Following a difficult first year in the rough-and-tumble stock market, which has seen the firm refocus on its core businesses, Vari-Lite Inc. has sold its architectural lighting company, Irideon, to Electronic Theatre Controls. The sale allows Vari-Lite to concentrate on rentals and its burgeoning Vari-Lite Production Services (VLPS) network, and gives ETC an entree into automated lighting.

"We've talked about the synergies of what our companies have been doing in the architectural market for a long time," says Rusty Brutsche, chairman and CEO of Vari-Lite. "We had to maintain a wholly separate organization outside our rentals business to run Irideon, and it crossed my mind that it needed to be part of a manufacturing company with a broader architectural line, so it could be better packaged and supported." After a month of intense discussions with ETC, whose control equipment has been used with Irideon fixtures for projects including Los Angeles International Airport's Theme Building and the Entel Tower in Santiago, Chile, the sale was finalized in late September.

"We stayed out of automated lighting for a long time, to concentrate on the conventional side," says Fred Foster, ETC's founder and president. "One reason was because companies like Vari-Lite have done it so well. Now we can ride the coattails of their nearly 20 years of experience in that field. And, by packaging Irideon products with our Unison line and Source Fours, we can finally say that, yes, we are an architectural lighting company, too."

By the end of the year, many of Irideon's 15 employees are expected to transfer from its Dallas digs to ETC headquarters in Middleton, WI, where the products will now be manufactured and sold alongside ETC's entertainment lines. "Down parkas are part of the relocation package," says Foster, dryly. "The key factor for success, as we've learned from past acquisitions, isn't the products, but the people behind them."

Irideon has been particularly well-received in themed environments; the challenge now is to simplify it for mass distribution in retail and other applications, where ease of maintenance is a priority. LDI98 will see ETC launch new products that will move Irideon in this direction, says Foster, who adds, "The entertainment lighting market is always receptive to bells and whistles and new tools, but lighting is still developing as part of architecture." Brutsche adds, "You don't have someone babysitting the equipment all the time as you do in an entertainment-related installation."

Brutsche says Vari-Lite will now concentrate on stocking its VLPS network with rental equipment, including new Vari-Lite gear and Showco sound products that will be introduced at LDI98. The company has purchased Vari-Lite France from Paris-based Video Communications France SA and has made the company its sixth European VLPS office; it has also launched VLPS Dubai in the Middle East. In the United States, VLPS Atlanta has opened, and all concert production operations are shifting to Los Angeles from Vari-Lite's Dallas headquarters, which will now service corporate and special events in the region.

Look for ETC (which has no plans to automate its entertainment line) to capitalize on what Foster says is "critical mass" of architectural products. "Combining Irideon with Unison means a wild ride for us."