Let there be sight!
by Thomas Wagner | Apr 24, 2012

If one wanders through the halls of the Light+Building trade fair in Frankfurt you cannot avoid thinking: we are fast en route into a new light age. Or should I say, into a new "solar" age? Irrespective of whether the viewer's perspective was more technically, aesthetically or esoterically inclined, there was a whole host of lighting systems and luminaires that came equipped with the latest technology along with the relevant electronic controls. Indeed, the triumph of cybernetics can be experienced quite practically in your own home. Solar panels on your roof and on the carport, cameras, fingerprint scanners and other electronic security services at your front door, networked facilities technology, LEDs where the color temperature can be changed, or OLEDs that cover large surfaces – the god worshipped here is a demiurge, a kind of ueber-engineer. And where light's concerned, he includes less sun in the house, and instead exploits the power generated with it to illuminate the interior as brightly as would the sun. Perhaps this is the reason why many of today's look like light showers or walls that are busy pouring light.

Welcome to the LED age!

Quite irrespective of whether you want to resurrect the Egyptian sun god Ra or are simply tempted by the technological potential, there's no overlooking one thing: LED technology is increasingly becoming the standard. You no longer need to hunt for individual LED luminaires, as the small light-emitting and energy-saving diodes are as good as ubiquitous. There's hardly a manufacturer who has not signed up to the still relatively new technology. However innovative and comparatively ecofriendly the trend may be for the industry, it is not without its difficulties for the design. Because with the wide-scale adoption of LEDs, light will mainly be defined by the technology. With the result that the frame set for design is more constrained. In practice this means that, with a few exceptions, you encounter the same basic shapes and methods almost everywhere. Either the small light sources form a grid of nine, 12 or 24 diodes, or they are arranged in a line. Alternatives on show at many a trade-fair booth are spherical or square luminaires, and that's just about it. Which means that almost all the LED luminaires seem reduced and techy in terms of shape. And contrary to the customary assumption that design is technology-driven, in this case the innovation does not brighten the designers' outlook, but subjects them to the engineers' diktat. As a result, design disintegrates into styling. Which can lead, especially among manufacturers who are per se not particularly design-minded, to products you could mistake for others.

To counteract this, an LED gets suspended from a cone, for example – one that resembles a booster rocket, or a standard lamp morphs into a little tree while another stretches to form the stylized silhouette of a woman's body. Even experienced designers can on occasion drift off into the esoteric, as can be seen from Ross Lovegrove's "Biomotive". Whether slogans such as "save stylishly", "concentrating on the essentials" or "better Light for a better Life" can make up for this remains to be seen. Anyone wishing to see that light and luminaires also have cultural sides to them should cast a glance at "Santa Maria della Luce", whose glowing folds Frans van Niewenborg designed back in 2006 for Ingo Maurer. Exceptions such as Michel Charlot's "U-Turn" for Belux, developed to perfection, or Issey Miyake's "In-Ei", an interpretation of the traditional "Akari" luminaire for Artemide simply prove the rule.

Waiting for OLED

The rival of LEDs, namely OLEDs so-called, still lead a bit of a marginal existence. What applies for LED luminaires is certainly true as regards the design for OLED technology: designers haven't yet really accepted it. One could almost say that to date the designing follows a simple idea: as long as the panel gleams. The rest is all too often non-design, tinkering about, fake chic or simply kitsch. Because one thing is for sure, even a purportedly purist technology can be kitschy in the application. Anyone who doesn't believe this should check out the cheap LED clones.

Light as event

There is of course another side to the dominance of things technological. While the design potential may be limited, the light also seems more abstract. It is increasingly severing its ties with this source or medium and becoming an event in its own right. With the result that the deployment of artificial light is increasingly becoming a design task for architects. You don't need to be a fortuneteller to guess that ere long entire walls, ceilings and floors will glow and all manner of images will whizz across media facades and media panels to create changing moods not only in lobbies and lounges, but also in kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms. Especially as the companies that produce OLEDs are busy hunting for new uses for their hardware. At the end of the day it is hardly surprising that a company exhibiting at the fair subdivided its products as follows: Technology, Outdoor, Retail, Underwater, Parking, Office – not to forget design.

LED Wallpaper by Ingo Maurer, photo © Ingo Maurer
LED Wallpaper by Ingo Maurer, photo © Ingo Maurer