Michelle Caron is a very busy woman. As both the Project Manager and Lighting Designer at RMS, she is constantly on the move. Luckily, she found time recently to discuss her dual roles, her passion for high-quality lighting, an eighty-foot sign made of chairs, the one chain restaurant that bugs her, and the most appreciable difference between RMS and other companies.
Michelle describes the project management side of her day as crucial, if not flashy. She is responsible, from the moment a project is approved through the handoff to support, for coordinating and maintaining communication among the many partners involved on a project. She’ll kick off a project via an onboarding meeting with members of the RMS team, such as engineering, programming, and the site supervisor, to set appropriate timelines, acquire necessary equipment and materials, and work through any potential technical issues. From there, she communicates with other trades and contractors (e.g. GC, HVAC, drywall, plumbing) and, as the projects mature, helps align the finer points. At what height ought the television sit? How does it work with the art or furniture in the room? What are the finish details?
“I also get to be the bearer of bad news,” she notes, taking on the tough tasks of informing a client when parts are back-ordered or a design needs to be re-adjusted. She also heads up the scheduling of the on-site teams and ensures that they have the necessary equipment, materials, and documentation to perform their duties that day.
The point of project management as Michelle sees it is to make the on-site team’s job easier. “The harder I work here [at the office], the better it is for the install guys,” she says. The results are faster, more efficient, more cost-effective, and higher-quality work for each client.
Her first encounter with RMS occurred when she collaborated on the beautiful Englewood facility in Hummelstown in 2016. RMS President Caleb Fetter remembered her diligent work years later when he was hunting for a project manager. Having worked in that capacity on the amazing Edition Hotel in Times Square, Michelle’s skills were evident. Moreover, her background in lighting design was an ideal fit as Caleb sought to bolster those services for RMS.
To define lighting design, as Michelle describes it, is finding “what the client needs their space to do, what their space should feel like, and how the space will be used.” Once those questions are answered, the stage is set to make that environment as perfect as possible.
Naturally, lighting design has a highly scientific aspect, and Michelle is eager to talk to anyone who’ll listen about lumens and footcandles, color temperature and CRI (color rendering index), and the physics of how light interacts with colors and fabrics, but the “most fun,” she says, “is using lighting as a way for people to make the things they love look their best.”
For some, that means bright under-cabinet lighting to make cooking in their kitchen a breeze. For others, it’s accentuating stunning artwork and furniture. The emphasis might even be the clients themselves—who wouldn’t love a perfectly lit dressing room or walk-in closet so each outfit pops perfectly in the mirror?
What clients want and need from their spaces is as varied as the clients themselves. The lighting for the art collector is naturally different than the home botanist who wants to showcase her 15-foot palm tree. The person who wishes to have a comfy library that’s still bright enough to crack open that favorite tome will have different lighting needs than the Dungeons & Dragons aficionado whose newest campaign requires color-changing lights when the goblins are waging war. “Lighting must be useful and practical, but what I love most is that it’s never just one thing,” Michelle says.
Getting to those beautiful spaces starts with simple questions, like “What do you love about the lighting in your home now?” and “What do you hate it about it?” These benign queries allow for Michelle to anticipate and design lighting around the clients’ expectations, plans, and ideas, which is part and parcel of the RMS vision.
If choosing between a tougher task and making the client’s vision come to life, “we will always, always, always defer to what the client needs,” even if that means fixing others’ mistakes or eating an unexpected cost, Michelle says. She radiates pride at upholding RMS’ client-centered approach and providing the best experience possible. “These aren’t just words on a banner—they’re how we operate, and that’s pretty unusual. Honesty, reliability, and consistency makes this a comfortable place to work,” Michelle says, and then adds with a laugh, “even if the work is hard!”
She’s no stranger to difficult tasks, recalling a 2015 project in New Haven, Connecticut. The owner of a commercial furniture store wanted to have its 80-foot-tall sign lit up. Sounds difficult enough, but wait: the sign was constructed entirely of silver aluminum chairs, and it was directly next to the split of I-95 and I-91. You don’t want the Highway Department mad at you for a too-shiny display! What’s more, the sign was placed directly next to the Atlantic Ocean, which meant (because of the salinity of the air) that the chair-borne sign could not be punctured to mount the necessary 148 12-inch lighting fixtures. Steelworkers had to be consulted to ensure that the necessary winterizing coat wasn’t ruined.
