My love affair with lighting began many decades ago when, as a teenager, I witnessed my first fireworks display at our local agricultural fair. Every evening, just before parents took their children home, the organisers put on a spectacular display of skyrockets, flares, roman candles and sparklers. I would stand there with my mouth open, wide-eyed at the sky being painted in colours and shapes I had never seen before.
For years after I would take every opportunity to catch any fireworks show or to create my own until the authorities banned amateur displays and bonfires. When I discovered in my late ‘40s that I had some talent as an artist, my pictures all had a strong lean towards the very bright and colourful — each one in itself an explosion of colour and life. Now in my ‘60s, I run a very successful business designing and building feature lighting sculptures which often resemble fireworks in freeze frame. I have discovered my calling as a designer of the most spectacular and colourful explosions of light — indoor fireworks — beautiful sculptured works of art that literally explode on demand at the flick of a switch — and the joy it gives me to see a finished piece light up is indescribable. Each new design takes the same path: you come up with a concept, you develop the product, you build it, then watch the client’s face as you throw the switch and his inner child lights up. I’m immediately transported back to the bonfires of my youth and all those upturned faces reflecting the blues/reds/green and silver explosions in the night sky.
These days, of course, fireworks technology has advanced dramatically, as has the cost of each 20-minute performance. A passion for lighting design can be very rewarding but let me put into perspective what I’ve just described to you. One of the most beautiful lights I have ever seen was reflected on the face of a Bangladeshi mother standing inside the tiny hut she and her family called home as the first and only electric light in her village was switched on in her ceiling. For this woman it may as well have been the fireworks on Sydney’s harbour bridge. Her face could not have been more beautifully transformed — a simple 10-watt light bulb lit by a solar panel she had financed with the help of a micro loan and which would take her more than two years to repay had forever changed her life. I guess relativity comes into play here. One candle is a light, 50 candles is a chandelier, so how much importance should we place on the lights we choose for our homes, our buildings, our public areas and our environment? In my opinion, a great deal more than we have in the past.
A good friend of mine designs the lighting you see on high-rise buildings — not much scope for fireworks, you would think, but this man’s creative instincts led him to add a narrow band of blue light along the full vertical heights of a number of high-rise resort buildings — and the result is a night skyline at once dramatic and colourful amid all the boring bedrooms. We live on a planet which is uniquely beautiful in our visible universe. Our daylight comes to us from an amazing celestial fire — the sun — yet for a long time we have been lighting our living spaces in the most pedestrian fashion. Fortunately this is now changing; creative architecture is demanding that public buildings be lit externally not simply by flood lighting, but also, among other things, by graphic projections — using the facades as a canvas onto which the artist in all of us can play his imagination. A city by day can be architecturally stunning, modern and cutting-edge, but add creative lighting and as evening slowly closes in, the city becomes a romantic, beautiful and spectacular place to be — a magnet for tourists and locals alike. We humans need this sort of stimulation — this is eye candy for the soul. How wonderful is it to stand under a tree in Sydney’s Hyde Park just on dusk when the fairy lights are switched on, then to stroll down to the fountain under those beautiful old street lamps. It’s magical — it’s uplifting. After adding colour to his high-rise lighting, my friend then placed coloured globes into his own garden lights.
The effect has transformed his garden into an outdoor art space — a warm, peaceful place to sit and sip champagne. Today we build technologically advanced “green” houses but too often we don’t consider the effect that well-placed, well-designed lighting can have on our private environment. Of course, good design in lighting isn’t only about the correct placement of a downlight or the use of coloured globes and LEDs; it’s also about the look, style and design of any table, floor or pendant luminaires you intend to use in your environment. The final choice should be based on a combination of all of the above and, most importantly, if you personally like the piece. A room with a centrally hung pendant can be just okay but by simply clothing the shade in a beautiful fabric, you transform the room. You have added glamour and mood. Some luminaires, of course, become very special and much admired, just like a favourite painting or sculpture, and my own company’s design staff have produced many such pieces. Today the word designer is an over-used term to describe the very latest in almost anything, but some designs are timeless. I have only one floor or standard lamp at home. It’s not being used as a task light beside my chair by which to read — rather it stands in its own space, to be admired as an art piece designed by Isamu Noguchi.
