Light Effects

Move over, Thomas Edison. Scientists and engineers are holed up in their labs, working feverishly to find light beyond the incandescent bulb, and they say their quest is paying off. Coming soon – or already here – is lighting technology for the kitchen and bath that’s light years ahead of Mr. Edison’s invention.

Many of the new ideas are dazzling. Windows that make their own light after sundown, luminescent backsplashes and walls, structural columns that become cylindrical lights, interchangeable mood lighting and lit-up bathtubs and tiles are just a few examples of what’s available now or coming in the near future.

Energy savings are at the heart of much of the new technology, and while it’s hard to argue against anything that reduces electricity use, legislative efforts are leaving some kitchen and bath designers with a severe case of angst.

California designers are especially frustrated by new lighting codes that require 50 percent of the lighting in kitchens and baths to be fluorescent and ban incandescent lighting completely by 2012. But design professionals in other parts of the country are acutely aware that more stringent codes are coming their way, too.

So, technological advances are much more than just futuristic razzle-dazzle. They are vital to the success of the nation’s kitchen and bath industry.

As Dan Edenbaum of Drago Illuminations in Ardmore, PA, says: “Commercial building codes calling for energy-saving measures are now being reinforced in residential building in many states, and if they aren’t in your state yet, they will be sooner rather than later.

“We have to recognize this and be up on emerging technology that makes it easier to comply with stricter codes, yet provides the elegance and comfort our clients expect. After all, the old adage that lighting provides 50% of the ambience of a designed space is still true,” he adds.

Fluorescent Debate

San Diego designer Mike De Luca, CKD, ASID, NCIDQ, doesn’t try to hide his frustration with California’s new lighting code.

“Of course, I want to do my part to alleviate the energy crunch,” he says. “We all do. But you have to have decent light in a kitchen. You can’t cook by flashlight. California legislators have done us a disservice. I realize it’s a well-intentioned effort, but I wish they would consult with professionals before they rush headlong into situations they don’t understand. The fact is that, in the end, we wind up using more energy than before. I think I’ll move to Arizona.”

Alfredo Zaparelli of Techlinea, a San Francisco architectural firm, agrees that the California code is extremely rigid and difficult to work with, but he is encouraged by the new quality of fluorescent lighting and excited by new miniaturized fixtures on the market. “The color is no longer the ghastly green we remember from grandma’s kitchen,” he notes. “It has gotten a lot closer to the color temperature of incandescent and halogen lighting. I see clients’ faces fall when I inform them of the code requiring fluorescent lighting, but then I remind them that the lighting in supermarket display cases is fluorescent. If red meat can look appetizing in that lighting, you needn’t worry about looking like descendants of the Jolly Green Giant when you cook the pasta or check your lipstick in the bathroom mirror.”

Brad Stewart, director of sales of Hera Lighting, disagrees. “While it’s true that fluorescent technology has improved significantly in the past 20 years, color is still its weakness,” he says. “It simply isn’t aesthetically pleasing.”

Finally, designers point out the paradox of California’s stance on fluorescents: While the state’s Title 24 law advocates the 50/50 use of fluorescents, its Title 22 law bans the disposal of them by homeowners.

Nationally, there’s another paradox. This one involves the much-ballyhooed Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFLs) pushed by Wal-Mart and green design aficionados. The hype has it that if every household replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, it would save as much energy as taking one million cars off the road for a year. However, even minimal amounts of mercury classify CFLs as toxic waste, and they have to be disposed of accordingly.

LEDs Best Bet

LEDs – shorthand for light emitting diodes – are generally hailed as “the future of lighting,” but many kitchen and bath designers believe that the future is already here. To say that they’re excited about LEDs’ possibilities would be an understatement.

