Nathan Orsman’s Illuminating Landscapes

Judging by the present it would be tough to guess that revered Hamptons-based lighting designer Nathan Orsman was ever anything but. Yet the sought-after Orsman actually started his career working in IT at the Australian Stock Exchange and transitioned into lighting only by happenstance. “I ended up moving to New York for love and early on I happened to meet a lighting designer and we became business partners,” Orsman explained. “Originally my position was more operational in nature, but I eventually started getting into the creative side of the business. It was really fun and very different, something I had never done before and there was this sense of accomplishment with creating something beautiful and permanent. I fell in love with it and never looked back.”

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It proved to be a fruitful career move. Among today’s elite interior design circles, Orsman’s work is considered to be the best of the best. He comes recommended by industry leaders like Steven Gambrel, Victoria Hagan, Jamie Drake and Jean-Louis Deniot, who call upon his meticulous lighting plans to add function, depth and visual hierarchy to their rooms—and beyond. Orsman, who has a second studio in Manhattan, has carved a niche in outdoor spaces, highlighting pergolas and porticos with the same precision and thoughtfulness he applies to interiors. As patio season approaches, Orsman shared his philosophy on creating a well-lit landscape.

How do you begin forming a lighting plan for the outdoors?
I always start exterior plans with a walk-through of the property. Over time I have been able to envision how the property will look when lit at night and quickly put together a preliminary plan. I let my experience with certain plant and tree specimens guide the design as well.

When it comes to interior spaces, the golden rule is a layered approach, with ambient, task and accent sources. Are there any rules you abide by when lighting exterior spaces? 
My approach to lighting is quite different—I have a big respect for the darkness. My philosophy is to appreciate the importance of the dark as much as the surrounds that are being illuminated, allowing you to create moments and not over-light the exterior. Some people have a tendency to light every tree, but it is important to understand the use of the negative to create subtle interplay between light and dark. If you over-light something, there’s not really any story to it. When you go to a good restaurant or a dinner party at someone’s home and the lighting is really beautiful and creates an ambience, it’s because of the dark moments.

Are there any exterior landscape features that always need lighting?
Path lighting to illuminate walkways and stairs. It is not only aesthetically appealing but also functional from a safety perspective. Some of the best moments are also created when sculptures and other pieces of art are illuminated, often with a single light source.


How has technology changed your approach to exterior lighting design?
The evolution of LED, especially in the past one to two years, is what has probably created the biggest shift in exterior lighting since the start of my career. I have tested countless LED products and have only recently found a solution that mirrors the color and output of existing halogen technology.

Additionally, there are ways to power your landscape lighting without using electric or running a single wire.  This can be accomplished through the use of solar panels and subterranean 12-volt batteries. You can easily illuminate your entire property without incurring cost for electric.

What’s an example of a unique design moment you’ve created within a landscape?
A client came to us with a request to create a field of fireflies in one portion of their property. We were able to use exterior-rated, hand-blown glass elements that encased LED diodes at different color temperatures. Some of the glass elements were placed on mounts staked in the ground while other pieces were set in trees or flower beds. The end result was over 100 fixtures subtly lighting the field that looked like fireflies.

You also have a lighting collection, One Illuminates. What inspired you to develop your own line?
In part, the lack of options for certain products we used frequently, like art lights that properly illuminate artwork. Most art lights have a lightbulb with a reflector behind it, which blows out the light at the top of the art. My clients with very big or expensive art collections want to see an entire piece of art in a uniform way, thus the fixtures we make have a controlled beam spread to distribute the light evenly across a piece.

The other big goal was to create lighting that eliminated glare without compromising actual illumination. Typically, the better the light fixture, the less glare it has, but the less output it has too. We set about making high-output fixtures with minimal glare. We spent a lot of time working with the positioning of the light within the fixture and developed a patented knife-edge trim for our recessed pieces that reduces glare.