Lights. Lamps. Fixtures. Luminaires. Lighting Products. These are a few of the many terms used to refer to the luminous objects that line our ceilings, walls, floors, and landscapes. But no matter how you refer to these illuminated entities, the core question is: What's the starting point for good luminaire design? Is it the source itself or the application? Or is it something else entirely?
I posed this question to architectural lighting's Twitter audience on April 5, following a late night where I was making one of the last passes through the more than 200 product submissions that we received for this annual product issue. I asked the question because, as I worked my way through all of the submissions, I was surprised, quite frankly, by a surprising dearth of beauty. I couldn't help but wonder: Are LEDs contributing to this aesthetic deficiency? The new generation of LED fixtures are some of the worst offenders, particularly when it comes to street lighting.
LED sources have different characteristics and properties, as well as different light distributions. Manufacturers have embraced the challenge of working with solid-state lighting, but not all have found the right comfort level when it comes to translating that enthusiasm to luminaire design. This is cause for some concern since the current generation of lighting infrastructure is now being switched over to luminaires that are not necessarily providing a better-quality lighting solution. Just as we critique the yellowish glow of high-pressure sodium lamps that now dot our streets, will future generations berate us for the bright, harsh glare of white-light LED fixtures that lack optical treatments and shielding devices?
The diversity of product quality, in terms of design and technical performance, is striking. Along with all of the products that appear in this issue, there is, to put it quite bluntly, a lot of crap that we chose to leave out, due to poor aesthetic decisions and material selections, and unsubstantiated product claims. A reputable lighting manufacturer once told me that there are different classes of products, and not everyone can afford the top-of-the-line offerings. Still, no matter the price point, shouldn't you be able to count on quality? Otherwise, does it make sense to spend valuable project dollars on inferior product selections?
"Today, and in the future, it has to be about new research, new manufacturing, new light."
Lest you think I am being too harsh on lighting manufacturers, I would like to point out that I do sympathize with the challenges that they face. They must continue to innovate while protecting their legacy product lines and watching their bottom line. They face many unknowns: How will LEDs transform the manufacturing of lighting products? What will the lighting company of the future look like? What innovative business models and practices will be required? What type of employee will be desired and what new skill sets will he or she need? How should we factor in obsolescence when designing light fixtures?
Perhaps the greatest challenge that manufacturers face is figuring out a way to invest in research and product development while still running a profitable business. Once upon a time, lighting companies were looked to as the driving force behind industry innovations. Places such as GE's Nela Park in Ohio led the way in the developments that contributed to fluorescent technology and they aided in the birth of the modern lighting industry. You don't hear about those types of research centers anymore.
Today, market competition is so great that manufacturers must be extremely cautious about what they share and what they do not, rightly fearing that their ideas and technologies could be stolen. But what if there was a central lighting-research consortium where new technological developments could be explored and shared freely for the greater good of everyone in the lighting community? It might follow the example that Clayton Christensen outlines in his book The Innovator's Dilemma, where companies set up separate research subsidiaries that are free of market constraints in order to deal with disruptive technologies. This allows manufacturers to spend the time and resources to innovate without jeopardizing day-to-day business.
Despite my dismay at the ugliness proliferating in light fixtures, there is hope. As I finish writing this, I have just spent six days at Light + Building in Frankfurt. I've seen a lot of products, and certainly a share of them have been ugly. But as I stopped to speak with manufacturers, I found that they are working extremely hard to figure out how to embrace LED technology in a market-viable way. I hope to hear the same thing when I go to Lightfair in May.
Slowly emerging are luminaires that integrate sophisticated optical control. And many companies have made major behind-the-scenes capital investments to retrain employees, buy new equipment, and restructure product and production lines to meet the specific requirements of making LED fixtures. Strangely though, lighting companies don't publicize this. But they should.
Now, more than ever, it is not enough to apply new technology to old processes. Today, and in the future, it has to be about new research, new manufacturing, new light. As one of al's Twitter followers responded to my question about luminaire design, "Design well and you have both function and form."