Justin Kitchenman has a great outlook on life. With a belief that life’s a journey not a destination, along with a bit of patience and perseverance, he’s followed his own unique path of opportunity to shape a successful lighting career. Head of the Nashville-based design firm Align Design Group, we caught up with him while he was putting the final touches to Luke Bryan’s 2019 “Sunset Repeat” tour.
You’re Nashville based but not originally from there. Where do you hail from?
I was born in Philadelphia and lived in that region most of my life. My family moved to Annapolis Maryland when I was 8 but we returned to the Philadelphia region when I was 16. I consider both of those places home as they were so incredibly important in my personal development, but I will always consider myself from Philly.
What were your interests as a kid and what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a kid, I was always interested in sports, music, and Legos. I really wanted to be a pilot though. I always loved anything with buttons, levers, switches, and knobs. I’m sure there is a connection there… My career in the lighting industry is the result of following a path to see where it goes.
How did you get into the industry?
I graduated from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1995. I went there for a program called “Music and Video Business”. The courses were mainly geared towards audio and television production and my goal was to get work in the recording industry and work towards becoming a record producer. Towards the end of my time at AIPH I began interning around town and doing some stagehand calls here and there. This eventually led to a house gig as a stagehand in Atlantic City at the Taj Mahal Casino. When they hired me I was asked what crew I would like to receive calls from - audio, lighting, AV? I picked lighting.
I knew there were always more people on lighting calls and I wanted to work! The Taj Mahal is where I learned the ropes of the business and I was fortunate to land there. There were so many people who took me under their wing, gave me opportunities, and were patient with me while I learned. After a couple of years at the Taj I was offered the 1st LX position on a small theater tour that was starting a nine month tour. I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.
You started Align Design Group in 2017. Tell me about it.
I formed Align Design Group a few years ago with the idea that I’m not where I want to be professionally but I know where I want to go. The concept is that growth and change will lead the direction of the company. I want to be able to take the contacts and relationships I’ve been fortunate enough to forge over the years and work with an alliance of creative people. I want ADG to be a hub for that alliance.
Your lighting design credits are dominated by country music artists. Why is that?
I think being Nashville based has everything to do with that. There are certainly opportunities that pop up from outside Nashville, but there is so much happening in this town that you don’t have to usually look too far to fill up your schedule.
You’ve worked with some big names including Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, Luke Bryan, Alan Jackson and others. Who is your favorite to work with and why?
I don’t have a favorite. They all have special meaning and memories for me. They have all been part of the journey and learning process for me. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazingly talented people who care about the people that work for them.
Do you have a lighting design style or is there a look that defines a Justin Kitchenman design?
I definitely have a style but I wouldn’t consider it unique or groundbreaking. I like to work with space, elevations, and angles. I like mixing fixture types to create bold, beamy looks. I’m constantly aware that the next big idea is out there and if I shake enough trees I just may stumble upon it.
You’ve been with Luke Bryan for 7 years now, an artist who tours every year to a loyal fan base. When you know you need to come up with something new, something fresh for the next tour, where do you start? Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
That is a challenge and most of the early design phase is spent just moving truss and video around in Vectorworks, trying to find a unique look. I find inspiration in random places like hotel lobbies and playgrounds. There are amazing feats of engineering all around us every moment of everyday. We walk past them and never notice them. Every now and then you tune into something and think, “How'd they think of that?” Every now and then it sends your mind places you never considered.
When does fixture choice enter your lighting design process? How much influence does a lighting vendor have?
I’m always looking at what’s new and what’s trending as far as fixtures. Everyone wants the new shiny toy and I’m no different there. The vendor absolutely has a part in fixture choice though. We all have budgets to work around and we all want to get the most out of them. When it comes down to an “apples to apples” choice, if a vendor has it in their inventory and can give it to you at less of an expense, it will free up resources that can be used elsewhere.
How did you become familiar with Elation Professional?
I’m not sure when I first heard of Elation Professional. I feel like it’s always been there.
Any Elation fixture you want to get your hands on that you haven’t tried yet?
I have been a fan of the ACL 360i for several years now and think the Dartz 360 would be a fun upgrade for that type fixture. I am also very impressed with the direction the company has taken with powerful LED engine moving heads like the Artiste Picasso as well as their IP65 line of products like the PROTEUS HYBRID.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on the final touches of Luke Bryan’s 2019 “Sunset Repeat” tour. I have a few other projects that are in various states of development.
If you hadn’t become a lighting designer, what do you think you’d be doing today?
I have no idea but I’d like to think I’d be a sports radio talk show host in Philly…
What do you like to do when you’re not doing lighting design?
I love to be at home with no agenda, enjoying time with my wife, two daughters, and two dogs. I love taking family road trips and sharing with my family all the adventures and scenery of the world that’s “out there”. I’m fortunate to be in an industry that takes me around the world and exposes me to so many types of people and ways of life. I feel it’s so important to share that with my family whenever I can.
Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?
I have no idea where I’ll be in a year let alone 10. I’m just trying to stay happy, active, healthy, and relevant! If I can succeed in those things then I don’t care where I am in ten years. Life is a journey not a destination!
What’s something about Justin Kitchenman that people don’t necessarily know or might find surprising?
I worked on a circus for nearly two years. It was a dark period of my personal and professional life where I seriously thought about giving up and getting out. The lessons I learned on that gig though have given me the ability to withstand so much of the discomfort and inconvenience that tends to come with this line of work. Perseverance pays off in one form or another.
What advice would you give to a young lighting designer just starting out?
Be patient. This is a career where there is no clearly defined path to your goals. Don’t be discouraged if it feels like opportunities are few and far between. Opportunity is always a phone call away and you never know when you’re going to receive that call. Be focused when opportunities are presented to you and don’t lose sight of the role you’ve been given.