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Battle of the Bulb 

Is it lights out for the chandelier?

Monday, May 21 2007
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“This means the end of chandeliers!” sighs lighting designer Anne Militello, who operates Vortex Lighting in Hollywood. The cause for her alarm is Assembly Bill 722, which faces a key vote in the chamber’s Appropriations Committee at the end of May. Assemblyman Lloyd E. Levine’s (D-Van Nuys) legislation would replace the incandescent “Class A” light bulb with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), whose squiggly, gas-filled tubes use only a quarter of the electricity needed to power halogen and tungsten-filament lights. “There simply are no fluorescent bulbs that fit chandeliers,” complains Militello, who has worked extensively both in the worlds of live theater and architectural illumination, including Bloomingdale’s New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum and Disneyland’s Toontown.

Sitting in her Las Palmas Avenue studios, Militello sketches a bell curve in the margins of a blueprint for a lingerie boutique she is lighting.

“The warm spectrum lives within the red, orange and yellow range, beyond infrared,” she says. “And this,” she adds, pointing to the edge of the bell, “is where fluorescent lighting falls — on the cold end, near ultraviolet.”

click to enlarge Assemblyman Levine's bright idea (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
  • Assemblyman Levine's bright idea (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

It’s that cold end that worries designers who make their livings making environments seem warmer.

“When I design a restaurant,” Militello says, “I want to create warm, attractive light that can be dimmed and [project] good skin color. That’s almost impossible to do with an energy-efficient source. I’ve experimented, but fluorescents give off a gray, pinkish tint. You can’t create theatrics, drama with fluorescents.”

When reached by phone in Sacramento, Assemblyman Levine swears CFLs are eminently dimmable.

“I’ve got chandelier bulbs,” Levine says, “in both soft and clear glass. I’ve got fluorescent lights for every kind of incandescent bulb, and every single one of those bulbs except two can be purchased at a Lowe’s or Home Depot. And [those two] can be bought at IKEA or Wal-Mart.”

If Levine sounds like a man on a mission, he also sounds as though he regards those who prefer incandescent bulbs as superstitious cave dwellers who’d resist polio vaccination if it were put to a vote.

“Planes and cars have evolved, but not the incandescent light bulb,” he says impatiently. “If most people in society could just give it a chance and let go of the old ways.” Levine denies having heard complaints from lighting designers — which is news to Dawn Hollingsworth, managing design principal at Visual Terrain, a lighting firm that numbers theme parks as well as Beverly Hills’ Crustacean restaurant and North Hollywood’s El Portal Theater among its clients. Hollingsworth’s projects also include the high-profile LAX Gateway light towers. She claims she has written Levine, who happens to be her assemblyman, and called his office four or five times.

“I haven’t received any replies to my calls,” says Hollingsworth as a small earthquake rattles her Van Nuys office.

Hollingsworth believes the look of everything from stores to theme-park rides is threatened by AB 722. She would have no problem with Levine’s bill if it simply allowed the use of halogen lights, which, Hollingsworth says, are crucial for commercial-lighting designers. She says the bill would also make it difficult for theaters to produce plays in which decorative incandescent lamps called “practicals” (table lamps, porch lights, etc.) play a part in the stage design.

There was a time when incandescent was a good word. In today’s energy-conscious world, however, Thomas Edison’s light bulb sits in the same pillory as the Hummer and gas leaf-blower. Levine introduced AB 722 in February, and the bill was immediately Swift-boated by conservatives and libertarians as another intrusion by the same nanny state responsible for telling parents they can’t spank their kids or making municipalities call pets “animal companions.” Some predicted the creation of “light bulb police” who would inspect private homes to make sure that Grandpa’s favorite duck-decoy reading lamp exudes a ghostly phosphorescence instead of a warm, Thomas Kinkadian glow. More than one blogger sounded a War on Christmas alert by claiming AB 722 would ban Christmas-tree lights. Levine’s proposal even made it as joke fodder on The Colbert Report.

AB 722 isn’t quite as Orwellian as some of the rhetoric suggests. The proposed law only involves bulbs in the 25- to 150-watt range, and exemptions include three-way bulbs, bug lights and lighting required for certain medical conditions. Equally important, it would replace the Soft Whites on your nightstand with CFLs, but not with the ceiling tubes associated with DMV waiting rooms and flicker-induced headaches. Nor would it criminalize possession of incandescent bulbs.

If there is a bright spot, so to speak, on the horizon, it is the development of LED illumination for practical home and commercial use. LEDs, which are today found in flashlights and traffic signals, require minuscule amounts of electricity and last virtually forever. If these solid-state light sources can evolve into mass usage, they would be cheaper to produce and dispose of than CFLs, which require more parts and which contain small amounts of mercury.

“If galleries can find a decent reflector, LEDs could be used as directional lights,” says veteran theater designer J. Kent Inasy. The L.A.-based Inasy says he’s been experimenting with LEDs and sees no reason why they can’t be used onstage.

“I’d just get a dummy light bulb and drill the bottom out of it,” Inasy says, “then run the LEDs in.”

Another L.A. stage lighting designer, Kathi O’Donohue, thinks an even easier way for theater set designers to get around AB 722 will be to buy higher-wattage incandescent bulbs and then dim them down to the desired level. The problem, she says, is that consumers may simply start buying 200- or 300-watt bulbs for their homes — which aren’t designed to handle the electricity loads that theaters can.

“Most people are not mathematicians and electricians at home,” she says. “[The higher-wattage bulbs] would overload the circuits and be dangerous.”

Light may be the cleanest form of energy, but in California it comes with a dirty secret. Both Militello and Hollingsworth claim that new stores and restaurants routinely draw up two sets of lighting blueprints — one for the inspectors and one for contractors. The inspectors-only plans are meant to satisfy Part 6 of California’s Title 24 energy-conscious building code. Part 6 governs commercial and residential lighting and strongly discourages use of incandescent-lighting fixtures in favor of fluorescents. Hollingsworth says this places green-conscious designers like herself in untenable positions.

“It’s a huge strain on us,” she says, “to be the bearer of news to our clients by saying, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t have incandescent lighting.’ People will put in [fluorescents], have the inspectors sign off on it. Then they’ll turn around and have their contractor rip them out and put in what they want — because these are people who get what they want.”

“This is a regressive bill,” Hollingsworth adds, commenting on low-income Californians, who rarely get what they want. “It penalizes people who can least afford to change the fixtures in their homes. And if I’m an apartment owner who suddenly has to change 400 of these lights, is that cost effective to me? How do I pay for this? Do I raise rents?”

Australia, Canada and Venezuela are currently promoting the switch from incandescent to fluorescent lighting. Cuba, too, has jumped on the bandwagon, although the proliferation of flickering ceiling tubes and small-wattage bulbs one sees artlessly jammed into Havana’s Art Deco sconces — and chandeliers — is probably not what AB 722’s proponents have in mind. California would be the first U.S. state to enforce a fluorescents-only law.

“There is not going to be a light-bulb police,” Assemblyman Levine assures the Weekly. “People are hanging on to an old notion of what fluorescent bulbs are. Give them a try — they’re not bad!”

For more information:

www.energyfederation.org/greenstart/products_new.php

www.ripower.org/PPL_efficiency.htm

democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a40/lightbulb.htm

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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