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No longer the unsung heroes of residential design projects, lighting designers are increasingly taking centre stage – thanks to the rise of new technologies and advances in spatial design.

by Elizabeth Choppin

Good lighting is everything – or so they say on social media. In residential design it certainly is, and right now there are changes afoot in the way designers illuminate homes.

In short, it’s goodbye to incandescent, halogen and fluorescent light bulbs and hello to LEDs and home automation. Sure, the wheels have been in motion for some time, but it wasn’t until now that these technologies have been fine-tuned in a way that brings them front and centre.

For many designers and architects, installing LEDs in residential interiors used to be anathema to the comfort, warmth, and beauty one associates with the sanctuary of a home. The truth is that, for years, LEDs suffered from a pretty terrible reputation.

Maybe this image problem was justified – the cold blue and white light of early generation LEDs was certainly not desirable when plotting out spaces people retire to at the end of a long day. The dreaded cold light was enough to turn designers off of the technology, despite the indisputable energy savings it provided. But times, they are a’changin’ – in fact, they’ve already changed.

“In the last few years it’s been evolution, not revolution,” says Paul Nulty, head of Nulty Lighting. “So it’s not new technology we’re seeing, but evolving technology.”

The evolution Nulty speaks of is actually more like incremental improvement in the dimming capability and colour rendering of LEDs. This makes them a more appealing prospect for residential interior designers, although there is no legal obligation in the UK, for now, to specify them over traditional halogen light sources. Historically, the LED has not been particularly high quality when measured on their CRI, or Colour Rendering Index, says Nulty. But now improvements allow for easier assessment of spectral qualities of light – accessing, all of the tones that make a room beautifully lit.

“Ultimately, in a residential project, you want to minimise blue tones, which you traditionally got in an LED light source,” Nulty says. “But now we’re starting to see a new breed of LEDs with warm tones – lots of ambers and reds – that we would’ve traditionally associated with a halogen light bulb. The quality is a bit more cosy and a bit more like firelight. So we’re getting back, weirdly, the qualities we used to have before new technologies came along.”

Luke Locke-Wheaton, design director for London-based The Lighting Design Studio, agrees that LEDs have become immensely more usable. “They’ve come down in price massively over the past few years, and we’re using them on all of our lighting projects,” he says. “They’ve revolutionised the industry and also had a huge impact on the design and appearance of light fittings. We’re starting to see all sorts of crazy and wonderful light fittings on the market.

Manufacturers are no longer tied to a conventional light bulb and reflector, or shade, to direct and diffuse the light.”

In this sense, more and more residential projects are integrating lighting into shelf details, balustrades, under cabinets, and within niches – and it’s all thanks to the shrinking size of LED sources, according to Locke-Wheaton. “From an architectural standpoint, everything is becoming smaller,” he says. “Lots of common light fittings like down lights, track spot lights and wall washers are all becoming miniaturised.”

Luke Thomas, design director at John Cullen Lighting, eplains how “some of the biggest advancements are actually in the way we control the lighting”. “Users can now easily adopt a system offering control through a mobile device,” he says. “Which can also increase energy efficiency as well as change the mood.” This means control is built into a luminaire, suggesting that, eventually, hardware and switches will become obsolete. Until recently, automation has mostly been through hardwired centralised hub-based systems – but as technology has developed, ’smart’ light fittings incorporating wireless technology, such as Bluetooth, have become prominent.We’re also seeing tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple entering the smart home sector, adds Locke-Wheaton. As a result, we now have the ability to use things like Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant Alexa to control lights and select light scenes. “These big companies are going to have a huge impact on home control,” he says. “I don’t think 2018 will see the death of the light switch, but technology is certainly moving in that direction.”

As for aesthetic trends, there is a wide range of ideas on the go for 2018, but one thing is for sure – the exposed industrial light bulb has had its day. Rania Abboud, a director at Lebanese lighting company PSLab which has recently opened a London outpost, says there has been a resurgence of bold architectural lighting. “In the 1970s, spotlights were a decorative feature,” she says. “Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, light became concealed wherever possible. But there is return to looking at an architectural light as a decorative object.”

Of course, there is always a place for decorative lighting – a striking ceiling pendant is a perennial feature in interior design, and bespoke fittings paired with vintage fixtures are on trend again. “For a couple of years, American decorative lighting designers have played a strong role in supplying the top end of the interior design market with beautiful bronze, sculptural pendants – it would be great to see more British companies excelling in this field,” says Rebecca Weir, Creative Director at Light IQ.
The general consensus seems to be that, in residential projects, the scope and possibility for lighting in 2018 is much more interesting, technically accessible and varied than ever before. Or, as Weir aptly put it: “The future is bright!”

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