Interior Design

LED there be light

Advances in light-emitting-diode technology are opening up a new world of creative possibilities for designers. The results delight the eye, says Lucia van der Post.

October 18 2011
Lucia van der Post

Light is inherently magical. After all, it transformed life for early man. As Piero Gandini, chairman of one of the world’s most innovative lighting companies, Flos, puts it, “The cave was a dark and scary place until man invented fire, and the glowing embers of the fire rendered it warm, safe and magical.”

And yet, when the mind turns to LEDs, where all the talk in lighting is currently centred, magic isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Practical, admirable, utilitarian are more like it, as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) were invented for splendidly worthy reasons. Compared to their predecessors, they consume less energy, last much longer (averaging 50,000 light hours compared to about 1,000 for a tungsten bulb) and are much cheaper to run: they are generally considered to be the greener way to go.

LEDs consist of small diodes that convert electricity to light. They have been around since the early 1960s (in computers, traffic lights, signposts) but until the last few years there wasn’t much to get excited about for those of us who care about beautiful lighting in our homes. Much of the problem was that too many cheap LED lights flooded the market and big companies originally concentrated investment on efficiency. In addition, the quality of LED light has been poor, though much effort is going into improving it. And now some of the world’s most innovative lighting designers are being drawn to this new technology, coming up with beautiful, poetic pieces that couldn’t have been created without the use of LEDs.

The critical quality that has so excited designers is that LEDs are so small. This is what has inspired the eminent crystal company Baccarat to commission several designers to marry the beauty of crystal and the long tradition of chandeliers with this great new technology.

Baccarat sees the advantages aesthetically. It finds that LEDs allow the crystal to take on a new magnificence because they give a white light as opposed to the yellow of halogen lamps. On the technical side, LEDs allow Baccarat to hide the lighting system inside the chandelier, and on top of that, the long life cycle of 80,000 hours adds something like 15 years to chandelier life. In its beautifully staged exhibition of chandeliers at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, the company’s stated aim was to produce “an absolute transition in 2011. From traditional incandescence to electroluminescence, from the classic filament to the magic of the LED.”

It was LEDs that enabled the Parisian architect team Moatti & Rivière to devise the first flat chandelier in Baccarat’s history, shown in Milan. Called the Fibre de Cristal (£13,600), it is a beautiful, sculpturally wavy creation based on a carbon-fibre surface with finely chased crystal lit by tiny LEDs. It appears to float almost weightlessly in the air, unlike more physically obtrusive conventional chandeliers. The design duo’s aim was to recreate as poetically as possible the beauty of a night sky strewn with the stars of the Milky Way. The Fibre de Cristal’s other advantage is that it can be used as a wall unit instead of, say, an old-fashioned sconce.

With Zenith Comète (£35,600), a more traditional design, Baccarat has kept the iconic little lamps (Zenith being one of its more recognisable and popular products) but changed the lighting by fitting LEDs, resulting in that distinctive white light and a glow that can morph from brilliant to soft.

Moooi, the Dutch company co-founded by designer Marcel Wanders, is never one to be behind the curve, and this year it has launched the Heracleum light (£2,143) by designer Bertjan Pot. Wanders was responsible for the Heracleum’s accomplished electronics, the power being supplied through a specially patented framework of very thin coated conductive layers. But to the end user, its beauty is what makes it alluring. Inspired by the cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum), a common hedgerow plant, it has some 63 “petals”, each of which houses an LED. The effect is to replicate the random way the leaves grow.

Tom Dixon, too, has seen the direction in which lighting is heading and has used LEDs in his Etch collection of geodesic, etched-brass lamps – available as the floor-standing Etch Tower (£1,900) and Etch Light Pendant (in three sizes, from £470).

But lighting experts widely agree that it is Flos, creator of many design classics (Castiglione’s Taccio and Toio, Tobia Scarpa’s Biagio, Philippe Starck’s Miss K), which has been at the forefront of developing a responsible design-led vision of how to use LEDs.

