Electric light has permanently changed the way we see things, and confronted us with a whole new aesthetic of visual perception. Bright lighting allows surgeons to perform miraculous operations on the human body, but brushing our teeth or turning on a microwave is not brain surgery, so why do we insist on bathrooms and kitchens lit like operating rooms? Too much light erases shadows, which can be quite beautiful when controlled properly. Marlene Dietrich insisted on being lit from below. She understood that overhead lighting emphasized jowls and baggy eyes, yet current fashion seems to dictate that all modern dwellings come complete with recessed cans of light in an endless grid pattern. Try walking down the hallway of your new condo while looking at yourself in a compact mirror. It ain’t pretty. Ideally, lighting needs to illuminate our environment so that we can easily function in it, not land a plane.
Bad lighting can cause mental nausea, aesthetic depression and the blues. And then there’s lighting tricked up as art pieces — which wouldn’t be quite so vexing a trend if at least these lamps provided any practical illumination. Light is serious stuff: Without it there would be no life.
About 4 billion years ago the sun, an atomic furnace that turns mass into energy, was born. The glow of that energy is what we call light. Every new light source since then has been a crapshoot. Way before Con Ed, some smart dude — or dude-ess — figured out a way to capture the fire created by lightning, and invented the first fixture to deliver light: a torch. Humankind gained some small degree of freedom from the blindness of night, and was on the road to civilization.
The discovery of the wick was revolutionary, offering a way to control brilliance. Primitive lamps typically used animal or vegetable fats as fuel. Around 5000 B.C. oily fish were threaded with wicks and placed around the house as accent lighting, which no doubt also created a kind of early aromatherapy. Since most ancient lamp fuels were created out of edible sources, only the rich could afford lighting. The poor were left in the dark. As the natural-oil industry flourished, the Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans and Greeks created endless decorative lighting vessels.
Eventually every household had vats of burning grease to see by. This was the lighting de la mode until around A.D. 400, when the first candles were invented, made out of expensive beeswax. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the average Joe could get his hands on affordable candlelight, which defined the way the world looked after dark until 1879, when Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb. Less than 100 years later, Stanley Kubrick spent millions of dollars using special lenses developed by NASA and custom film stock created by Kodak to shoot Barry Lyndon using only candles and kerosene lamps in his attempt to re-create the lighting of the 18th century.
Besides imagination, the most important tool for lighting is the dimmer switch, which provides necessary options: It takes more light to cook a meal than it does to eat it. And avoid bare bulbs. An exposed filament draws the eye and causes us to squint, so we end up seeing less. That’s what lampshades are all about — get the glow happening from within.
With modern technology we are no longer restricted to the 20th-century notion of lamps. After nearly 125 years of electricity, our eyes have become more sophisticated. We don’t need to turn night into day. Cantoni, a smart new design emporium, features a line of modular room dividers that radiate internally. And for years, Lightwave has been an incredible and affordable source of contemporary lighting from all over the world: One of its latest offerings is tall glowing paper cylinders that mount on a stand on the floor or sit on a table like futurist Chinese lanterns. For inspired traditional lighting, check out Ferro, the retail outlet of Mario Haliwani, L.A.’s greatest lighting artisan. He fabricates mind-blowing fixtures out of iron, crystal and colored glass, and for years he created the lighting for Disneyland.
Low-voltage recessed ceiling lights, wisely placed, can be quite useful. They’re great for lighting art, especially sculpture, which gives you the added intrigue of shadows thrown across a floor or against a wall. Think of the dancing brooms in Fantasia. Even a simple houseplant can be magical when lit well.
If you’re undertaking a serious remodel, make sure that lighting is an integral part of the adventure, not an afterthought. Kitchen cabinets are a popular sport. Consider replacing all your cabinet doors with frosted glass and mounting cheap undercounter low-voltage lights beneath each shelf. You’ll not only give your whole kitchen a wonderful warm glow, but you’ll finally be able see what’s inside when you open the doors.
Don’t just flip the switch. Lighting is a dynamic tool with which we create and control our personal realities, but be careful how you use it. As the old saying goes, “Many a man has fallen in love in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it.”