“What’s not to like?” asks Barton Lidsky of the Hammer & Nail, in Ridgewood, NJ. “LEDs offer small size, long life, low heat output, energy savings, durability and extraordinary design flexibility. You can change dimming and distribution endlessly by combining these small units into desired shapes. While it’s true it’s not yet suitable for general lighting, I think it’s the industry’s best bet for kitchen and bath lighting that’s interesting, beautiful and kind to the environment.”

Lidsky is already using LED lighting in many designs, and one of his concepts can be seen at the Hammer & Nail showroom. It involves a countertop of semi-precious gemstones under-lit with LED lights. The counter inevitably draws exclamations of admiration from showroom visitors.

It’s the small size of LED fixtures and their long lifespan that make them ideal for hard-to-reach places, notes Chicago designer Mick De Giulio, who confesses to being another LED admirer. He emphasizes that, while an incandescent bulb can last for 1,000 to 2,000 hours, the lifespan of a high-quality LED fixture is from 50,000 to 150,000 hours. This isn’t just a boon to homeowners, who are spared frequent bulb changes, but also to landfills, the inevitable resting places of billions of incandescent bulbs. Furthermore, LED sources contain no hazardous mercury.

De Giulio specifies LEDs for coves, recesses and above cabinets, and says he especially likes the way they can be completely hidden. Additionally, since most of the power to an LED is converted into light, minimal heat is produced, so cabinet finishes aren’t harmed – nor is whatever is stored or displayed inside the cabinets.

Zaparelli says there are LEDs that meet California’s tough codes and that their color temperatures are getting closer to halogen and incandescent lighting. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were there by the end of the year,” he notes. In the meantime, he sees LEDs’ role as lighting for coves, architectural details and under water.

Some of the more unusual applications include WET of Italy’s bathtubs and sinks that are illuminated from the inside, Villeroy & Boch’s clay tiles that are equipped with LED devices to glow blue, white or amber, and Neve Rubinetterie’s Brick Glas faucet, which is embedded in a block of clear or frosted Plexiglas lit from below by an LED unit.

The one caveat mentioned by many designers is the high cost of the LEDs.

“Yes, they are expensive,” says De Giulio. “However, they use very little electricity, and, as in all cases of rapidly emerging technology, prices are certain to come down.”

But there’s one warning from Hera’s Stewart: “All LED lighting isn’t created equal,” he says. “The market is currently being flooded with inferior LED products that burn out prematurely, don’t provide the necessary light output and have a very low CRI (color rendition index). Designers should seek out high quality products in order to fulfill LEDs’ promise.”

Living In Color

Those cutting-edge LEDs can also be credited with the potential for colorful living. They allow you to literally dial a color, not to read by, but for special effects, drama and fun. Previously the domain of casinos, theaters, stores and luxury hotels, these LEDs are now making inroads in residential lighting.

The color-changing effects are produced from a single fixture by dynamic activation of various sets of LEDs. For example, Color Kinetics of Boston, the first company to develop such lighting, employs this principle in track, underwater, outdoor and other fixtures utilizing variable-intensity LEDs that can provide more than 16.7 million colors, including white light. These fixtures can be individually programmed and controlled to generate amazing effects, including cross-fading, random color changing and strobing.

Color Kinetics cites a loft in Everett, MA as a good example of how it works. The homeowner didn’t want boring, neutral colors throughout, but nor did he want bold colors that might tire the eye or limit resale. So he went with a neutral color as the base, and then applied LED-based color-changing light to create custom moods on top of that. The colored lighting is used for a variety of applications, including the kitchen and bath.

The fixtures are installed in the upper kitchen cabinets, which are faced with frosted glass, and in the bath they add a colorful accent above the ceiling panel. The homeowner can shift all of the loft’s colors in unison or allow them to display independent effects. For example, on the Fourth of July, he programmed the entire space to morph through red, white and blue.

Energy savings are the bonus, he says. The LED installation throughout the space consumes less power than just one of the loft’s low-voltage track fixtures – plus there’s no heat emission, which helps keep the cooling bills down in summer.

