Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Human Side of Lighting

The lighting industry has lately been so caught up with LED technology, looking only at technical measurements like lumen output, color temperature and CRI (color rendering index), that at times it seems we've totally forgotten about the most important thing- the human aspect of our relationship with light. Humanizing lighting has been the basis of my lighting design practice since the beginning, many years ago. It seems simple, to light things for people first, and furniture, finishes and fixtures second, but so many in the design world fail to do think that way. It doesn't help that design publications almost never show people in architectural photographs- we're naturally trained to think only about the environment, not the most important living organisms in it- humans.
We don’t just use light, we feel it. People are naturally, unavoidably drawn to beautiful light. I believe it's a part of our biological makeup, related to some ancient sense memory of firelight and candlelight. Lighting is not only about technology, it's also about aesthetics. I am definitely embracing LEDs, not only using them on all of my projects now, but also bringing them into my own home. Of course the output of the LEDs, along with the color quality they produce is extremely important. But I see these as a part of the design of the light source, not lighting design.
No matter what type of light source you’re using, the basic tenants of good lighting remain the same. A room comes alive when the optimal balance of different sources of illumination is achieved: some directional, some indirect...and some invisible to the eye. If your eyes are gently dancing around the room at night, taking in the people, the art objects and the architecture, then I’ve done my work as a lighting designer.
This entry foyer is certainly dramatic, but hardly inviting for people

This media room uses layers of  ambient, task, accent and decorative lighting to create a space where the people feel as important as the art

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Kitchens- The New Gathering Place

The Heart of the Home

This open plan kitchen flows into the informal dining room as well as the family room. We wanted  the lighting in the kitchen to match that of the rest of the house so that it was visually integrated into the other spaces at night. Indirect lighting was placed on top of the upper cabinets provide a flattering fill light. The custom light fixture over the dining table offers both accent light and ambient light.  The recessed adjustable low-voltage fixtures highlight the clients large collection of art and sculpture.

Interior Design- John G. Martin     Lighting Design- Randall Whitehead    Photography- Jeff Zaruda 

Kitchens have evolved into the new centers for casual entertaining. Now it’s more likely that guests will congregate in the kitchen as the meal is being prepared, often lending a hand while sipping on a glass of wine instead of waiting passively in the living room. New homes are being laid out by architects and builders to accommodate this change. As a result, the trend is toward an ‘open plan’ house, where the rooms flow together. The solid walls between the kitchen, dining room, and family room have disappeared.  This newly defined space is often referred to as a ‘great room’.

The impact on lighting design is that the kitchen should now be as inviting as the rest of the house. It too, must have controllable lighting levels, so those guests look good and feel as comfortable as they do in the other parts of the house. This definitely changes some of the lighting methods that have been around for a long time.

Sadly, we still see new kitchens, even expensive kitchens, with a single source of illumination in the center of the room. Whether this is incandescent or fluorescent, it is essentially a ‘glare bomb’ that provides little in the way of adequate task, ambient or accent lighting. As our eyes adjust to the glare, the rest of the kitchen seems even darker than it actually is. We see only the light source, and little of the surrounding rooms. There is no single light fixture that can perform all the required functions of lighting for a space. Here, as in almost everywhere else in the house, it is the layering of various light sources that creates a comfortable and flexible lighting design.

Decorative Lighting Makes a Comeback
In the 1970’s, builders seemed compelled to put a run of track in the center of the kitchen. Track lighting is best used as a source of accent lighting. If you try to use it to light the inside of cabinets or down onto the countertops, your own head can get in the way, casting shadows onto the work surface. The old surface-mounted light in the middle of the ceiling can cause the same problems.

In the 80’s there was a shift toward using a series of recessed downlights installed in a grid pattern in the ceiling. This was a little better, but still by themselves, they cast harsh unflattering shadows on people’s faces and your own head still eclipsed the work surface.

Nowadays, people want family and friends to feel as comfortable in the kitchen as they do in the rest of the house. Decorative fixtures can play a big part in making the kitchen a welcoming place. They are the architectural jewelry that helps set the tone. Decorative lighting adds the visual sparkle to a space. They cannot provide all the functions of lighting. They represent just one of four types of light sources that need to be considered. Along with decorative lighting, there is task, ambient and accent lighting. A well though out combination of these four types of light are what create a cohesive lighting design for the kitchen, as well as other rooms in the home.

