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Blog // Technology
December 3, 2014

LED Lights Are Not A Massive Aesthetic Step Backwards

LED lights are increasingly replacing older lighting technologies.While they are different are they as bad as some critics claim?

Artisanal Light Bulb

The Christmas decorations went up around my home over the weekend and I’ve been enjoying the low warm light filling our courtyard, hall and lounge room. Compared to the heavy, unreliable (and not entirely safe) strands of lights I remember from my childhood, the new, modular LED Christmas lights are really easy to use. It’s wonderful to see the way these lights are creatively deployed around Tokyo, especially the stunning installations in front of Roppongi Hills.

This is, of course, one small part of a rapid development in lighting technology, recognised when Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics. LED lights haven’t just changed the face of Christmas decorations, they are also helping us become more creative (and efficient) with our lighting in a variety of situations. This past week I joined 868 other people backing the brilliant Lume Cube project on Kickstarter. And, last month I was in Akihabra, being totally amazed at the way variable colour, flexible LED strips could be applied to light music projects and possibly my studio, in the near future.

A Rant To The Contrary

So, I was surprised to read a somewhat grumpy and “blimpish” rant against LEDs in a recent Financial Times column from Tyler Brûlé.

“If LEDs are so great, why has a whole sector of cottage industries sprung up to offer old-school, cosy lighting solutions to online customers worldwide? If the LED is so wonderful, then why do aircraft interiors look so chilly and cold? And, while we’re told that LEDs can reproduce almost any type of lighting situation, why is it that in domestic settings they leave everyone looking ghoulish and haggard?”

To back up his tirade, Brûlé points to airplane interiors (which to my memory have always been unforgivingly lit) and hotted up cars (which are hardly the first place most of us look for interior design cues). From someone who claims to frequent Japan’s retail sector, I was surprised the comments were not a little better informed. Go to any major electronic department store here, like Bic Camera or Yodobashi, and you will not only see masses of interior LED lights for sale, but also rows of ingenious display boxes, housing every available model, lighting up a identical little scenes. so you can see exactly how the light you want to buy will render print on a page, or fruit in a bowl.

Understanding Artisanal Electronics

There is a trend towards artisanal lighting going on – the photo at the top of this post is from light fitting I made for in my workshop, using a great looking old school filament bulb. But, it’s misguided to see this as simply a reaction against the limitations of poorly installed LED lighting. Artisanal electronics, from resurgence of vinyl, or film photography, through to old school designs of kettles and kitchen appliances, it is part of a much bigger cultural trend.

Partly it’s fashion, partly it’s fear of the future; we are unsure how good our new ideas are, so rebooting existing designs and concepts feels safer. Also, with worsening economic conditions in much of the world clashing with oversaturated consumer choice, the older industrial-era values of “made to last” and “reliability” feel attractive. Perhaps more than anything, the internet makes it possible for these older electric and electronic technologies to find markets, stay in business and even continue to innovate.

Anyone with an understanding of how light works architecturally or artistically will understand the potential of lighting a space with a large number of small lights that can installed and controlled in customisable ways. Designers and artists have only begun to scratch the surface of what new LED lighting technologies can do and I look forward to living with both the best of the new and the best of the old technologies lighting my living and working spaces in the future.

Toni 10 years ago

There’s several things going on here and subtleties being missed, but I suspect the greatest of these is that LED lights deliver a different spectrum compared to incandescent bulbs, even when tweaked for ‘warm’ white. It’s a bit like playing a guitar amp through full-range speakers and attenuating the highs to try to remove the icepick – kinda works, but will never sound *great*.

As for planes, I’m pretty sure most I’ve used over the years run on fluorescent technology for lighting, which has always been unpleasant.

The thing that will reduce acceptance for LEDs is pushing too much choice into the retail channel. When you go to buy a lightbulb you will generally not look for an Osram, or Philips, or GEC, or Tesco or whoever, and when you buy a bulb it will light you home in a very similar way to the one it replaced. So selling LED bulbs in a variety of colour temperatures, beam angle and wattage to the general public is simply dumb, because no-one wants to spend 10X the cost of an incandescent bulb, only to find their new LED lamp produces a small eye-wateringly blue spot of light when the previous unit gave a pleasingly warm and wide spread of light.

I like LEDs – we have 7 in the kitchen using about 35watts instead of 350 watts of halogen lighting, and another 4 upstairs using 20 instead of 200 watts. As compact fluorescent bulbs fail they are also being replaced with LEDs. It’s taken a lot of trial and error and some investment – 2 years ago I bought a buch of ostensibly viable light units that compensated for their minimal output by giving a tightly focussed beam, and all failed in under 12 months. More recently, better functioning and less outrageously priced units have been finding their way onto the market through wholesalers, though not really into conventional retail. And many of the bulbs on retailers shelves are still both cool white and very expensive (=>7 GBP each vs 1 GBP for 2 50watt halogen bulbs). It’s likely Japan is ahead of the UK in uptake of the technology, but I understand why the writer would rant against LEDs if all they had to evaluate was what’s available through ordinary retail.

So a recipe for ‘success’ if people want to sell LEDs in the UK is to ditch everything that’s not giving similar colour temperature to halogen incandescent, get output up (1 watt in halogen seems to roughly equal 11 lumens, so a 20watt halogen = about 220 lumens) and for spot units, widen out the angle of the beam to solve the tiny hot-spot issue that many LED spot lamps still have.

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