“Light is an interaction; you don’t see it unless it travels and hits a surface and bounces back to the eye.” – Leela Shanker
If you were to have visited New York City’s East Village this past September, you would have certainly felt a revitalized energy remarkably different from the energy of the neighborhood in months prior. You may have passed residents peering into storefronts saturated with blue or magenta and eventually stopped to ask who was responsible for the vibrant light flowing out into the street. They would have told you ‘Flint Collective.’
Founded in 2016, The Flint Collective NYC was born out of the idea to bring back life to spaces that may have otherwise been forgotten. The members of the collective come from a variety of different backgrounds, including architecture and industrial design, with many of them having studied under the MFA Lighting Design program at Parsons School of Design.
“The interest that we all shared was wanting to really make a difference in the community, to undertake urban interventions where we work with underutilized space,” said Leela Shanker, Founder of the Flint Collective, “It might be vacant; it might be misused or forgotten or abandoned. We wanted to come in and transform that space with light and design.”
More than anything, the collective seeks to break residents out of a monotonous routine and shift their perspective of New York to one with more of a sense of potential and change. “When we all walk the streets, we get into this routine mode of thinking you know the place well,” said Shanker, “When you come across something that’s out of the ordinary, there is a real joy you get from that. You take on the perspective that if that can change, maybe there’s other things that we can change.”
What started out as an informal association has grown to become a non-profit corporation with a number of volunteers, donors, ongoing participants, and directors. “We produce things not because we are on a payroll, but because we want to do something for the community and because we want to be involved in having this kind of expression in the city,” said Shanker, crediting the collective’s success in part to the members’ heartfelt intent, rather than a commercial one.
Shanker was not shy to express her appreciation for the number of countless manufacturers and funders who have helped bring the collective’s creative visions to life. Their latest project OPEN received funding from the Designers Lighting Forum of New York, and the landowners of its various sites allowed them to work in their spaces for free, something that is very rare in New York.
Featuring installations in 8 unique sites across East Village, OPEN set out to address the increasing number of vacant storefronts as local businesses struggled to survive amidst the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of ideas that flow from really understanding where we are and being a part of the community,” said Shanker, “The problem of trying to keep the energy and life in the neighborhood—and also trying to create ambiance for local restaurants and cafes having to move out into the streets— was a set of new conditions that we were trying to energize.”
Because so many members of the collective are actually East Village locals, this particular project held a special place in their hearts. “For me, it was important that we behave authentically, to contribute to the community that we were part of during a lockdown and to get to know local business owners and the people giving you your coffee or your groceries. It just felt right to actually do something for those that we are interacting with,” said Shanker.
Even more, East Village has long been home to the creatives of New York. Shanker noted that the supportive nature of the community acts as an ideal foundation to propose creative, or even unusual, projects. As the collective began to pursue OPEN, they found themselves with a growing network of similar-minded locals looking to bring life back into the streets. From local businesses to local real estate brokers and community organizations, the community was very receptive to the project.
The 8 different sites for the project were all unique and required different concepts and builds, but across all of them was a sense of aperture and openness. “There was this sense of breath in the space that continued out into the neighborhood,” said Shanker, “Whether that was because of a built frame with very saturated color in the fill of the space and then an alternate saturated color behind to give this sense of one color cutting through another; or whether it was framing out the architecture and looking through and realizing there are these columns that create new frames in that space, or cutouts of volume above a backroom which can be filled with color behind.” Because the products used were donated by various lighting manufacturers and sales representatives, the creative concepts of OPEN were sometimes molded to the product that was available.
“What should be here next was really important to us. We wanted to do something that filled the space with color and light so that people could see beyond this time and get excited about what could come next,” said Shanker.
In addition to the diversity of the installation sites, working during a pandemic made for some challenges as well. From keeping up with ever-changing outdoor dining laws to delayed shipment of materials to limiting the number of people in a space at a given time, Shanker and her 20-person production team had their work cut out for them.
Despite the added complications that came along with it, COVID seemed to make the work all the more rewarding for everyone involved. “We’d all been working from our homes and to have a reason—a really good reason and a fun one too—to come together was really powerful,” said Shanker, “I think a bigger and really wonderful thing to have learned is the capacity for people to come together when they really believe in something and how generous people can be when they can see honest intent.”
OPEN also encouraged residents to get outside and connect with one another. Not only were the different sites spread across an easily-walkable plot of land, but the 8th site was considered a “secret site’—it was not on the map—which prompted residents to explore with even more intent. “[The secret site] was prompting people to actually walk the streets and look at the neighborhood with different eyes. They were looking for light conditions that were interesting and that tell a story and coming up with their own stories for these spaces,” said Shanker.
In creating a neighborhood walk, the collective gave residents and visitors to the neighborhood a reason to move out of their homes in a safe way, as well as move away from feelings of void and emptiness to feelings of potential and opening. Overall, the community felt very grateful.
“I have neighbors who have lived here since the 60s who were just so excited to get out there and explore again. The feedback we got from residents and businesses alike was ‘thank you,’” said Shanker, “I can look at people’s faces and see them walking with their dogs and their families and see that it is well-received, but then to hear from people that were really grateful that there was this creative work happening and for this positive energy flowing through the neighborhood was really exciting.”
Just a month into 2021, the Flint Collective already has a few projects planned for the East Village and other New York neighborhoods; they are even discussing potential projects beyond New York. Additionally, Shanker expressed an interest in working with public spaces beyond interior spaces, including rooftops, plazas, or parks. As the collective grows and takes on new projects, they will continue to search for new ways to transform the way residents view their city.
“Light is an interaction; you don’t see it unless it travels and hits a surface and bounces back to the eye,” said Shanker, “Obviously different surfaces or realities create very different interactions, and that is what the Flint Collective is about—creating different kinds of interactions and telling different stories through unutilized space in the city.”
This article originally appeared in the February issue of designing lighting