JOEL SPIRA, 1927-2015

JOEL SPIRA, 1927-2015

The name might not sound familiar, but his vision and products have affected us all. Mr. Spira was the founder of Lutron Electronics, a lighting control company based in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, located outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dimmers were originally introduced to create ambiance by lowering light levels and creating warm glows while saving energy. One of Lutron’s original marketing slogans encouraged customers to use dimmers to “dial romance."

Today, the field of lighting controls has grown to include multiple energy-saving applications—reducing excessive or redundant light in spaces and creating multiple aesthetic moods in a simple space. The field now addresses both electric and natural light, with the addition of silent and automatic daylight shading devices to minimize glare and maximize additional energy savings. All of this growth is based upon the simple rotary, solid state (triac) dimmer that every house has over the dining room table. That same dimmer, which Mr. Joel Spira invented in 1961, now resides in the Smithsonian Institute.

I originally met Mr. Spira when I worked for Lutron Electronics after graduating from The Pennsylvania State University. As an architectural Engineering student I had several internships at various Philadelphia Architectural firms. Because I had one lighting class, I was the expert and began specifying lighting and controls. At a product fair, I saw a table full of working dimmers and began evaluating the products that I had previously specified. Six months later, I was working for Lutron, a company that typically hired mechanical and electrical engineering graduates. As a designer I was an experiment, but their leap of faith showed Lutron’s commitment to talent diversification and to supporting multiple university programs.

At first, Mr. Spira was intimidating to work for. Not because of his demeanor or actions, but because of his true brilliance, his tough questions, and his refusal to accept failure. It was this tenacity that continually pushed the company and inspired all of his employees. Anything could be done: For example, when frustrated with the multiple remote controls for his television and electronics, he envisioned and developed the first master remote control. This was back when most of us didn’t even have remotes for our televisions. His vision and ability to see product possibilities based on ergonomic or human factors ensured a steady stream of products years before any of his competitors. We can all remember the Nova linear slide dimmer, or the game changing GRAFIK Eye preset controls, that made preset scenes simple, practical, and affordable.

Mr. Spira’s own life experiences shaped the company that he formed. He served in the Navy as a radar designer during World War II and then received a physics degree from Purdue University. The company has been committed to hiring engineers from the college since day one and Mr. Spira was also committed to supporting returning military troops. Lutron continues to recruit and hire Junior Military Officers, and did so long before it was fashionable.

He was a true visionary. While in the Orient, sourcing electronic components, he discovered Asian Pears. He became an expert on the pears, and eventually started his own orchards in Pennsylvania. Soon after, his orchards and new ways to market the pears created one of the largest Asian Pear orchards in the United States. Not bad for an engineer.

As the company expanded rapidly, Mr. Spira’s sense of family and commitment and loyalty to employees was shared throughout the company. It truly was a family affair. While Joel was envisioning products and refining old ones, his wife Ruth ran the communications department. One of his own daughters, Susan Hakkarainen, had to work her own way up through the company and is now a co-chairman. The Lutron family meant something unique to Mr. Spira, and there are numerous multi-generational families still working there. 

We all must follow our passions, and Mr. Spira respected that, too. In the mid 1980s, I left Lutron to follow my passion: lighting design. Over the years our relationship actually grew, even though we were miles apart and had more limited interactions. Like always, when Joel talked with you, he always had time to really listen to what you were saying. Candid conversations about the lighting marketplace or the future of controls evolved into documentation and product changes happening overnight. Not only did he listen, he acted upon conversations. He always looked at what his customers’ needs and wants were and worked back to a solution or product. As a result, his impact in the architectural design community has been enormous. In fact, Lutron controls are in most landmark projects around the world.

That original dimmer provided drama and mood for residential projects, and that evolved into the world of hospitality projects. With the perfection of solid-state fluorescent dimming, the use of Lutron products in the commercial world allowed for full-range dimming previously limited to residential and hospitality projects. Today, Lutron’s product advancements continue with wireless controls for lighting as well as shading systems. These products add the benefit of energy efficiency and have helped billions of square feet of global real estate achieve sustainability goals and reduce their environmental footprints.

While known as the man behind the modern dimmer, Joel Spira has truly left his mark on the world and his spirit will glow into the future, a true inspiration to us all.