And Now, the OLEDs

If you think LED technology is advanced, you’ll be bowled over by OLED technology. OLED stands for organic light-emitting devices, but in tech circles it’s called phosphorescent organic light-emitting devices, or pholeds.

This new technology will produce lighting in the form of thin, flat sheets that can be mounted on ceilings, walls, columns, appliances, cabinets and other surfaces. Each sheet is made of stacked, organic films that generate light when stimulated by an electric current.

“Unroll this material, paste it on and the room will glow,” explains Janice Mahon of Universal Display Corporation, an early player in this new field. “It will mean that we can carry light around in a whole different way.”

Universal Display’s funding comes from government grants as well as from development programs with other companies, but many major firms, such as Phillips and Pioneer, Intel, General Electric and DuPont, are also betting that the future holds tremendous opportunity for the low cost and surprisingly high performance offered by OLED technology.

Mahon estimates that specialty lighting and custom architectural applications will be here in two to three years. Initially, it will come in the form of glass panels. Next will come the plastic sheets covered in pholeds. She says that these light sheets will some day cost little more than the plastic they’re printed on.

What’s so interesting about this upcoming light source is that it may challenge our very perception of lighting and architecture. Lighting designers usually strive to integrate lighting hardware and architecture in a cohesive manner, but with OLEDs, the architecture may be the lighting hardware.

Just as the invention of incandescent lighting back in 1879 meant that buildings had to be electrified (a change that was more important than the invention itself), OLEDs – and LEDs – will also change the way houses are built. We’ll have glowing counters, ceilings and walls, predict lighting scientists. And we won’t need light fixtures at all.


Light control technology is also the subject of ambitious research, including a digital addressable lighting interface, called DALI for short. It’s intended as a non-proprietary, uniform interface that offers complete lighting control among compatible products from various manufacturers.

The government supports this technology because it represents one more step toward energy savings, and industry professionals believe homeowners will love its “gee-whiz” aspects.

“Homeowners are enamored of smart-house technology,” explains Tere Bresin, an Upper Montclair, NJ interior designer.

“To them, it represents comfort, safety and just plain fun, as well as reduced electricity use. With a push of a single button, they can transform the look of their homes to enhance parties, family movie nights and romantic dinners for two.

“In the kitchen, for example, the controls could be set to vary lighting levels for eating, cooking, cleaning and entertaining. In the bathroom, they might be set for make up and shaving, night lights and relaxing in the tub or spa,” she continues.

Zaparelli says he recently designed a bath where one of the control’s switches turns on a tranquility scene. A stone wall behind the tub is softly illuminated, with strips of blue highlighted, and electric candles on wall shelves turn on. Despite being electric, the candles look like the real thing.

But as much as homeowners love the new whiz-bang products, lighting consultants and designers admit that all the computerization sometimes creates problems. One designer says she got a panic call from a woman who had just moved into a new home featuring all of the latest technical bells and whistles. Her husband was away on a business trip and she couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bedroom lights.

“This happens,” laughs Bresin. “It’s true that once all the switches are programmed, some people may encounter problems if they want to change something. Let’s say they want the kitchen prep area a little brighter for some special task. Well, changing settings requires advanced computer savvy. She might have to call in an engineer – or the neighborhood computer nerd.”

Still, people love the gadgetry, so the lighting industry keeps rolling out more. One of the industry’s biggest manufacturers, Lutron, continues to come up with new wrinkles for its visionary Radio-Ra system, which provides whole-house lighting control via high-frequency radio signals. This means it is wireless. There’s no need for expensive rewiring or breaking walls open – a plus in old and historic homes. The homeowners can even take the lighting with them if they move.

“In the history of lighting, this is an extraordinarily exciting time,” says Bresin. “But you might well ask what took us so long. I mean, Edison invented the incandescent light bulb more than 100 years ago. It seems that, for most of the time since that invention, we’ve been mostly concerned with the structures holding the lights, not with light itself.”