Light is a multisensory phenomenon. Before electric illumination, light was palpable. Its material origins were evident: a wick in candle wax, oil in a lamp, or a log in the fireplace. With electricity, light assumed a more abstract and remote quality. After the mass production and distribution of incandescent and fluorescent fixtures, light could be deployed homogeneously. Point-sources transformed into fields, and spaces were lit with a regular distribution of lumens. Light switches furthered this detachment by enabling the remote control of light; no longer did a person require direct contact with the source.
But new technologies are making light tangible again, without the limitations of candlelight. Building occupants desire a greater level of control over their environments, and an enhanced appreciation for daylighting has brought about greater responsiveness in electric illumination. Designers are increasingly inspired by the affordability, mobility, smart functionality, and wireless capability of new technologies, not to mention alternative sources like phosphorescence. The trend to create a more direct and more personal lighting experience is reflected in products that are more integrated, interactive, immersive, and lifelike.
Light is no longer perceived as functionally discrete, meaning that a dedicated device must be used for illumination. Rather, light has expanded beyond fixtures and can be provided by furniture, walls, paving, or foliage. Interactivity need not be limited to a simple switch but can include sophisticated response mechanisms that react to a user’s physical presence and touch. Immersion is a trend enhanced by new capabilities in spatial light tuning and volumetric projection that deliver a more corporeal illumination experience.
The following eight examples—which appear in my upcoming book Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Future (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017)—illustrate the ways in which product designers and manufacturers seek to change how we experience light. •
Common Desk • Despite the omnipresence of ambient lighting in work environments, tasklighting is critical in providing illumination focused on the work itself. What better way to do this than incorporate lighting into a desk? Pasadena, Calif.–based NONDesigns’ Common Desk is a work surface that glows from within. Although its light does not flood the workplane itself, and therefore may not be adequate for tasks requiring high visibility, its connection to the desk’s integral filing system provides unexpected practicality. The center of the desk is perforated with thin slots in which two sizes of acrylic divider panels may be placed. Linear strips of LEDs emit light through these channels from a central trough underneath. Not only do the panels’ edges glow when placed in these slots, but papers, folders, and other filing materials are highlighted for easy recognition. Designers Scott Franklin and Miao Miao imagined Common Desk as a platform for workers who can’t avoid a late night at the office. • nondesigns.comvaaztstrffwcduxcycbwauvxxzx
Van Gogh Path • Rotterdam, Netherlands–based Studio Roosegaarde has made headlines with its Smart Highway project, an ongoing research and development effort with Heijmans Infrastructure to create an interactive road surface. The objective is compelling: a highway that can provide important navigational information with self-illuminated lane lines, weather alerts, and other safety features that might one day make streetlights and road signage obsolete.
A decidedly simpler version of this can be seen in the firm’s Van Gogh Path, a walking/biking surface composed of solar-powered photoluminescent aggregate. Thousands of glowing stones create swirling patterns in the path reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s celebrated Starry Night painting. As a zero-energy solution for safe nocturnal circulation, Van Gogh Path cleverly bridges art and infrastructure, offering legible nighttime navigation that is also a source of delight. • studioroosegaarde.net
Lotus • Studio Roosegaarde also explores light-based installations that respond to user presence and interaction. The firm’s Lotus is a smart surface composed of Mylar smart foils and aluminum arranged in a diagonal grid pattern. A clever combination of sensors and heat lamps enables the surface to open in the presence of people. As users approach the installation, the interior light sources increase the temperature of the foils, which in turn roll outwards and expose the space beyond. In addition to providing a diverting experience for its audiences, Lotus represents a compelling future for the architectural aperture: an automatically tunable surface made of dynamic materials that open and close without the need for additional mechanical systems or energy (aside from the heat lamps). Studio Roosegaarde has installed Lotus in two formats: a 13-foot-long curved wall and a 10-foot-diameter dome (shown). The modular system can be readily scaled to other dimensions and geometries. • studioroosegaarde.net
