Christmas is a magical time: as the winter darkness looms, we all get into the spirit of the festive period by catching up with friends, putting up Christmas trees and beginning to tick off presents from our shopping list. But few things bring that Christmas feeling to life as much as strolling down Regent Street in December, taking in the majestic light decorations that crown the street. Most of us take them for granted - each year we’re awed without necessarily thinking about where they come from and who designed the light spectacle. As with all creative beauty there’s a designer behind the Regent Street decorations. His name is Paul Dart and his job is to dream up spectacular light installations.
Regent Street’s ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ is the biggest festive light scheme in the capital. But then Regent Street has had time to perfect its annual light celebration. The street pioneered the holiday tradition back in 1954, in response to an article in The Daily Telegraph describing Central London as drab and dull during mid-winter. “This year, it’s about the spirit of Christmas filling Regent Street with a hovering presence of glamour,” Paul explains, relaxing in Heddon Street Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant just off Regent Street. With over 300,000 LED lights, the installation is a true delight for the eyes. “It’s got to look exciting and extraordinary – it's got to tell a subliminal story… People want to feel a moment of magic at this time of year. Having these other worldly spirits flying down the middle of a beautiful street felt right,” he says.
Paul works for James Glancy Design, the creative company charged with lighting up Regent Street. But the company works on other projects, too: “We’ve done a couple of permanent light sculptures in the area and we’re also working on other projects outside of England, which are more about incorporating the idea of the lights lasting for longer, for example a project around Diwali, the festival of light, in Mumbai in India.” Paul credits his past roles as lead designer for the National Theatre and Frankfurt National Opera for turning him into a storyteller, “I’m really interested in breaking boundaries and exploring how to communicate this moment of joy.”
It begs the question, where does Paul get his inspiration? “I never look down at my phone, I always look up. Everything is a possible inspiration. You have to constantly ask yourself questions: is this the most interesting, practical and invigorating way of filling the street? Is there another way of doing this? I’m perpetually an outsider looking in.” That’s also what makes his job so interesting: “One day I’ll be having lots of very technical conversations and the next day I might be at Tate Britain looking at a light sculpture… I don’t see any difference in doing those two things.” But it’s not all cosy creative brainstorms and inspiration trips. “Naturally, a lot of people think of Christmas decorations as fairies on top of the Christmas tree… Well, I hate to break it to them, but on this scale it’s about hard engineering, men in steel cap boots… It can be a very technical thing.”
Paul has always had an artistic flair, though growing up on a pig farm in the middle of the Chiltern Hills meant he was somewhat sheltered from the glamour of the capital... But that didn’t stop him from getting creative on his home turf. “I used to be obsessed by marionettes, I used to build them full size… I had a room where I was allowed to pull the ceiling in and electrocute myself and do all the things that you’re not supposed to do as a child! I also built a huge swimming pool in the back garden out of sheets of ply and plastic so I could re-create Swan Lake.” Looking back now, it all makes sense: “I was always somebody who enjoyed creating new worlds. Initially it was for my own delectation, but later I became very good at creating worlds for other people, too.”
A lot of Paul’s work is a version of the past that he modifies for the future. “I’m a historic person,” he explains. “I actually saw the spirits that were here on Regent Street in 1961.” He was born the same year the first Christmas lights went up, in 1954. “At that time, they just put up cut out stars and lit them with searchlights as there weren’t any pea lights just after the war. And in a funny sort of way I often go back to that way of doing things, but now you also have lots of new technology to use, so I mix and match. People want to take photos of themselves so these things need to be ‘selfie-friendly’.” That’s the 21st century challenge today: One frame on someone’s Instagram account must be able to tell the whole story. ‘Selfie culture’ became a part of Paul’s work about 10 years ago. “On Regent Street, what we do should appeal to all age groups. So, although I’m almost in retirement I have to think like a 20-year-old at one place and as an older person somewhere else.
Surely now must be the time of the year that Paul gets to put his feet up and bask in the warm glow of the lights he created, while he relaxes over Christmas? Surprisingly, no! Although the lights have only been up for a few weeks, Paul is already busily planning what special touches he and his team can add to make them even more magical in time for Christmas 2018.
There is still plenty of time to see this year’s Christmas lights in all their splendour. Paul’s ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ festive light scheme will be gracing Regent Street until the 6th of January 2018.