Michael Webb wasn’t interested in lighting design at first. In the early ‘90s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech and then headed out West to find work. “My plan was to stay for a while and then go back to Maryland, where I’m from,” said Webb, “but when I got there, I realized I didn’t have much money.”
At the time, the country was in the midst of a recession, and in pre-dotcom San Francisco, the opportunities for a fresh-out-of-school architect were few. When Webb was offered a job as a draftsman at local firm Architectural Lighting Design, he considered himself lucky. He worked there for four years before striking out again to pursue what he considered his true calling.
“My intention was to be a full-on architect,” said Webb. “I wanted to learn how to do walls and put a roof on and all that cool stuff.” He worked for a time with a residential architect, and then got a job at Architecture & Light, a firm that does both architectural and lighting design, where he exchanged his expertise in one for an apprenticeship in the other. Finally, wanting to get into retail design, he landed at Brand + Allen Architects.
But in spite of the many job changes, Webb found himself typecast. “People wanted me to do lighting, that’s all anyone wanted me to do,” he said. “For a while I resented it. I saw it as an Achilles Heel. It took me a couple of years to realize that it was a valuable skill. After people kept asking me and asking me, I thought, this is something I can really do.”
After only six months at Brand + Allen, Webb quit and hung up his own shingle in 1997. Within a few days he received a call from the Gap—a contact he had made at his last job—and began working on their stores. A year later, he had more projects than he could handle and asked an old colleague at Brand + Allen, Peter Noble, to join him in a 50/50 partnership. “He said, ‘No, why would I want to be just a lighting designer?’” said Webb. “But 12 hours later he called back and said he’d do it.”
The pair worked together for the next ten years, producing work that ran the gamut from high-end residential and commercial projects to urban landscapes and private schools. They took a straightforward, unembellished approach to lighting design, deriving solutions from the demands of the program and space without getting hung up on flashy fixtures or technology. “Some clients want to zero in on an actual fixture, I want to get the concept right,” explained Webb. “If it turns out it’s just a bare light bulb that works best, that’s way better than to force a cool fixture to do a job it’s not suited for.”
Two of Revolver’s current projects highlight the firm’s pragmatic philosophy perfectly. The owners of 185 Post Street, a 1908 office building in downtown San Francisco, wanted to modernize the structure after Prada decided not to use the site for a Rem Koolhaas-designed store. In answer, Brand + Allen coated the ornate masonry facade in epoxy paint and then encased the entire edifice in an all-glass curtain wall. Revolver lit the exterior by outfitting the window wells with simple fluorescent fixtures that interact with the translucent glass to emphasize the project’s modernist shell.
Fluorescent fixtures came into play at Energy Foundation, designed by TannerHecht Architecture, as well, an office interior that earned a LEED Platinum rating. While meeting the watts-per-square-foot requirement for the LEED point didn’t require much design, Revolver worked with the architect to arrange the fluorescent strips—the project’s sole light source—in a staggered pattern that broke up the monotony of the space.
Two years ago, Noble died and since then, Webb has continued to operate the firm on his own. “I have a few people help me with drafting and bookkeeping,” he said, “but otherwise I do it all: production, design, aiming the lights. It’s a one-man show.”