The Ever-Changing Light
Everything comes around. Sort of. Old favorites are hard to give up, especially when that old favorite happens to be light. I grew up with the cozy radiance of incandescent light: those woefully inefficient vacuum bulbs that contained a wire filament which glowed warmly when heated to a high temperature by an electric current (and heated the room a bit as it did so - a substantial squander of energy). Some marketing genius at General Electric dubbed this "soft light", which could be measured on the Kelvin temperature scale at about 2700°. (Sunlight is 5000° Kelvin.) As a young boy, the golden light felt like a luminous, plush security blanket, simultaneously enveloping me in its luminescence while repelling all the deep murk where menacing monsters dwelled. As an adult, I still enjoy that feeling. The Danes (experts in chasing away the dark of Winter with warm lighting), have a word for it: hygge. Most of our yester-decades were bathed in this lovely, soft light until the advent of the jaundiced, strobing fluorescent tube lighting. When I saw my first fluorescent light, my disgust was immediate. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but even at age 6, I was firmly set in my ways when it came to the lighting "temperature". I already preferred 2700° Kelvin, plus or minus a few degrees. Hey, I can be flexible! Fluorescent light, with its sickly-green, 3500-5500° Kelvin temperature, makes walls look to me like someone vomited lime mousse onto them. Nor would I be satisfied, decades later, with the first LED bulbs, their harsh bluish light rocketing into the 7000s on the Kelvin scale, straining tender eyes and painting rooms the color of the movie set for Alien. Nowadays, advances in LED technology have allowed manufacturers to throttle down the bulbs' color temperature, back to the acceptable mid-2000° range. So why doesn't the light feel the same? Because like fluorescent light, LED light is intermittent. The bulbs strobe, albeit at such a high frequency that the naked eye can barely detect the flicker - but it's there, and it wears on the eye whether you notice it or not. Incandescent light is solid and constant. I'm all for reducing my carbon footprint, but I still cling to a few incandescent bulbs in our reading lamps, not just for the emotional feel of the light, but because the bulbs reduce eye strain. Hollywood is also adapting to the change in lighting technology, albeit in a different way. Thanks to high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor lighting (which emitted a hue not unlike that of calamine lotion), cinematographers could exploit the surreal color to depict dystopic urban nighttime streetscapes. That has changed as cities like Los Angeles replace the old HPS and MV streetlights with LEDs. Nighttime citiscapes now look bright and cheery, much to the consternation of horror and sci-fi movie producers. Maybe I'm like the Princess and the Pea when it comes to lighting, but I can't help but be acutely aware of the color temperature of light and how those varying temperatures affect me. I think it's a sensitivity that makes me a better designer.