If you’ve ever stood under a Waterford chandelier, chances are Billy Canning designed it

After 24 years designing lights for Waterford Crystal, Billy Canning is now a freelance designer of domestic projects as well as others on a much grander scale

 

One person whose job has been to capture light for more than 20 years is Billy Canning, former chief lighting designer at Waterford Crystal and now a freelance whose rare skills and knowledge are much in demand worldwide.

During his 24-year tenure at Waterford, Canning was responsible for some of the company’s biggest multimillion-dollar bespoke lighting projects from palaces in the Middle East and palatial mansions in the US to luxury cruise ships for the Holland America Line.

“If a chandelier is Waterford, I would have designed pretty much all of them from that period,” Canning says.

In Ireland his spectacular chandeliers decorate the players’ lounge in Croke Park, the Gaiety Theatre auditorium and a private house in Limerick. He has also worked on the biggest single chandelier of all, at 24ft high, in the National Concert Hall made in the mid-1980s and on the celebrated crystal-clad millennium ball in Times Square in New York.

In the last few months he has been in Taipei in Taiwan designing chandeliers for a high-end apartment development which made television news and led to a camera team coming to Ireland to make a documentary about him. “In the Far East lighting has really taken off,” he says.

 

Dramatic lighting

We meet in his hometown of Borris, Co Carlow which is his base since he set up on his own in 2009 and where he works alongside his wife Jackie, an interior designer. Their spacious living area features one of his modern Waterford “Lustre” chandeliers with bevelled drops and crystal studs which suits the modern decor of their house.

“Crystal goes with every decor, whether it is a fussy interior, minimalist or a retro setting,” he says. “Chandeliers are incredibly bad at the distribution of light and tend to light themselves because of the refractive properties of the crystal. Their bright white light is not for reading a book.”

His dramatic lighting fixtures have their own stories. His most challenging project was designing chandeliers for the atriums of four luxury cruise ships for the Holland America Line.

“I had to go to Venice and do a presentation to the ship’s president, engineers, architect and captain and convince them that it could remain in one place and not move,” he says with a smile. The design proposals were that the chandeliers would rotate and change colour while safely attached to the atrium ceiling also in motion at sea. Each of the four designs had a nautical theme, the final one based on a gyroscope motif.

“This was where my industrial design background came into play because you had to have an appreciation of how the structure would work. Each 7ft chandelier weighed three tons, cost a quarter of a million and every single piece was made in Waterford,” he says.

The only son of teachers, Canning didn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps, but instead studied product design in Dublin and Limerick and, before finishing his degree, worked locally. “I did fit into an industry setting and felt I worked well in a team,” he says, adding that the year he did his finals, he won an award from the National Board of Science and Technology.

“At the time Waterford were looking for lighting designers and had never employed a college graduate for any design.” He became the chief lighting designer in 1992, his brief being to bring his industrial design skills to a craft-based industry.

Domestic interiors

His work involved designing “anything with a bulb” as well as offering more restrained chandeliers for domestic interiors, primarily for the US. He also looked after the major bespoke projects, which tended “to be blank canvases; you could do what you liked to a certain extent whereas products in the range were price-driven.”

After Venice, he went to Doha in Qatar to design the lighting for the palace; another project was for a private village in Jakarta in Indonesia .

One of the most imaginative projects, however, was creating a luminaire for the players’ lounge in Croke Park.

He came up with an idea of 32 crystal footballs consisting of 75 small sliotars suspended in midair, each one representing the 70 minutes of play in a championship game. Using LED technology, the crystal balls and sliotars can change colour to team colours of the winning team. It was installed in 2005.

 

Flying high

Canning also restores and cleans crystal chandeliers, the most recent job being one in Malahide with 1,300 pieces that took two people two days to clean in situ. He also recalls taking apart, restoring and documenting the oldest chandelier in Ireland which dated back to 1780 in Birr Castle.

Since becoming a freelance he has worked on everything from small contemporary pendants, pillar lights and vases with LED lighting using traditional Waterford parts as well as tackling the bigger Taiwan-type projects.

Waterford’s US owner, which employs him as a freelance, has put more resources into lighting as a sector.

“I have done more in the last six years than in previous years as an in-house designer. I much prefer the freedom of being a freelance,” he says.

His other “freedoms”, incidentally, include being in the skies as he is a keen pilot who acquired a licence in 2000 and who reckons that Ireland is one of the best places in the world for flying.

His career is now soaring too.

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