Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Until relatively recently in the history of mankind, lighting was little more than a functional necessity. Before electricity, and with it incandescent lighting, became readily available candles were the only form of available light to both supplement daylight and extend the day. By the 19th century oil lamps and then gas lamps were being introduced but nevertheless lighting could still only be described as a functional necessity.
Today we can view light differently and we can, in a sense, distinguish between that which is required at a functional level and that which is purely decorative or for effect. The most obvious example of this statement might be a combined kitchen and dining room. Whilst food is being prepared full use might be made of overhead or counter top lighting. But when ready to eat all of this could be dimmed or switched off and dining could take place in candle light and nothing more. This approach to lighting throws up interesting ideas and concepts that need to be considered during the design process. How we perceive and use light varies throughout the day and the psychological effect of light on our mood and emotions are deeply embedded. Nature has catered well for our circadian rhythms - the day starts with warm yellow light as the sun rises before progressing to bright blue light towards noon and then fading back to yellow at the end of the day. This change in colour temperature over the course of the day is in tune with our body clock and as evening approaches the warmer light temperature prepares us for winding down and sleep. So, whilst today we consider candlelight to be "cosy", "romantic" or "intimate" it is much more likely that our positive response to this light source is primeval.
However, I digress. This article seeks to establish if there is a difference in this day and age between functional and decorative light. This distinction applies to the quality of light delivered within a space and to the luminaire that provides the light. This article was prompted having recently spent time flicking through back issues of House and Garden magazine. I was immediately struck by how little attention had been given to lighting as an element in its own right in some of the beautiful interiors - many by well known designers - featured within the magazines. This is by no means a criticism of the interiors portrayed, merely an observation. There may be many reasons why lighting does not appear to be a factor in its own right - listed buildings, lack of awareness of the possibilities of lighting on the part of the designer, budget issues and so on. Many - perhaps most - of the interiors shown rely heavily on decorative table lights, pendants or wall lights to illuminate the space. Here, the decorative is the functional and vice versa. This method of lighting an interior space harks back to the early days of electric lighting, however, a myriad of opportunities now exist to enhance the lighting within a space without the need for multiple rows of downlights or any other illumination that would detract from the designer's intentions. By layering light between the functional and the decorative we can create mood and excitement without overpowering the overall feel of the room. Too much light is as bad - possibly worse - than too little light. In buildings that are heavily listed this approach to lighting can be difficult but thanks to the extraordinary advances in LED lighting technology the possibility of carefully layering light are availble in the most difficult of circumstances. It is perhaps this challenge in older buildings that is the most interesting for the lighting designer. In the end therefore it all comes down to the one question -"What do you want to see?"6 views