Ball Wall • The Ball Wall is designed for user interaction but without the need for sensors or lamps. Created by designers Paul Bird, Conor Oberlander, and Kevin Remy as a transformable façade for the Rhode Island School of Design’s entry into the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe, the wall converts solar energy absorbed throughout the day into manipulable illumination at night. The wall is composed of a regularly spaced matrix of polypropylene spheres coated in photoluminescent paint. Suspended between perforated layers of acrylic, the spheres are held in place yet allowed to rotate freely. Once charged by sunlight, the spheres can be adjusted manually to create patterns of light and dark—like painting with physical pixels. Developed as a modular system of hexagonal tiles, it is an infinitely scalable surface that can conform to planar or curved geometries. Each day, the wall resets itself in anticipation of another evening of luminous graffiti. • portfolios.risd.edu/gallery/12346047/Ball-Wall
Flow • Chicago-based Luftwerk develops sophisticated installations that utilize water to carry light and information. Flow consists of custom-built aluminum tubing with welded brass spray nozzles that continuously emit fine mist. These planes of vapor serve as ephemeral yet constant projection surfaces that may be viewed from multiple angles. Because the mist curtains define particular volumes of space, the notion of a display is transformed into that of an occupiable room.
FLOW/Im Fluss (shown) was a specific installation Luftwerk designed in 2014 for the 20th anniversary of the Chicago and Hamburg sister-city relationship. Focusing on the topic of waterway health, data about the Chicago and Elbe Rivers was projected into the volumetric mist. The installation demonstrates how scientific research—which can typically seem dry or inaccessible—can be communicated within a highly interactive form of public art. • luftwerk.net
Aerial 3D • As digital projection technologies become more sophisticated, the lines between lighting and visual communications continue to blur. A case in point is the Aerial 3D system developed by Japanese company Burton. Aerial 3D enables real three-dimensional projection using points of illumination in space. The remarkable technique employs laser light combined with a plasma emission process to position bright dots at specific x, y, and z coordinates mid-air using the laser’s spatial targeting system. The display constructs constellations of dot arrays to create three-dimensional shapes, which may be static or animated. Unlike other 3D projection technologies, Aerial 3D does not use optical tricks or require special 3D glasses for full effect; its projections can be appreciated with the naked eye. Although early in development, Aerial 3D presents intriguing possibilities for lighting design as well as information display—such as volumetric, animated exit lighting that could provide more helpful cues about safe egress pathways to building occupants in an emergency. • burton-jp.com
Biobulb • Bioluminescence, the capability of organisms to emit light via chemical means, has inspired a new generation of research and development efforts aimed at harnessing this so-called “net-zero energy” form of illumination. Researchers at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery developed the Biobulb with this purpose in mind. Powered entirely by microbes, the lamp employs E. coli bacteria that have been genetically engineered to glow in the dark, in addition to other organisms necessary for sustaining the process, such as microalgae for harvesting sunlight and predatory protists for recycling nutrients and keeping the bacteria population under control. Theoretically, the Biobulb can emit light continuously. In reality, the lamp’s intricate and delicate balance of organisms requires maintenance and occasional recharging to operate effectively. • wid.wisc.edu
Starlight Avatar • The Starlight Avatar features genetically enhanced bioluminescence via a modified organism—an ornamental Nicotiana alata plant, more commonly known as flowering tobacco. Molecular biologist Alexander Krichevsky developed the specimen as an autoluminescent plant capable of emitting light continuously throughout its life span, possessing a luminous capacity similar to fireflies, glow worms, and other naturally occurring bioluminescent organisms. Krichevsky founded the company Bioglow in 2010 with the idea that such plants can be used as zero-energy light sources, and the Starlight Avatar is its first commercially available offering. While the plant does not emit a light bright enough to replace high-visibility light sources such as street lamps, but, with a proliferation of such organisms in a poorly lit area, one could imagine them providing useful—if subtle—nighttime navigation. • gleaux.us