Light bulb moments

As lighting technology develops, large-scale, functional schemes across architecture and the outdoors become more efficient and long-lasting, but what about the design of the humble lamp? Anna Richardson talks to designers about how the concept of light is changing

Aesthetic appeal is often the only goal in the design of luminaires. But the phasing out of the incandescent light bulb and the development of the LED have encouraged designers to use that everyday object to challenge perceptions and explore ideas that go beyond the purely aesthetic.

The dawn of a new age in lighting design will be much discussed at the Light & Building fair in Frankfurt next month. According to the organisers, designers’ responses to the European directive to phase out the traditional light bulb vary, with some celebrating archetypal shapes, and others creating covers for the unpopular compact fluorescent lamp or searching for new luminaire designs that defy conventions.

One of them is lighting designer Paul Cocksedge, who is keen to point out he avoids designing a lamp just because ’it’s a good thing to look at’. ’LEDs are a gift for designers because they’re like a new toy. But just because we’ve got these things doesn’t mean we have to use them. We have to question why we’re producing them.’

Cocksedge’s lighting projects grow out of his research into technological aspects that interest him. For example, when developing the Life 01 light, which lights up when a flower is put in water and dims as the flower dies, he was more concerned about the technical details of the connector which triggers the light than the light itself.

I wanted to forget about the volume and think of the thinnest, most minimal object that releases light Lighting designer Paul Cocksedge

For Skin, Cocksedge considered the changes in lighting technology and their effects on a lamp’s traditional shape. ’I was thinking about how we’ve been used to voluminous shapes because we’ve been living with the light bulb for so long,’ says Cocksedge. ’We’ve now got LEDs that are so small and offer light in a very directional manner. So I wanted to forget about the volume and think of the thinnest, most minimal object that releases light – that was the inspiration.’

Skin is just a few millimetres thick, with the light peeping out, as if from the corner of two lightly curled sheets. The LED bulb is also connected to the metal which keeps the light source cool – another functional detail that Cocksedge was keen to pay attention to. The effect is one of wonder – a common reaction to the product is, ’How can light escape from something so thin?’.

’Skin is a comment on the difference between volume and the miniaturisation of the light, and using the metal in a specific way,’ says Cocksedge. ’I had to include those elements to justify it.’

Adam Farlie also likes to play with people’s perception of the everyday. He redeveloped his Mourning Light for the new design talent prize at this year’s IMM Cologne furniture fair. Shaped like a traditional lampshade, Mourning Light is an exploration of the perception of archetypal objects. It inverts the traditional by containing a dark void within a ’lampshade’ of light.

’In doing so, the light takes on a strange uncanniness in which our sensory perception of form is heightened,’ says Farlie, who was inspired by the childhood feeling of security and darkness created by hiding in a cupboard.

Farlie appreciates ’the power of household objects that are easily recognisable’. ’If you’re trying to communicate, they’re usually the most sensitive containers for that meaning. That’s what draws me to design.’

Using the everyday has also inspired German design studio Ett La Benn in its Mavla collection, which it is currently developing for the Milan furniture fair. The objects, including lights, are generated by forming moistened sponge cloth and drying it into a mould. ’The main inspirations were the natural qualities of cellulose and viscose,’ says Ett La Benn’s Danilo Dürler. ’It’s interesting to play around with customary materials like this, especially in terms of eco-friendliness and sustainability.’

The Mavla project aims to show the possibilities of the materials, especially when applied to a lighting object.

Possibly the most everyday of items is used by Gitta Gschwendtner in her new interior for the Likneon design shop in London’s East End. Chiming with her studio’s philosophy of creating narratives beyond the purely functional, dozens of plastic milk bottles form a giant, ’up-cycled’ ceiling light installation.

Using bottles made from 30 per cent recycled material, the installation creates a light box effect as well as making a comment about waste.

Even though the use of milk bottles was incidental – the idea emerged from a conversation with the client, who was interested in moulded plastic shapes and the idea of up-cycling materials -Gschwendtner appreciates their effect. ’I’m definitely interested in challenging people’s expectations and surprising them a little bit,’ she says.

Light & Building 2010 Runs from 11-16 April at Messe Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany

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