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Principles of good light

Creating modern-day fires

Why do certain kinds of light make us feel better than others? In our 2008 manifesto Lamps for Neanderthal Man, we pointed out man’s primitive relationship to light in the form of fire. For more than a million years, fire was our only artificial light source. It frightened off wild animals, brought us together, kept us warm and made us feel safe. Above all, it was a light source that we could keep close, that we could control.

Electric light has been around for little more than a century – a blink of an eye in comparison with human evolution. Today, we find ourselves trying to tame our primitive needs to meet the demands of a modern, high-tech world, where light has more or less become a world of electronics. In our overly-lit spaces – created under the mistaken notion that more light equals greater productivity – we feel exposed, small, with nowhere to go.

We believe in creating modern-day fires.

Light should shine for us, not on us.

"One eye sees. The other feels."

Paul Klee’s elegant description of the way we perceive the world around us is an excellent summary of Wästberg’s lighting philosophy. We believe that light answers to two kinds of needs – physical and emotional – and therefore, we need to consider both its measurable and its immeasurable qualities.

Light quality is, to a great extent, measurable – making it straightforward to evaluate in relation to physical needs such as ergonomy and differences in eyesight, as well to sustainability and cost.

Not as easily measured – but equally important – are light’s emotional qualities. Answering to our deeply-rooted human needs, these immeasurable aspects provide a sense of intimacy, safety, and control. In other words, they help us feel good.

Three tenets of light

Modern-day fires

To create modern-day fires, we rely on architect Richard Kelly’s three tenets of lighting design, presented in 1952. While his fundamental principles remain just as relevant today, we use slightly different terms and definitions, adapted to a contemporary context.

Simply put, to us good lighting is the interplay of three kinds of light, where direct light is usually the most dominant.

Direct light

Building on Richard Kelly’s focal glow, we use the term directed light to describe a focused light with clear direction and definition – often in the form of a task light, a suspended pendant lamp or a spotlight. Directed light draws attention, separates the important from the unimportant, helps people to see. Ideally, directed light is adjustable and dimmable, allowing for a wide range of uses and atmospheres.

“Focal glow is the campfire of all time. Focal glow is the follow spot on the modern stage. It is the pool of light at your favorite reading chair. It is the shaft of sunshine that warms the end of the valley. It is candlelight on the face, and a flashlight on a stair.” – Richard Kelly

Indirect light

Indirect lighting – our translation of Kelly’s term ambient luminescence – produces shadowless illumination and is undoubtedly a necessity in many environments, but benefits greatly from being kept to a minimum, as a complement to focal glow. At Wästberg, we recommend plug-and-play fixtures; these not only provide good quality indirect light, but also offer the flexibility and agility lacking in conventional overhead light fixtures.

"Ambient luminescence is the uninterrupted light of a snowy morning in the open country. It is foglight at sea in a small boat, it is twilight haze on a wide river where shore and water and sky are indistinguishable. It is the before-the-show lighted dome and amphitheatre of the Hayden Planetarium, the full cyclorama of the open theatre. It is any art gallery with strip-lighted walls, translucent ceiling, and white floor. " – Richard Kelly

Atmospheric accents

Here, we offer our own revised version of Kelly’s original play of brilliants, translating his focus on dazzling sparkles and gleaming highlights into gentle atmospheric touches of comfort and intimacy. While perhaps not viewed as functional in a traditional sense, atmosphere nonetheless plays an important role. Like a candle, lantern or fireplace, an atmospheric accent provides a dimension of inviting warmth, a comforting glow that appeals to the senses. Whether used for decorative emphasis or as a soothing mood enhancer, an atmospheric accent can be placed anywhere you want – in a bookshelf, on a nightstand or in a window.

Measurable qualities of good light

Adequate amount of light

Different people and different situations require different amounts of light. Age is a typical example; older people may require five times more light than their younger peers. The ability to generate an adequate amount of light and light distribution is therefore fundamental to a good lamp.

Relevant measurements:

Dimmable light

The amount of required light varies with different people, situations, work tasks, outdoor lighting conditions – or just the atmosphere that is desired at that particular time.

A dimmer function is therefore a valuable quality in any situation, allowing illumination to be adjusted from a soft luminous glow to a bright light. In many cases, a dimmer is integrated into the lamp itself, enabling smooth, on-the-spot adjustment. External dimmers may also be connected to the lamp through a wall switch, or through smart lighting systems.

Glare protection

A well-designed light fixture helps prevent what is perhaps the most common feature of bad lighting: uncomfortable, even blinding glare. Glare can be direct (from the light source itself) or indirect (from reflected surfaces). In order to avoid direct glare, the light source should be concealed or shielded by a shade, and/or equipped with efficient glare protection such as a grid. Indirect glare can be avoided by choosing lamps that are easily adjustable, as well as by positioning them correctly.

Relevant measurements:
cd/m2 (Candela per square metre) 

Colour reproduction

Whether or not a light is regarded as qualitative is often related to how it affects colour perception. For optimal eye comfort and performance, as well as general well-being, it is important to choose light that reproduces the colours of its surroundings – objects, people, paintings etc – in a natural, accurate way. 

Relevant measurement:
CRI (Colour rendering index)

Colour temperature

Colour temperature is a measure of the light’s warmth. A slightly warmer white light is often used to provide atmospheric ambience, for instance in a home, restaurant or hotel lounge. In working environments, where visual clarity and performance are important aspects, a cool white light is usually a better choice. Many lamps allow the light’s colour temperature to be altered, for instance through dynamic dimming.

Relevant measurement:
Kelvin degrees

Energy efficiency

Light is often the single largest source of energy consumption in a building. By only using directed light where needed (instead of static general lighting in unnecessarily large areas), and choosing energy-efficient light fixtures, energy consumption can be reduced by as much as 90%.

Relevant measurement:
lm/W (Lumen per watt)

Long lifespan

A long lifespan is fundamental to a lamp’s cost efficiency and environmental impact. When evaluating a light source’s total cost over time, purchasing price is only one aspect; resources spent on purchasing, storage, installment, replacement, and recycling/disposal must also be considered. Here, light sources vary greatly, with some lasting five times longer than others.

In addition, we believe that beautiful, well-made objects will be loved, cared for and maintained by their owners, allowing them to live long lives; therefore, unmeasurable qualities are also essential to the longevity of a lamp.

Relevant measurement:
Light source life expectancy (hours)

Compare solutions

The difference between a good lamp and a bad one can be vast. The choice of light fixture has a great effect on human well-being, environmental impact, and cost over time. Fortunately, lighting is particularly well-suited to product comparisons, with a wide range of relevant technical specifications.  

When comparing lighting products, pay careful attention to features and light quality specifications. While we recognisthat price may be an important factor, keep in mind that the long-term benefits of a high-quality product – such as energy-efficiency, light ergonomics and minimal installation – often make it a much more cost-efficient alternative to cheaper products.