The work of lighting designer Seth Bernstein has often met at the crossroads of art, entertainment, fashion and luxury.
Whether it’s his Emmy-nominated work for Saturday Night Livethe Wizkid concert at the O2 Arena in London, the Museum of Broadway in Times Square in New York, or projects for Cartier and Chanel, Bernstein has shown himself to be versatile in literally shedding light on a wide range of artists.
“I think the guiding line that runs through my work is [using] thoughtful design to solve a problem,” says Bernstein, 37. “When people come to see me, it’s because they either have an obstacle they can’t overcome or a difficult deadline to overcome. I’m in and out of TV and events and concerts. I have a fearless approach that eventually solves problems.
Bernstein says minimalism and elegance are the guiding principles of her portfolio – creating designs that aren’t overly complicated and finding a clear way to tell a story through lighting.
When asked where this interest in lighting design came from, Bernstein recalls participating in school plays growing up, delivering his four lines, then eagerly running on stage to work on the lighting. Being behind the scenes with the lights interested him much more than acting.
He began working on lighting in the local theater before moving to New York, which saw a shift from lighting stage productions to promotions for popular television shows, including Billions.
Bernstein, who currently spends most of his time in Los Angeles, shared some of his favorite things with penta.
One thing that wakes me up in the morning is… my work. I never know what will happen in the morning, I work on such disparate projects.
One place I have traveled to and would love to see again is… I did a show in Lisbon and I still regret today having come back in a hurry to do a show in Los Angeles. It was just one of those trips where I cut it so close. I took a commuter train to a stop, ran up the hill to a castle, ran around the castle, ran back on the commuter train to the airport, and it was my last trip before Covid. I couldn’t really enjoy the campaign. I’m dying to go back to Portugal and spend time in Lisbon and travel all over the country.
The best book I’ve read recently is… you know it’s funny but right before the pandemic i went from reading books to reading the new yorker cover to cover. It’s a big time commitment for me, but reading it is what I committed to, it’s so rewarding, it’s so current, and sometimes they just do these deep dives on the most random topics. I end up loving taking them into my art and coming out with a new idea.
A work of art that changed the way I see the world is… [Alexander] by Calder monumental sculpture really had a huge influence on me. You can never put anything small on stage, you always have to think about scale, I especially think that specific Calder is so influential in how he casts a shadow, how he fills a space. It definitely inspired me in the way I approach my work – not all designs are made for the stage, if they don’t fit don’t put ‘a Calder’ on it.
If I could have a drink with anyone, it would be… i think it would be [Icelandic-Danish artist]
Olafur Eliasson. His work is so varied and I love the puns in his work…I don’t even think I would ask about the art. Its turbine hall [commission] was hugely influential to me, just this installation, the mirror and the sun, the use of trickery to change the perception of space – he’s just someone I want to have a drink with.
An element in my kitchen that I cannot live without… it’s the blender, because one of my pandemic hobbies was making all my own sauces, so I taught myself how to make sauces by watching Roy Choi on one of the chef shows on Netflix. I now go to a restaurant and try to disassemble the sauce in my head and experience it.
If I could buy one piece of art, it would be…
Ed Ruscha, the Standard Station oil paintings where he painted the same gas station a multitude of times. Ruscha is an artist from Los Angeles and that’s the city I’m currently connected to.
My favorite neighborhood in the world is… the Vinohrady district [in Prague]. I studied abroad there and overstayed my study abroad because I loved it so much – I stayed and worked as a stagehand at Barrandov, the film and television studio . I could just walk around…I could almost say “this whole part of town”, to the river, to the Vysehrad complex, to the television tower. You get medieval socialist communist architecture, you get modern Gehry, glass and steel, it’s like it’s all there in and around Vinohrady.
One of my passions that few people know about is… a lot of people don’t know how deep I am into art and specifically into art books. I don’t think people know this is one of my specific hobbies, just how much time I spend going through old art books. I’ll also flip through other people’s art books when I visit their homes. I love browsing art books in museum galleries, collections from past exhibitions, things like that. I have a hobby, an obsession with art books.
One person who inspired me to do what I do is… I would zoom in on the people who actually do the things I do, the people who built the braids, trucked the lights, the people who hang the lights, the people who power the lights over the years. Their enthusiasm for what we do lifted me up. I see people connecting with the elegance of my work as an audience, I see the technicians connecting with it, and I appreciate that I’ve thought of every light. So I think the people who inspire me are the people who actually do what I do – no one appreciates elegance and problem solving more than the people who put it together, the craftsman who put me inspire to continue.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.