I believe the design is at least 30 years old but it’s still being made in a very small village in Japan and consists of a cast-iron base in the shape of a river rock from which protrudes a bamboo pole. At the top of the pole is a typical wire frame rice paper shade unusually in the shape of a pair of water buffalo horns about 800mm apart at their tips. It’s not to everyone’s liking, nor should it be; the point is, I love it. For me it is great design at its very best, utilising simple, natural materials. The rest of my home is functionally lit but switched in such a way that I can light up or dim various areas as my mood dictates. We tend to use our lounge/dining room to road test glamorous feature pieces so these fittings are changed often — one of the benefits or being in the industry. But of course it’s not necessary to make each room in a house into an expensive designer showcase and let’s face it, simple downlights are often a very practical way to light up certain areas — but they should always be dimmable. Generally, design is strongly influenced by culture. Until recently it was not difficult to pick a European design from an American design from an Asian design. These days, however, the lines have blurred somewhat into a more universal style. Our rapid-fire communication in this digital age means more cross-pollination of ideas and skills, providing great benefits for countries such as Australia, which were once out of the mainstream of modern architecture and design. Today we have truly come into our own in these fields and have a number of design superstars who work internationally and who are strongly influencing trends around the world. This is being reflected locally, with design schools filled to capacity, design awards being garnered by local talent and products coming onto the market from fertile young local minds. Lighting design is also being strongly influenced.
My own company employs four young designers of whom we are very proud and who are not afraid to be different — in fact we encourage the difference. I was recently in a cafe in Melbourne which had a very distinctive Australian feel. Above the hardwood tables and chairs the owners had suspended several pendants built from coils of what is commonly known in the bush as pig wire fencing. These were loosely coiled and kept in shape by two metal star pickets skewered at 90 degrees to each other through the top of each coil. The light source in each was a simple opal CFL globe but the play of light and shade from each pendant and the overall dramatic Australian effect was stunning. Of course, this was a commercial venue and not many residential environments could handle this much Australiana without a slouch hat and Aussie flag nearby, but on reflection the pig wire concept could probably be refined to a more acceptable residential piece. The great climate change debate and the resulting green attitude to design is influencing materials and shapes not only in lighting, where recyclable materials are being preferred and lowenergy globes are being phased in, but also in furniture and architecture. It seems time has caught up with the Campana Bros radical furniture pieces designed to be built from off-cuts and waste materials; these could become the norm in a greener world. Today we are witnessing the dawning of a leaner, greener way of living and that’s not a bad thing. With the need to conserve, protect and save comes a different, rather old-school attitude to product design — the desire for quality, the need to make things last longer like they used to in the old days, before we started making everything disposable. Today even disposable babies’ diapers, the curse of all landfills, are getting some serious competition from the old-fashioned cotton diaper — wear it — use it — wash it and use it again and again and again. As bright and sparkly as incandescent globes are, they are horribly inefficient and short-lived and are being phased out all over the world by technologically advanced light sources such as compact fluoros and LEDs. True LEDs have a lot more development to go through before they rival the incandescent globe for clarity and power, but this also will come to pass.
The commonly used term “modern lighting” is really a misnomer. Most of what we today call “modern” is really the same old light source dressed in a different pair of pants — a chandelier is a chandelier whether it’s built from beautifully curved cast iron, or from satin-finished stainlesssteel rod. Shapes vary according to fashion dictates but today’s architects will happily use a 14th century French piece in a contemporary minimalist interior and use it to great effect. The real advances in lighting design will come about when we develop coatings for walls which will react in colour and intensity to our moods and desires. Imagine interactive light sculptures or bedroom walls which lull you to sleep with soft Tahitian sunsets. Technological advances in the future will change our living environments dramatically, but there will always be a need for your own private special piece, your own statement to make, even if it’s only a desk lamp that you fell in love with. Surprisingly, my very favourite luminaire is not one of my own designs; it’s a very simple table light by the godfather of lighting design, Ingo Maurer. He calls it “Lucellino”. There is nothing complex or cutting-edge or glamorous about this piece. The manufacturers haven’t tried to chrome plate it or to smooth out its rough edges for presentation. It’s very simply a traditional opal light globe with two small feathery wings attached, held up on skinny copper wires from a very ordinary metal base, almost cartoonish. At first glance it’s quite odd looking, and then as you get closer you find yourself smiling, not at the absurdity of a flying light globe but at the subtle beauty of the idea.
Who else had ever thought of giving wings to a light bulb?
Here is a tiny poetic work of art straight out of the mind of a genius sitting on my benchtop. Our sun has been coming up over an horizon somewhere on our planet for millions of years and every living thing responds to this daily phenomenon in some way. Butterflies open and dry their wings, birds start to sing, roosters crow and we humans tend to sit on lonely beaches somewhere in the world gazing blissfully at one of the two most beautiful of nature’s creations — the other, of course, is a lazy golden sunset. Our reaction to light in its simplest form is entirely emotional; it makes us feel good. You wish a beautiful sunset could stay on the horizon forever.
Remember the impact of 40,000 rock fans waving their light sticks overhead to the beat of the music? Overwhelming. Well-planned lighting of our living spaces can make us feel good, can stir our emotions. Coloured lights in a quiet garden create a fantasy fairyland. The neighbours’ Christmas lights bring out the child in all of us and the Eiffel Tower in its winter dress of coloured bulbs, LEDs and neon has to be one of the most romantic sights on earth. For some of us, the sight of fireworks over a country fair ground can be life-changing; for others, a single light bulb switched on where none has been before can bring us to tears. That’s light.