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Lighting as art: make a statement with lighting design

Artificial and natural light are fundamental to life and in our daily functions as human beings, yet we often take light for granted. Indeed, many say the lighting we don’t notice is the best result of lighting design. But some lighting fixtures and techniques double as an art form. And when design creativity and innovative technology join forces, lighting does more than simply illuminate the space — it makes a statement that can impact the fundamentals of human nature.

We talked with Sohana Arni, LC, MIES, of the architectural products group at Eaton’s Lighting Division, to get her take on lighting design that combines high function with true art.

What are some examples of lighting that can double as an art form in addition to lighting the space?

SA: Grouping fixtures is one of the most natural ways to turn lighting into art, because doing so portrays a story. Imagine pendants — maybe 100 pinpoints of light — that spiral downward in an open atrium. Or, picture a sculpture with an integrated light fixture, where the light itself is part of the artwork, rather than simply a source of light. For example, artist Janet Echelman uses techniques she learned from a fishing culture in India to create gigantic, illuminated net shapes in the form of sculptural art in many locations around the world.

In terms of actual materials of what light fixtures are made of, machined fixtures have a clean, aesthetic, textured look that makes them feel extremely high-end. For example, Eaton’s Lumiere landscape lighting line features beautiful, machined metal pieces for applications ranging from landscaping and architectural landmarks to hospitality. Or, wooden fixtures add a level of warmth to a space that simply acts as the encasement to hold the light source.

There are other creative examples, too. Artists who use lighting to accentuate their medium. Natural light incorporated into a sculpture or other work of art. Paints that create a glow effect. Lasers used in such a way that they accent or create movement.

Lighting designers and interior designers understand that the best, most beautiful lighting is the lighting they want — lighting that gives them a good feeling about a space. Early in my own career, I learned to design spaces using lighting with purpose and functionality, ascribing to the art of when to use or not use them. This sounds like such a simple concept, but people don’t always follow it.

What’s driving the need for a more artistic or creative approach to lighting design in even the most functional spaces?

SA: I think we’re all ultimately looking for ways to devise solutions to problems by using the real estate of the light fixture. Think about the amount of movement in the modern workforce. More people are telecommuting or working from home, at least partially because many offices fail to live up to workers’ expectations for a non-disruptive, inspired or productive space. In response, smart corporations are thinking about how to make their spaces more comfortable and more like home, or how the physical spaces are being used to their designed capacity —things that, in theory, may move workers to spend more time there. This can be accomplished by devoting more thought and resources to interesting textures, comforting light levels and warm colors, and technology that shows people how their space is being used in real time.

From specific artistic movements to general styles, what are some of your favorite art and design influences in lighting?

SA: I believe the people most likely to ignite trends are those who are willing to stretch beyond their own space for inspiration. For example, I’ve noticed that many interior designers look to the fashion industry when it comes to things like color and texture. In turn, some of the most creative lighting designers look to the interior design industry. Concepts from nature also have a way of influencing lighting as well as other sectors, such as the automotive industry and its development of lighting for cars. Personally, I draw personal inspiration from art and architecture, and what is happening and trending in those spaces.

What are best practices for decorative lighting or lighting as art?

SA: Well, the last thing anyone wants is lighting that doesn’t function properly, so first and foremost, use reliable products. But the balance of un-lighting a space is just as important as lighting a space. Over-lighting can destroy the fluidity of, for example, a sculptural piece on display. Cohesiveness, color spectrum characteristics and light levels are all critical things to consider as well.

There’s an art to designing with darkness, too — in other words, creating a sense of calm. Many modern offices were designed to incorporate specific daylighting strategies, balanced with artificial light levels that are comfortable for most people.

What are some of the most common mistakes in lighting design?

SA: Not knowing your audience. High glare. High contrast, which forces the eye to transition from dark to light too quickly, causing eye fatigue. Over-lit spaces that prevent occupants from relaxing or focusing on the task at hand, which may even induce stress. These are all big, blatant mistakes for any lighting designer.

Designers can also stumble if they don’t take the time to learn and understand the age groups that will be using a space and the dynamics of that space. For example, an 18-year-old person will ordinarily have a certain threshold for light, but the same light levels may cause problems for a 65-year-old person. In general, most people may actually prefer less light, but for a long time, our industry has pushed for bigger, higher light levels.

How have modern LEDs expanded design possibilities?

SA: LEDs changed the game by giving us more platforms around which to design.

Today, we use LED lighting in all environments, and they’re becoming more reliable, especially where color quality is concerned. In addition, color tuning allows us to affect the circadian rhythm in a positive way by changing how people subconsciously react to light.

RSA, a family of recessed luminaires with one point of power for multiple heads, is just one example of how LED technology has expanded lighting as an art form. Though designed for retail, hospitality and commercial spaces, RSA lighting fixtures have a high-end, residential feel. It's also an example of a single light source that replaced multiple older lamp technologies with one fixture type.

LED technology isn’t just a gateway to better design. It’s a gateway to solutions that make life better, more practical and more enjoyable, and our industry will only continue to push the envelope.