A Real Turn-On
Designers and manufacturers are getting excited about the potential of LEDs
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 7/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
An LED-washed wall at Matteo Thun & Partners's Hugo Boss flagship in New York; courtesy of Matteo Thun & Partners.
Not since the advent of halogen lighting several decades ago have we perched on the edge of a similar watershed in technology. Compact fluorescents were supposed to be the invention that would save the planet, but salvation always seems to come with a few strings attached. While the color and dependability of CFLs have improved, albeit slowly, the bulb shapes remain too clunky to expose in open fixtures for elegant settings—which explains why many interior designers persist in installing old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Environmental questions linger around CFLs, too, since they unfortunately contain trace amounts of toxic mercury vapor, which goes straight into the atmosphere if not properly disposed of.
Light-emitting diodes to the rescue?
Once little more than red or amber lights on home stereos, LEDs took off as traffic-signal retrofits. Until quite recently, to use an LED in a lamp was to apologize for it. "Every lighting consultant has a horror story," recent convert David Singer admits. A consultant who operates independently as Arc Light Design, based at the office of Tonychi and Associates, Singer cites problems with LED failure due to overheating in closed fixtures.
A chandelier by the Oxigen Design Group; photo by Ciprian Stoian.
White LEDs are relatively new. Energy efficiency has increased spectacularly, but advances initially came at the expense of light quality. Blame that on the blind pursuit of lumens per watt. In the effort to make the technology seem as efficient as possible on paper, manufacturers leaned toward blue tones that were great at stimulating the selenium chips found in light meters but less than kind to many human complexions and often utterly unworkable as a substitute for incandescent coziness. According to a chief specialist in the Toshiba Corporation's new lighting-systems division, Kunio Maikuma, Americans were not impressed.
At a Hugo Boss flagship in New York, Matteo Thun & Partners sidestepped the problem: The space is largely windowless, and the LEDs stand in for daylight, which naturally has a blue cast. But that look has its limits, especially in a hospitality setting at night or in a residence that calls for light dimmed down to the soft glow of candles.
Antonio Citterio's Skin pendant fixture by Paul Cocksedge; courtesy of Flos. Ingo Maurer's one-off Get Used To table lamp with bundled LEDs; photo by Tom Vack/INgo Maurer.
Real progress was revealed at Euroluce during this past Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. While the Oxigen Design Group showed colored LEDs punctuating the nodes of a funky little wire chandelier that recalled string art, most of the big multinational manufacturers were moving away from colored or color-changing fixtures that can threaten installations with theme-park comparisons. The new generation of LEDs is almost indistinguishable from halogen.
The irony is that white LEDs are, in actuality, blue ones capped by small domes coated in the phosphors already found inside fluorescent tubes. In other words, LEDs fluoresce just like fluorescents. Manufacturers have begun to perfect phosphor blends—"secret sauce," as Singer describes them. One of his favorites, from Eco-Story, is so flattering to fajita burritos that he's using it to accent the fluorescent lighting in the dining areas at the Chipotle restaurants he's developing with Architecture Outfit. "You get a lot of contrast out of it, which is a little surreal or hyper-real. The yellows are so vibrant that everything looks crisper," he says.
Marcel Wanders's Wallflower, a sconce for Flos, installed at Euroluce in Milan; photo by Bill Batten/Ochre.
For Il Salviatino, a hotel that opened in July in the hills overlooking Florence, Italy, Luciano Colombo worked with the Siemens Corporation to in-vent custom LED fixtures in PVC housings that can be plastered directly into hollow walls and ceilings. The fixtures were made in three versions: as downlights or fixed at angles of 30 or 45 degrees. And all three combine LEDs in a "halogen" white with others that have a cooler, "daylight" quality. During construction, the architects worked with electricians on the labor-intensive process of aiming the fixtures precisely, one by one, at architectural elements or the planned location of antiques. "It glorifies the architecture rather than glorifying a lamp model," designer Meryam Tazi says.
For those who don't mind glorifying a lamp model, an artisanal sconce that Ochre showed at the recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York exploits the smallness of LEDs to disperse light through brass eucalyptus leaves—to great decorative effect. Flos, back in Milan, devoted much of its Euroluce display to next-generation warm-white LEDs in plug-and-play lamps and architectural fixtures conceived by a roster of top international designers. Antonio Citterio's powder-coated outdoor lighting was characteristically sleek. Marcel Wanders used single LEDs to spark wall-mounted crystal flowers. And Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby showed the Tab floor and table lamps, each with five LEDs in a porcelain-lined shade.
Eco-Story's PAR20 spotlight; courtesy of Eco-Story. The five-diode Tab lamp by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby for Flos; courtesy of Flos.
Perhaps most promising was Toshiba's display, off-site at Zona Tortona. To compete with the likes of the Calculite LED downlight from Lightolier, Toshiba introduced its powerful E-Core recessed architectural fixture. It packed unexpected punch at full power and also dimmed easily.
Toshiba's pièce de résistance, however, should debut in the U.S. this year. Likely to cost around $50, this version of the E-Core is a small bulb offering extreme energy savings, an ultra-long life of 40,000 hours, dimmability, and excellent color rendering, close in quality to sunlight. Plus, there's a threaded base compatible with any incandescent fixture you already know and love.