Seeing the light

The brash and glaringblanket lighting found in stores during the 1980s and 1990s appears to be making way for more enticing forms of illumination. Dominic Lutyens argues that forward-thinking retailers are realising the benefits of varied lighting

It is a paradox in the retail lighting world that many consider it to have gone through its own dark ages 20, 30 years ago precisely when it made the maximum use of light. ’Lighting had to be bigger and brighter in the 1980s and 1990s,’ says lighting consultant Eddie Smith. Smith, with Easylink, a Chinese manufacturer of lighting fixtures, has formed the company Eureka Light, which commissions British designers to create innovative, eco-friendly lighting. ’If your shop was brighter than your neighbour’s, it was like moths to a flame. It became ludicrous,’ he says.

But if retailers once equated good lighting with chip shop-bright clarity the better to display and flog their goods forward-thinking ones now believe that varied lighting makes greater commercial sense. It helps to create a seductive atmosphere which encourages customers to buy products. At one extreme, today, there’s a trend for dramatic, chiaroscuro contrasts, at the other for barely there subtlety.

The shift away from brash lighting is the result of a collision of aesthetics, technological leaps and a concern for the environment, embodied most in a growing trend for LEDs, which are long-lasting, low-maintenance, low carbon and many believe create an inviting atmosphere. LEDs are timely: UK and EU guidelines introduced in 2000 and tightened last year restrict the use of energy-guzzling light sources as part of regulations to make buildings more energy-efficient. The latest technology in reflectors for lamps which increase a light’s output from 60 to 90 per cent is also saving a lot of energy. ’In the UK, energy-efficiency is increasingly necessary with the huge surge in energy use following the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, which has seen shops open for much longer,’ says Smith.

But for all their benefits, LEDs have drawbacks. They are still expensive and, during the economic downturn, retailers more concerned about economising than caring for the environment are not rushing to adopt them. What’s more, says Robson, ’The shadows LEDs cast are harder, and they can be very cool and blue.’ But ’they’re useful for lighting small or hard-to-reach displays’, says Richard Bennett, interior designer at Dalziel & Pow, which recently redesigned the interiors of Topshop’s Oxford Circus flagship store, with recessed spotlights, black track lights, glow-in-the-dark signage and neon-lit cubes in funky shades such as fuchsia and fluoro-yellow.

Indeed, recessed into every shelf at Harrods’ atmospheric new Wine Shop, designed by HMKM, are LED strips illuminating bottles and other products. Meanwhile, New York-based interiors consultancy Dash Design has created interiors for various branches of chocolate shop Godiva in Turkey and China, with two similar stores to open in the US this year, using low-heat LED lighting to prevent the chocolate melting.

Even so, some retailers are reluctant to swap blanket ambient light for a spot-lit approach, according to Felicity Pogson, associate director at Dalziel & Pow. ’Retailers worry that their shops will be too dark. But when they choose a more focused scheme, the reactions are positive. Products are lit in a more flattering way, elevating their brand. Good lighting draws the customer’s eye to the products, represents their colours faithfully clothes, for example, don’t look different in daylight and increases time spent browsing, which can drive up sales.’

Aesthetically, the one-dimensional use of lighting is giving way to a more eclectic, playful approach. In conjunction with lighting design group Light Tecnica, Studio DB completed a ritzy refurbishment of London department store Fenwick last autumn, mixing Bertjan Pot’s pared-down Non-Random lights for Moooi, Barovier & Toso’s ornate Murano glass chandelier, sputnik-shaped 1950s pendant lights, Tom Dixon’s disco-fabulous Mirror Ball lights and Jaime Hayón’s Josephine Queen chandelier. The customer services department features a birdcage-shaped chandelier containing life-like birds designed by Mathieu Challières. The LED-lit circular ceiling above one beauty counter blushes with a halo of lilac light. ’For the fitting rooms, we chose backlit mirrors,’ says Studio DB creative director Lesley Batchelor. ’We minimised direct lighting to avoid unflattering shadows and used natural daylight.’

Backlighting has also been used, albeit to more artificial effect, at a new Kurt Geiger shop in London. Designed by Light Bureau, it boasts an enormous chandelier made of shoes backlit by multi-filament incandescent light sources.

It is impossible to quantify how lighting boosts sales, but it is likely to have a significant impact if it allows a store to make an impression on customers. ’Light is key to a space’s ambience and gives customers a “take home” memory,’ says Keith Bradshaw, director of lighting consultancy Speirs & Major, which recently helped to create the theatrically lit butcher’s shop adjoining Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa restaurant in east London. Says Bradshaw, ’Lighting makes a key difference in a keenly competitive retail environment.’

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