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From Ambience to Discovery


What does a professional lighting designer bring to architecture and interior design? Tapio Rosenius of the Lighting Design Collective answers the question.

As a professional lighting designer, I’m often asked to describe my approach to lighting as well as my methods of design by my clients – who are usually architects and interior designers. Lighting can be difficult to describe and even more difficult to understand.

The impact of natural and artificial light to our built environment is fundamental, yet it can feel almost abstract to think about when applied to projects. Probably due to this reason, it is typical for lighting to be explained with numerical terms. People refer to engineering guidance on lux levels, they talk about lumens and glare index.

To me, however, describing lighting is different from that. Light is full of emotion. It sets the mood, it reveals form, it carries information and it has an inherent relationship with time.

My approach considers the human factors in lighting together with architectural composition, aesthetics, user experience and the element of wonder. Light can assist and support the architecture from providing intuitive means of orientation to creating night-time identity and extended functionality. Light is used to aid discovery, create ambience and, where appropriate, to reinterpret the environment for the hours of darkness.

Studies in behavioural psychology have identified the priority pattern of the involuntary movement of the human eye: PEOPLE – MOVEMENT – BRIGHTNESS – CONTRAST – COLOUR. In our practice, this finding is used as part of a holistic approach to lighting design.

Four out of five of these factors can be directly created by lighting design. They can be applied to ensure that the key entrance area to a building is the first thing people notice, or that the hotel reception is clearly identified. Using light this way allows for intuitive orientation without using excessive signage.

In my mind, the key to designing creative lighting schemes are these questions: What happens when the sun goes down? What is the visible world we are creating for ourselves by using artificial light sources?

It’s a great opportunity and we should use it wisely and with imagination. We don’t need to recreate the day using excessive brightness, nor should we attempt to mimic daylight or sunlight too directly. These attempts often lead to uncomfortable and aesthetically unpleasant results. The sense of discovery is a great tool.

The sun-drenched daytime experience in a beautiful garden is followed by an enchanted night-time environment created by light; the poolside terrace restaurant from your lunch now displays a rippling light effect on the trees and flickering candles on the tables.

New memories are created, the use of the architectural space is extended and re-interpreted. For the hotel operator this means revenue, for the building owner it creates a talking point.

Many of our clients operate in highly competitive markets such as high-end hospitality where the brand identity is incredibly important. Using light as an integral part of the identity creation helps to set the right look and feel for the projects.

This can mean understated and low-key lighting treatments to create a sense of privacy or a nightly light show to bring in punters. We often use specifically-created film content as part of our lighting design to give the project a local context.

These abstract but recognisable film pieces are used as lighting projections, creating a kind of “living wallpaper” that serves to give a unique identity to the space.

The night-time identity of a public building within its urban context is equally strongly linked to the lighting design. The way a building manifests itself during the hours of darkness through its lit appearance should support its identity.

In some cases, this can help to create a national icon like Burj Al Arab in Dubai or a tourist destination like the Symphony of Lights on the Hong Kong waterfront.

Manipulating light is an art and a science. Using light to engineer ambience allows us designers to stretch our creativity and push the technology of light to new directions.

Colour is a potent tool in creating ambience. The spectrum of light is controlled to enhance natural colour of the finishes, to create contrast, to alter perception and to evoke emotion.

The colour allows us to create spectacle, visualise the passing of time or to simply improve the skin tones. Controlling the light with astronomical time-clocks or with other timed functions allows for dramatic mood changes.

The ambience varies according to function – lending flexibility to the space, unachievable by any other means. After all, painting the walls twice every day or changing the colour of the furniture just for an evening is highly impractical. With designed light, all that can be achieved with a mere flick of a switch.

Note: Tapio Rosenius is a Finnish lighting designer. He is former director of London-based Maurice Brill Lighting Design and is currently director of the Lighting Design Collective, Madrid.

He has gained a Master of Science in Light and a Lighting degree from the UCL Bartlett University, London, with a Medianomi undergraduate degree in Lighting Design from Tampere Polytechnic University.

He works globally with design projects in 17 countries all over the world and lectures regularly on lighting design at universities and professional seminars. He is a council member and the director of membership for the Professional Lighting Designers Association (PLDA).

Photographs & Projects: Tapio Rosenius for MBLD

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