice and then started Fire & Water, my lighting company. In the same period, new materials and new technologies began to be available, along with a renewed public awareness of eco issues.My light fixture designs have often been a result of being inspired by new materials, while anticipating new technology.

What have you incorporated into your lifestyle to facilitate going green and conserving energy?
The most visible example would probably be my folding bicycle. I’ve always been a cyclist — it’s one of the best ways to get around NYC. It’s faster than driving in the city, it’s free and you get exercise as well. What a deal!
I switched to the folder a few years ago when I was commuting once a week to New Haven (to teach a course at Yale). I could bike to Grand Central Terminal, fold the bike for the train ride and then bike from New Haven station to campus.
Are there any historical or contemporary artists that you specifically admire?
I mentioned the Eames as a sort of role model. As an eco designer, I admire Buckminster Fuller, who brought a perspective on who and what we and our planet are, and used that perspective to come up with strikingly innovative ideas.
What is important to you about conservation and preserving our environment?
It’s part and parcel of how we see ourselves and our relationships both to each other and to our environment. How can you be a “good person” (I try to write that unsanctimoniously) without considering how you interact with everything around you?
What is your favorite project or work you’ve completed thus far?
The one just finished! I’d like to think my work is a continuous evolution, combining all that research with new experience, so each finished project is better than the last one.

What challenges have you had in your work?
Until fairly recently, it was hard to find enough eco materials and products that didn’t have the granola look or didn’t break the bank. That made it hard to convince both clients and me to use them.
Do you feel that the Internet has a positive or negative influence on art? How does the Internet affect your work?
When I was in architecture school, we used to refer to “xerox architecture” because it was the early years of post-modernism, we were all looking at historical design and there was a huge temptation to tack up photocopies of influences and then, in turn, be overly influenced by them.
There certainly is that risk in the Internet as well, especially in terms of how fast trends spread and how regionalism is falling to globalism, but I think the downside is more than offset by the tremendous value of information availability. (There’s that research aspect again.)
What is your greatest ambition as an artist?
Seeing oneself as a designer versus an artist yields a different perspective on that question. A designer, and in particular an architect, has a different set of responsibilities because of the applied art nature of the work. Our work unavoidably affects people. You can choose not go to a museum to see fine art, but you can’t really choose to see or occupy buildings, or not use products. So I might answer that my ambition would be to have a lasting positive impact — on both people and the planet.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m working on some rooms in an eco showhouse and having a lot of fun both selecting green materials, borrowing eco furniture from designer friends, and designing some new pieces. My favorite is a color changing LED chandelier I’m designing that will hang decadently over a free-standing bath tub. The chandelier is made from recycled glass “pebbles” and a salvaged bicycle wheel.
And there’s the East Hampton house renovation/addition I mentioned earlier. I convinced the clients not to tear it down and start over, so now I have to show them that we can do as much or more by re-configuring the existing house. The two story “tower” is being inserted into the center of the house where it currently has an odd open air court that’s mainly useful for accumulating leaves. This allows us to create more usable space without expanding the footprint, while simultaneously making that ventilation “chimney.”

What advice would you give a young artist just getting started?
This is probably better directed to designers than to artists, but one of the things I often advise my students is to question their assumptions, that truly innovative designs often require going back to square one in order to come up [with] solutions that are more than tweaks to existing solutions.
What “Green” Product would you recommend to our readers?
I don’t think it’s a useful approach to anoint a “top green product” because the issues and, therefore, the solutions are complex. A focus on one product, for instance changing one light bulb to CFL, can lead people to think that once they’ve done that, they’ve done their part.
That said, of course I can recommend my light fixtures!
What is your best going green tip?
We have a rule in our house, which is that we have to have needed something three times before we actually buy it. The point of this, aside from the fact that we have a NYC apartment and hence not enough space, is to address over-consumption and the accumulation of “stuff.”
I’ve borrowed video cameras three times in the past year, so we’re now going to finally get one.
Do you have a website or online presence where people can view your work?
Sure, our website is and from there you can go into either our architectural work, or to Fire & Water, our lighting company, or to Lori’s graphic design work. We also have, which is Lori’s new company working on green gifts for the corporate world. While working on events, she got tired of seeing all the wasteful things put into “goodie bags” and other gifts, and decided there was a need for better, greener alternatives.
Smart Energy Technology:

3 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight: David Bergman, Architect and Lighting Designer

  1. Judi FitzPatrick

    Another great interview. Love his light fixtures – especially the circular one with the green pieces hanging down – very cool.
    I love the idea of waiting to need something 3 times before purchasing – would save a ton of money to purchase that way.
    Thanks for sharing this talent with us.
    Peace, Judi

  2. High Desert Diva

    This was very informative. I was recently asked whether I knew of any green lighting companies. Now I do.

    Lori’s company focusing on green corporate gifts is interesting, too. I’ve been involved in many events and have seen so much waste. Bravo.

  3. Jennifer Shon

    Isn’t his work just amazing? I am all for modern and clean but occasionally like a little touch of undulation and his work is like a perfect marriage of the two. Thanks for checking him out!


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