Seeing the Light: Why Lighting Matters in Interior Design
Light has intrigued man since the dawn of time. Without light, there is no color. In his quest for the control of light, man supplemented daylight with an array of artificial devices. What started out as tallow candles and gas lamps in the early centuries evolved into to a plethora of light sources powered by electricity, chemicals or combustion in the modern day. While the physical attributes of light fixtures contribute to the design of a space, the intangible aspects of the light they emit are more far reaching.
In order to understand light and how it affects color, one needs to know that color perception is the result of the eye seeing a specific reflected ray of color. A carpet appears red only when all other colors of the light spectrum, with the exception of red, are absorbed by the flooring, allowing the eye’s sensors to receive the reflected red light.
Lighting essentially determines color. Different types of light accentuate different areas of the spectrum: the red carpet viewed under cool fluorescent light with a heavy blue-green spectral distribution will look dull and lifeless, while it will look warm and vibrant under an incandescent fixture. Color selections by remote often lead to surprises because of the project site’s specific orientation to the sun and lighting conditions. To minimize the problem of color shifts, it is imperative to view materials on site, under the lighting expected for the installation.
The lighting design concept which advocates creating “pools of light” in a space is especially germane amidst our current focus on energy conservation. By accentuating key areas through a combination of brighter colors and higher illumination levels in a relatively dark space, the eye is drawn only to areas deemed important to the design solution. Another approach, stemming from a more practical standpoint, is to create “layers of light”. In this instance, lighting in a space is controlled by separate switches and dimmers so it can be lit either in sections, segregated by task, or in its entirety. This avoids over-lighting and allows for flexible lighting control. Carefully deployed, one can create a sense of drama, ceremony and cadence through these lighting techniques.
Darkness, the antithesis of light, is an important element in lighting design. Shadows not only help define a space, but through contrast, expand the sense of scale and emphasize the sculptural quality of any object being illuminated. Thoughtfully applied, they can be an effective remedy for awkwardly shaped spaces. Alternatively, should the perimeter of a room be illuminated, the space psychologically appears to be bigger and more relaxing to the occupants.
Additionally, good interior design should provide adequate lighting. The amount of light needed must be determined in conjunction with the task and visual acuity of the user. As human vision starts deteriorating after age 40, the baby boomers will be driving the need for more efficient lighting as they require increasingly brighter environments.
Regardless of the lighting source, the general trend is towards eco-friendly lighting fixtures that are energy efficient and sustainable. Despite improvements in LED lighting technology, fluorescent and incandescent lamps remain the dominant choices for interior lighting applications. LED lights are still primarily used in landscape lighting as issues of cost, lamp quality and color rendering have prevented mass adoption. However they are poised to become a significant part of the market in a few years when innovation and demand create light bulbs that are cheaper and brighter with more color choices.
Improvements in the color rendering of standard cold white fluorescent lamps have given rise to a wide range of products such as full spectrum, deluxe warm white and cool white light bulbs. Additionally electronic ballasts now allow easy dimming while alleviating the issues of lamp flicker, making fluorescents a more attractive lighting option. With their efficient light output and low cost, they remain the most economical way of providing uniform, shadow frees lighting over an extended period of time.
On the incandescent front, low voltage tungsten halogen lamps remain popular as they produce a brighter, whiter, more efficient light than conventional incandescent bulbs. The halogen lamp’s compact lighting source makes objects like glassware, mirrors, and gems sparkle and come alive. Although light from a halogen lamp warms noticeably when dimmed, the lamp life is extended significantly, thereby delaying its inevitable trip to the landfill.
Advances in lighting products have enabled designers to create more dramatic interiors that are responsive to the functional needs of the user. A successful design can modulate the quality and quantity of light to address the users’ psychological and physiological needs. Indeed, lighting is one of the most powerful elements of interior design. It is the Rosetta Stone that allows our eyes to see and interpret the world around us: without which will be a built environment devoid of color, contrast, and interest.