Choosing Light


Mar|Apr 2013 Contents
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Rubaiyat Hossain G’06’s film Meherjaan sparked praise and controversy

Kimberly Noble C’98 Gr’05 M’07 linked brain development and poverty

Jeff Luhnow W’89 EAS’89 went from fantasy baseball to dream MLB job

Gilbert Lang Mathews W’70 followed the light, and found Lucifer

Elissa Brown C’90 fights for kids who’ve suffered abuse—and to prevent it

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Class of ’70 | Minutes into our conversation, Gilbert Lang Mathews W’70—the man whose lighting company has illuminated Google’s offices, Chanel’s stores, and Windsor Castle—declares that he got into the business “totally by accident.” He then adds that, for more than a decade, he lived a “split existence” as both a lawyer and a lighting mastermind.

It all started in 1980, shortly after Mathews had returned to his home city of San Antonio and begun practicing law there. His family owned several department stores, and one day Mathews’ father mentioned a new product he’d seen on a scouting trip abroad: a recessed linear strip light known as the Lucifer. Intrigued by the fixture’s invisibility and bright output, Mathews bought a workbench and hired an employee to snap together the strip light’s components and set up shop inside a rundown theater.

At the same time, he continued working full-time as a lawyer.

“I didn’t want anyone in San Antonio to know that I had a lighting company, because my law practice was very prestigious and client-rich, and I didn’t want anyone in the lighting community to know that I was a lawyer,” he says. “My close friends called me ‘Dr. Kissinger’ because I had these shuttle missions and no one knew exactly what I was doing.”

Twelve years later, Mathews’ dual careers were thriving but his time and energy were taxed. His wife eventually confronted him.

“She said, ‘You can’t go on like this,’” he recalls. “‘You have to choose one or you’re going to destroy yourself.’” He chose light.

Having spent his first decade in the lighting business importing fixture designs from Europe and configuring them for the US market, “at some point the light went off that we could make our own designs,” Mathews says.

He began hiring designers and sales managers. Inspired by the success of his first fixture, he directed his new team to create “totally minimalist” fixtures that are “not meant to be seen—the profiles are clean, sheer, and direct light to enhance the architecture, not the source.”

The new fixtures caught on quickly with designers and architects, and soon Lucifer Lighting—named for that first Swedish fixture—was illuminating major corporate offices (Microsoft, Apple, Goldman Sachs), luxury hotels, upscale stores (Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston, Cartier), restaurants, and hospitals.

“We have hundreds if not thousands of products at this point,” Mathews adds, “and they’re all designed, engineered, tested, prototyped, and assembled in our San Antonio factory.” He remains a guiding force each step of the way, evaluating initial drawings and prototypes, observing installations and presenting new products to designers for feedback.

The light has spread to Mathews’ children, including daughter Alexandra Mathews C’04, who oversees international sales and marketing.

Lucifer Lighting will soon illuminate the remodeled fifth and sixth floors of Van Pelt Library, which house the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection and library offices. It’s an especially sweet achievement for Mathews, who served on the library system’s Board of Overseers, helped secure the high-profile architectural firm Gensler for its current redesign, and also has a large rare-book collection of his own. Somehow, even that ties back to lighting.

“A lot of the opportunity to collect rare books and see art and architectural gems stems from being able to travel,” he says. “I’m able to go to different countries—London, Sydney, Paris, Beijing—and locate distributors for our products, but also go to see booksellers or concerts or museums.
“What’s happened is that all these influences swirl together and there’s very little separation between business and the fascination with design that’s the personal side.”

In other words, it’s a good thing Mathews chose light.

—Molly Petrilla C’06


  ©2013 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/13