If that weren’t intense enough, the pressure of the project only increased from there. The rest of the iceberg lay inside the back of the store, where the owner had imagined converting an empty part of the warehouse that was once a newspaper factory into a brand-new, state-of-the-art ropes course, with four ziplines, rock climbing areas, kids’ play spaces, and a water show that triggered the most amazing light display in the Nutmeg State. Sure!
The lighting had to be contained within the course itself because the roof could not handle the extra weight, so 160 fixtures were installed via an atrial man-lift (imagine a mechanical spider used to reach otherwise impossible-to-reach spaces) up to 72 feet in the air. Each required individual focusing. After that deliberate and labor-intensive checklist was complete, the only minor matter remaining was programming a full 8-hour lighting display that could also be manually interfaced for special events.
(Here’s a quick coda to this amazing tale: later, Michelle’s team discovered a manufacturing error that tinted the lights an unseemly green. Each of those 160 fixtures needed to be replaced, one by one. This time, the gang hired help: professional tree climbers and Yale students. Whatever it takes.)
Though Michelle has previously worked for the circus – no fooling – most of her projects these days are more straightforward. She finds that recently, clients have begun conversations with a greater knowledge base on lighting than in years past. The education and documentation available have increased, and the everyday person is no longer restricted to a lonely Lowe’s aisle dotted by unimpressive 60-watt incandescent and CFL options.
“We’ve moved beyond the infancy of very dodgy, very expensive LEDs…it doesn’t have to be fancy $10,000 lighting fixtures to be really cool,” Michelle adds. On a professional level, she appreciates that not only have the varieties increased of color temperature and optics, but the quality has significantly improved, especially with regards to CRI, which is the metric that measures how true to life a given object appears.
Sunlight has a perfect CRI of 100, and while eight years ago 85 was a suitable benchmark, modern fixtures have CRIs upwards of 90, 93, or even 98, which allow a greater number of people to appreciate the full beauty and richness of their spaces.
While the continued expansion of CRI, as well as improvement in LED lighting, excites Michelle, she’s keenly watching the growth of human-centric accessibility lighting. She has noticed more clients requesting it in Lancaster County and Central Pennsylvania as homeowners seek lighting solutions that work seamlessly even if their physical needs might change. Glare reduction, accommodations for lessened visibility, nightlights, and pathway lighting are all examples of accessibility lighting. Michelle’s grandmother has regular conversations with her about the types of lighting that older folks might need for everyday activities to better enjoy life.
On a personal note, Michelle is an avid painter and knitter, so lighting is naturally significant. When she’s not crafting (or renovating her home, or singing in her cover band “Lovely Day,” or…) she enjoys watching a Coen Brothers movie. In particular, she notes the scintillating lighting designs of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Barton Fink: “gritty and grimy, shiny and glitzy, the cinematography is fabulous.” She recommends The Only Murders in the Building as a TV show that uses lighting and set design to create personalities to each character’s space; Steve Martin’s “little lamps create puddles of light,” whereas Selena Gomez’ apartment “has huge shafts of light that scrape the walls.”
One place you won’t find Michelle unwinding is Outback Steakhouse. She decries the dimness of lighting there. “You can’t even see the food!” she bemoans. Furthermore, she disapproves of the lighting fixtures themselves hung so low as to interfere with table conversation, “which is the whole point of dining out!”
As illustrated herein, Michelle often peppers her discussion about the possibilities of perfect lighting with animated phrases and words like “artistry,” “amplifies” and “inviting.” Lighting ought to be thought of in a holistic sense, she argues, whether that’s someone’s residence, a classroom, a converted warehouse, or a specialized corporate space for showing off the brand.
Regardless of the arena, Michelle abides by a passion for lighting and the ethos that it “must be a tool to allow people to enjoy that space to the fullest.”
Including, perhaps, a cozy, well-lit space where Michelle can finally put up her feet and relax.
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