Green bulbs, and not for the garden
by Markus Frenzl | 9/1/2009

Oh God, it's too late. September 1 already marks the beginning of the era of the energy-saving lamp and I have not stockpiled some of the good old light bulbs to tide me through to the end of my days. Will the lights in my apartment ever be the same once the next bulb goes? Will we all get depressed because there is such a strong blue element in the new energy-saving lamps and will therefore never be able to sleep again? Will we be needing sunglasses at home to provide glare-protection, as the old satin lamps are now forbidden? Does the prohibition only apply to "lamps with unbundled light", as the EU decree would have it, meaning that 300W spotlights will continue to be available for my "Toio"? Or must I immediately order them direct from General Electrics in the United States? - No one really knows what is just scare-mongering and what it true. Of course the threat of climate change means we must change our behavior and it is a small step in the right direction to call for greater energy saving in private homes. And it goes without saying that to that end we must change our habits and perhaps here and there forgo something we have grown to like. But the closer we get to the day when the gradual death bell of the good old light bulb is to be tolled, the clearer it becomes that all of this may be a bit overhasty. Many still believe that the development of alternatives, such as LEDs, has not yet advanced far enough. And probably no one really thought long and hard about what it could all mean for everyday and design culture.

On their Websites, the luminaire makers have tried, albeit in their typical technical tone, to explain things, but if you click your way through their offerings of energy-saving lamps ("many consumers still have prejudices") you will simply find your fears confirmed: Many of the new halogen lamps that try overly hard to resemble the old bulbs in terms of shape look about as fake as those electrified candle-sticks. And the coiled lamps are quite simply way too far out. Even Apple has replaced the bulb symbol for "save energy" in its system settings with one of the ugly coiled energy-saving lamps. But no one has set up a Website where you can enter "Frisbi" and see whether the lamp that Castiglioni himself insisted was the right one is now forbidden and whether there are alternative bulbs that remember that here the purpose is to shine at the sides and thus through the design classic's perforated sheet metal cylinder. Because no-one knows whether the luminaire makers have already noticed that their all-round alternatives for the lamps are precisely not just a "matter of taste", the solution so often proffered on controversial design issues, but instead simply do not fit many of the luminaires that deliver a precise lighting effect and represent decades of design history.
The fact that we consider the light bulb part of our cultural heritage and have grown to love it for its quite self-evident simplicity, indeed its technical beauty, is something no EU politicians seem to have thought about. Nor did they remember that it was once the electrifying symbol for the electrical age, and thus for the triumph of human inventiveness over dark and darkness. And no doubt they did not care that there are classic luminaires where the lamp itself is a key feature of the design, meaning that the prohibition intervenes sharply in issues pertaining to design. They were not interested in the fact that film-makers (for films about the 20th century) and museums (for artworks in which light bulbs play a role) need the original light bulbs. And the fact that a little more power is sometimes needed for our well-being... such an esoteric touch to life is probably too embarrassing to get mentioned in a somber committee meeting in Brussels.

Instead of providing information and offering incentives, the politicians simply proclaimed a prohibition, which was not exactly politically smart. It had to go wrong, if only because of our aversion to decrees from on high. We Germans, so one can read, are especially critical of the energy-saving lamps. Perhaps because we have in recent times simply been more surprised than others that decrees get announced and flatscreen TVs get floated on the market that shortly thereafter prove to be anything but technically ready for our homes. And perhaps we have simply learned that the ecologically meaningful can have a flip-side that only emerges later: For example, when the eco-balance of an organic tomato that has been transported halfway across the globe gets calculated. Or if an essentially good, but unfortunately broken lamp suddenly means we run the risk of breathing in highly toxic mercury vapor ("If you place the broken fragments in a bin outside your apartment the mercury will be able to dissipate; however, it would be counterproductive to leave the fragments in a bin in the kitchen, for example. The same is true of vacuum cleaner bags: If you don't change it after having vacuumed up the bits of a broken bulb then the vapor will be emitted each time you use the cleaner." - Thanks a bunch, Mr. Osram!).

In recent months, doctors have warned strongly that the energy-saving lamps can constitute a real health hazard. Even the eco-associations seem sceptical about the energy savings and the disposal of the lamps. And some designers are now starting to combat the prohibition of a bit of everyday culture: Ingo Maurer, who can truly not be accused of being a Luddite as regards new lighting technologies and who as long ago as 1966 made the "Bulb" luminaire, a monument to the light bulb, has called on us all to resist what he considers an overhasty and nonsensical prohibition. His presentation in Milan this year could be read as mainly an attack of the EU's decree: Maurer's "Lucellino", the winged satin bulb, was demonstratively showcased as a dying species. And his "Euro Condom", a rubber covering for the clear bulbs that are still to be had, was an appropriately absurd idea for ensuring we would still be able to procure (the now forbidden) satin bulbs. After all, new technologies can be considered a traditional stimulus to design and new regulations be read as a creative challenge: Luminaires such as Steffen Kehrle's "Eraser" thankfully ensure that the coiled energy-saving lamps disappear completely in visual terms and offer a simple, intelligent solution to the problem of dimming. Ben Wirth's "Incredible Bulb" is a luminaire that obeys the new laws but pays homage to the plain beauty of the light bulb. And the SZ-Magazin is soon to feature a few star designers paying their last respects to the dying bulb and presenting the after-glow of its beauty.

Perhaps it's all just a repeat of the Millennium Bug, namely a lot of sound and fury, and it all turns out to signify nothing. No doubt, the makers have all long since developed an alternative lamp for each and every luminaire, meaning they will function with the existing lamps, will be just as bright as hitherto, can likewise be dimmed, and generate the identical ambient mood. And to be sure, to manufacturing energy-saving lamps will hardly use any resources and the disposal of the toxic material they contain will be a doddle. For the energy-saving lamps actually last forever and it is pure chance that the ones in my apartment expire after only 12 months. The amount of electricity saved is truly tangible, just as it is with summer daylight saving hours, and will definitely not be outweighed by the more elaborate manufacturing and disposal processes required, because more heating will be required or the changed lighting levels will lead to more lights being switched on. Unlike what some doctors predict, we will not suffer depressions or cardiovascular illnesses, and the mercury won't touch us either. Anyone who believes we're being told a tall tale should simply light a candle, say a prayer, and wait and see what sprouts next in Brussels.