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See the light: why lighting is important in interior design

Light has intrigued man since the beginning of time. Without light, there is no color. In his quest for control of light, man supplemented daylight with a series of artificial devices. What began as tall candles and gas lamps in the early centuries evolved into a plethora of light sources powered by electricity, chemicals, or combustion today. While the physical attributes of light fixtures contribute to the design of a space, the intangible aspects of the light they emit go further.

To understand light and how it affects color, it is necessary to know that color perception is the result of the eye seeing a specific reflected color ray. A carpet appears red only when all other colors in the light spectrum, with the exception of red, are absorbed by the floor, allowing the reflected red light to be picked up by the sensors in the eye.

Lighting essentially determines color. Different types of light accentuate different areas of the spectrum: Red carpet viewed under a cool fluorescent light with a strong blue-green spectral distribution will look dull and lifeless, while it will look warm and vibrant under an incandescent lamp. Remote controlled color selections often generate surprises due to the specific orientation of the project site towards the sun and lighting conditions. To minimize the problem of color changes, it is imperative to view the materials on site, under the lighting expected for the installation.

The lighting design concept that advocates creating “light floors” in a space is especially relevant amid our current focus on energy conservation. By accentuating key areas through a brighter color scheme and higher lighting levels in a relatively dark space, attention is drawn only to those areas that are considered important to the design solution. Another approach, from a more practical point of view, is to create “layers of light”. In this case, the lighting in a space is controlled by separate switches and dimmers, so it can be lit by sections, by tasks, or in its entirety. This prevents excessive lighting and allows flexible lighting control. Carefully deployed, one can create a sense of drama, ceremony, and cadence through these lighting techniques.

Darkness, the antithesis of light, is an important element in lighting design. Shadows not only help define a space, but through contrast they expand the sense of scale and emphasize the sculptural quality of whatever object is being illuminated. If carefully applied, they can be an effective remedy for irregularly shaped spaces. Alternatively, if the perimeter of a room is illuminated, the space psychologically appears to be larger and more relaxing for the occupants.

Also, a good interior design should provide adequate lighting. The amount of light needed must be determined in conjunction with the task and the visual acuity of the user. As human vision begins to deteriorate after the age of 40, baby boomers will drive the need for more efficient lighting as they require ever brighter environments.

Regardless of the light source, the general trend is towards green lighting fixtures that are energy efficient and sustainable. Despite improvements in LED lighting technology, fluorescent and incandescent lamps remain the dominant choices for interior lighting applications. LED lights are still used primarily in landscape lighting as cost, lamp quality and color rendering issues have prevented their mass adoption. However, they are about to become a major part of the market in a few years when innovation and demand create bulbs that are cheaper and brighter with more color options.

Improvements in color rendering of standard cool white fluorescent lamps have led to a wide range of products including full spectrum bulbs, deluxe warm white and cool white bulbs. Additionally, electronic ballasts now allow for easy dimming while alleviating lamp flicker issues, making fluorescents a more attractive lighting option. With their efficient light output and low cost, they remain the most economical way to provide even, shadow-free lighting for an extended period of time.

On the incandescent front, low wattage tungsten halogen lamps remain popular as they produce brighter, whiter, more efficient light than conventional incandescent bulbs. The compact light source of the halogen lamp makes objects such as glassware, mirrors and gems sparkle and come to life. Although the light from a halogen lamp gets noticeably hotter when dimmed, the life of the lamp is significantly extended, delaying its inevitable trip to the landfill.

Advances in lighting products have allowed designers to create more spectacular interiors that respond to the functional needs of the user. A successful design can modulate the quality and quantity of light to address the psychological and physiological needs of users. In fact, lighting is one of the most powerful elements of interior design. It is the Rosetta Stone that allows our eyes to see and interpret the world around us: without which it will be a built environment devoid of colour, contrast and interest.

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