The results, shown at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, are some spectacularly striking new designs. Inevitably, some are more beautiful than others. Most breathtaking of all was Thierry Dreyfus’s Wall Rupture (price on request) – something of an invisible lamp, resembling a huge fissure in a wall. It looks as if has appeared as the result of an earthquake, which instead of leaving behind destruction has created a luminous golden (or silver) crack in the wall. It is utterly beautiful, and part of Flos’s Soft Architecture collection.

More practically, Antonio Citterio’s elegant Kelvin LED light (designed with Toan Nguyen) has become almost an archetype of a new generation of desk lamp. It is divinely simple to use and slim in a way that would not have been possible without LEDs. It is turned on and off by lightly touching the top of the light, and has a sensor that detects the ambient light level and adjusts light intensity accordingly. There is also a chemically etched diffuser to make the light warm and soft. The grown-up desk version (£253) is already legendary, and now Flos has launched a mini-version (£195).

I see Philippe Starck’s Net (£253), as being one of the hot presents for iPad owners this Christmas. As usual, Starck has thought outside the box, coming up with a light-source that houses an iPad (or an iPod or iPhone) and charges it while it provides light. It’s a brilliant, useful and witty package, with a USB socket sitting above a lamp diffuser. Another Starck product for Flos that does more than illuminate is the Hide (£195 to £295, depending on size), a series of small linear light shelves in anodised metal, coloured plastic, wood or laminated stone. It is both light and shelf, the illumination coming from LEDs hidden in the sconces.

Alessi, not until now a company associated with lighting, has suddenly got very excited by all the possibilities and has launched the Alessilux collection, collaborating with Foreverlamp and a group of young designers to develop a whole series of LED-infused light bulbs (€42.50 for bulbs, €57.90 for luminaires). These are objects of beauty in their own right. Alberto Alessi says that “the topic brought us towards a kind of evaporation of the boundaries between light bulbs and lamps in a most natural way. I think the new operation with Foreverlamp is going to blaze a trail for a revolutionary story in the world of lights: it’s as if hiding those boring, anonymous and often truly ugly light bulbs will no longer be necessary.” The results are strange and interesting and though not due to be launched until next year, they are an indicator that powerful designers have seen where the future lies.

Ingo Maurer, the “godfather of lighting” as he is commonly known, has also added his particular lyrical and witty touches to the LED world. He has produced a beautiful glass table that is transformed into a magical piece of art by tiny LEDs (€144,900 to order). These are dotted throughout the glass, echoing a starry night sky. Design curator Janice Blackburn persuaded Maurer to produce one for Material Worlds, the recent selling exhibition she curated for Sotheby’s at Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds.

It was placed in the castle’s 15th-century chapel with a fine stained-glass window in the background and Maurer’s two enchanting butterfly/insect light bulbs above (these, though, do not depend upon LEDs for their beauty), making it look like an ethereally lovely altar table.

Ultimately, tungsten bulbs will disappear, say lighting experts, and we will be left with LEDs, with all their technical challenges and their disadvantages (though much cheaper to run, they are more expensive initially to make). So it is just as well that LEDs have fired the imaginations of young designers. Gandini believes the most powerful appeal of LED lighting lies in its poetic possibilities: “Joris Laarman, for instance, came up with a most lyrical installation, which consisted of floor-to-ceiling strings all with LEDs embedded in them. He then devised a computerised lighting program for them that imitated the flight of birds so that when anybody entered a room, the lights took off, just like the birds.”

Of course, this doesn’t yet have a practical function but it shows where young thinking is heading. It’s as if the sheer technological brilliance has to be matched by dazzling innovation, and at the same time its hard edges have to be softened with beauty.

Dutch electronics giant Philips is already exploring the possibilities of bringing spaces alive by teaming up with the Danish textile company Kvadrat to create luminous textiles – the first will be launched in November, primarily for commercial use to begin with. As Gandini puts it, “Lighting is now embarked on the sort of journey that music has recently gone on – from live orchestras to long-playing records to CDs, iPods, mobile phones and live streaming on the internet. We don’t yet know where this journey is going to end but it’s certainly exciting. What I say to my younger designers is, ‘Come on, let’s dream together. Who knows what we can achieve.’”

See also

Lighting, Lamps