Why Lighting Design? Part One

When humans first populated the earth, the largest influence on their lives was the sun. It determined when they woke and when the slept, when they hunted and when they hid. Even after the discovery of fire, the physical toll of maintaining an open flame limited its functionality as a light source. Even tallow candles, popular in the 14th century, were so expensive that only the most affluent members of society could enjoy more than a few minutes of light per day.

Up to the 19th century it was still prohibitively expensive for the majority of people. In 1816 Baltimore became the first city in America to light its streets with gas distributed through a system of pipelines. This technology proved so beneficial that it was found in almost every city by 1850. And just like that, we owned the night.

This is part one of a three-part series covering how we can control light to improve our lives. In the first part we will cover lighting design, and how it impacts our ability to enjoy and use our space.

History of Lighting Design

Richard Kelly was a pioneer in lighting design, and his work included the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth. Kelly presented what he called “the three elemental forms of light” in a lecture titled “Lighting as an Integral Part of Architecture” in 1952. Kelly called these forms of light ambient luminescence, focal glow and the Play of Brilliants, fanciful terms he used to describe the practices of washing surfaces, highlighting objects and creating sharp details. He also believed that natural light should be the primary source of light when practical, a practice known today as daylighting.

Today we talk about lighting design using the terms task lighting, ambient lighting and accent lighting, which we combine to create beautiful layered spaces.

When beginning with a blank slate, many lighting designers will start by laying out a grid of recessed lights across the space to provide smooth, even, lighting. While certainly effective, many of our clients are looking for more drama than such a lighting plan can deliver.

Why Do You Need It?

Consider instead, beginning the process by noting all your task-oriented areas such as kitchen countertops, bathroom vanities, reading nooks, etc. Next, layout all of your furniture, accessories, and artwork while considering the materials you are using in the space. Now, think about how those areas should be lit. Smooth yet intense light over a kitchen workspace. Dramatic light washing down a warm stone wall. Artwork accented by crisp lighting that pools on the floor in the surrounding space.

Only when these dramatic moments are created do you begin to light the rest of the space, filling in the ambient light where needed. This is obviously a simplification of the process, but it reflects the important role that light should play in our work.

In the next part of the series we will be discussing lighting control, and the impact that can have on how we interact with our homes and workplaces.