As regular readers of Lighting Dimensions know, the entertainment technology industry is an unstable world. Companies rise and fall, come and go. There are mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, and bankruptcies. It's not unusual for change to come in any of these ways. It's very unusual, however, for a company to go through a sea change, to acquire a new identity that is related to its past yet different enough to make you look at it again. Universe Lighting is one such company.
Check out the company's listing in the 1994 Lighting Dimensions Industry Resources issue. Then it was known as Universe Stage Lighting, and it billed itself as "a retail sales and service organization located in the heart of New York City's theatre district, and featuring theatrical, architectural, entertainment, and specialty lighting products." It went on to call itself "the theatrical lighting company with an architectural crossover." Among the manufacturers listed as being carried are Altman, Colortran, DeSisti Lighting/Desmar, L&E, Lowel-Light, Strand, Clay Paky, American DJ Supply, Great American Market, NSI, Wildfire, Leprecon/CAE, Rosco, and such architectural companies as Halo Lighting and Juno.
In the 1996 directory, a number of significant differences have occurred. That architectural crossover has happened big time. The company is now known as Universe Lighting; the word "Stage" has been banished to the wings. The company has moved from 47th Street (the site of its former showroom) to 27th (where it has a suite of offices). It now features its main services as "distributor and consultant for architectural display, entertainment, industrial, specialty, and theatrical lighting products." The list of manufacturers carried has expanded considerably (with such names as Lucifer, Kurt Versen, and Leucos), taking in new categories like projection equipment.
What happened to Universe Lighting?
Scott Thurm, the head of Universe Lighting, is sitting in the conference room of his 27th Street office suite, located in a building next to the Fashion Institute of Technology. The office is bright and airy and includes an outdoor patio with a view of the skyline in New York's Chelsea district. The topic of conversation is the evolution of Universe.
First of all, he says, he closed down the 47th Street showroom last July. "I wasn't in the store myself, running it the way I wanted it to be run," he says. "It didn't always look the way I wanted it to look. It wasn't always in stock the way it should have been in stock. Now the showroom is my catalog and library. It's more up-to-date, it's easier to show more products, and it's better to just get samples."
But Universe has undergone a deeper change as Thurm has found himself more involved working as a consultant to consultants on architectural projects. "We did the Emporio Armani store at 601 Madison Avenue," he says, "where we introduced [the design firm] Focus Lighting to Armani. They hired Paul [Gregory, of Focus] to do the work, and we did the supplying. We worked with Focus-I had things manufactured and fabricated to Paul's specifications. We worked on the site throughout the whole construction period. We formulated a lot of what his design was, what his intentions were; we followed them through and made sure that they came out the way he wanted them. We acted as a kind of project manager.
"Then, at the same time," Thurm continues, "we're doing a place called City Wine and Cigar, a 7,000-sq.-ft. (630-sq.-m) themed restaurant, bar, and private club in TriBeCa. Chris Smith, of CMS Design, is the architect. He designed [the New York restaurant] Nobu and is one of the main owners of City Wine and Cigar. The layout features a kitchen, restaurant, bar, and an 800-sq.-ft. (72-sq.-m) tobacco boutique; behind that they have a private club, where you pay a membership fee, and which features cigar and wine storage." Other new projects include a private residence, a 5,000-sq.-ft. (450-sq.-m) penthouse, also located in TriBeCa, designed by architect Claire Moore. Suddenly it becomes clear why the word "stage" has vanished from the Universe title.
Even so, Thurm has found himself making a fairly smooth transition to architectural projects, bringing his expertise in specialty lighting instruments to bear. "I got along very well with some trade organizations, as well as the construction company, because I supplied them with the kind of expeditiousness that I'm accustomed to giving in theatre. They're not accustomed to that kind of service. When they say they need something, they expect you to forget about it, and to have to ask you for it four or five times, then to have to start yelling for it, so they can get it the fifth time. So the first time they asked for something, I dropped everything and got them what they needed the same day."
As a result, Thurm says, "I'm approaching these companies to get more involved in their specialty work, when they require low-voltage or custom decorative fixtures that they don't quite understand." He illustrates this with an anecdote about a case in the Armani project where an electrician nailed a fixture to the wall backwards, with the reflector facing the wrong way. "It would have been discovered by somebody else," he adds, "but I know we helped him out a lot.
"Now," he continues, "when I walk on-site, they're saying 'Hey, Scott, come over here. Tell me what this is. Tell me how to get this done. What is this product? When is it coming in?' You become useful to these people."
Not that Thurm has totally abandoned his theatrical background. "We're doing a fair amount of theatrical work. We're doing a lot of themed arcade installations around the country with Lightswitch, including Sega Game Works at the Epcot Center's AT&T Pavilion, Sega City, and Family PC. Also, although we don't hold any inventory, we still have most or all of our regular customers, and I give them personal service-we get them what they need at the right price. We're still shipping gels-we're still connected to colleges and universities-and we've worked out a good distribution for that product, but we don't handle that much of it. We have a warehouse that takes care of that work for us."
More importantly, he says, he can provide opportunities and introductions for theatrically based clients to the world of architectural lighting and themed retail. Although, he cautions, many of these designers have to adapt to new realities when they cross over. "A lot of theatrical designers who are trying to break into this world want to put drama in their lighting. They don't think about the ease of maintenance and the quantity of different types of lamps that go into the job. So if they're doing a space, whether it's 5,000, 15,000, or 25,000 sq. ft., they might put in 30 different fixtures, 30 different kinds of lamps that look the same but are all different wattages and different floods or bulbs. I'm really thinking about how the job is going to get maintained and how it's going to look after it's been installed for a couple of years."
As always, Thurm continues to build an international network of connections, supplying projects all over the world. Two recent examples are a studio for Seoul Broadcasting, joint-ventured with Samhwa Yang Heng Co. Ltd, in Korea, and a themed restaurant in Mexico designed by Philippe Starck and joint-ventured with a Mexican distributor, Electro Media. And Thurm says that he's always looking for new products around the world that he can introduce to the American market.
Overall, Thurm notes, his plan is to continue to reinvent his present while holding onto part of his past. But, he adds, so far, the effort has been remarkably successful. "I'm still finding where I'm going," he says. "I don't have a defined, 100%-set-in-stone direction. And in a way, I hope I never really do. I just hope I keep going and finding different ways to work." Universe continues to evolve.