Recessed dimmable LED fixtures, made bt Cree Lighting, pump up the light levels in this modern kitchen. the pendant fixture, made by Lightspann Lighting, uses a dimmable GU24 CFL
Interior Design- Jessica Hall     Lighting Design- Randall Whitehead    Photography- Dennis Anderson
Task Lighting
The first step towards successful light layering in the kitchen is the introduction of lighting mounted below the wall cabinets. This type of lighting provides an even level of illumination along the countertops. Since it comes between the work surface and your head, the lighting is much more shadow-free. This is one form of task light.

These linear light fixtures come in a great variety of styles and lamps (this is the lighting industry’s term for bulb). What we commonly see is a fluorescent strip light mounted at the back of the cabinet. The drawback to this placement is that when people are sitting down in the breakfast area or the adjacent family room, the light source can hit them right in the eye.

What has been on the market for a while now are linear task lights in LED versions that mount toward the front of the cabinet. They project the illumination toward the back splash, which then bounces light without glare onto the work surfaces and not out toward the center of the kitchen. This works well when the countertop is a material with a non-reflective surface, such as a matte-finish concrete or tile,  hones or flamed granite, or Corian™.

This kitchen uses a series of in-wall indirect light fixtures, made by Belfer Lighting, to help create fill light for the space. These fixtures are available in a halogen or a dimmable fluorescent version

Interior Design- Marian Wheeler    Lighting Design- Randall Whitehead    Photography- Dennis Anderson
Ambient Light
General lighting plays an important role in the overall lighting design for the kitchen, just as it does for the other main rooms in the house. It is this soft fill light that helps humanize the space.
There are a variety of ways to provide ambient lighting. One way to get that all important ambient light is to install a single pendant (hanging fixture) or a series of pendants along the centerline of the space or over the island.. They should have a semi-translucent quality such as a wood veneer or alabaster. They will also add a more human scale to a kitchen with high ceilings. The translucent type fixtures can often act as both ambient light sources and decorative lights at the same time.

 If the cabinets don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, another ambient lighting option is to mount linear dimmable LED or fluorescent lights above the cabinets, provided there is open space between them and the ceiling. This can be a wonderfully subtle way of producing the much-needed ambient light. If the cabinets don’t have a deep enough reveal on top, a fascia (a wooden trim piece) can be added to hide the fixtures from view.

More traditional kitchens can benefit from light layering as well. Candlestick lanterns help add a human scale to this kitchen with 12 foot ceilings. Indirect lighting installed on top of the cabinets provides additional fill light, while lighting inside the cabinets highlights heirloom serving pieces and stemware. The lighting inside the cabinets, made by Phantom Lighting, is a dimmable LED. Lighting above and below the cabinets, made by Environmental Lights is a dimmable LED as well. Even the B-10 bulbs in the hanging lanterns are an LED source, made by Borealis Lighting.

Interior Design- SFA Design     Lighting Design- Randall Whitehead    Photography- Dennis Anderson
Accent Lighting
The last consideration for the kitchen is accent lighting. You might have a few art pieces that can stand up to an occasional splash of marinara sauce. They deserve to be highlighted. This helps make the kitchen part of the overall open home plan. One tasty effect is to dim the ambient and task lights in the kitchen down to a glow, letting the accented art catch the attention once the party has moved to another area.

A Good Checklist

Many facets of your kitchen design will determine the way it is lighted. Not only do such variables as ceiling height, natural light, and work surfaces affect the placement or amount of light used but there are other factors you should consider as well. Here is a list:

Color— Darker finished surfaces are more light absorptive. An all-white kitchen requires dramatically less light (40-50%) than a kitchen with dark wood cabinets and walls.
Reflectance— A highly polished countertop acts just like a mirror. Any under-cabinet lighting will show its reflection.
Texture— If your end design includes brickwork or stucco, you might choose to show off the textural quality of those surfaces. This is accomplished by directing light at an acute angle to the textured surface. Recessed fixtures that are located too far away from the wall will smooth it out (which might be a good idea for bad drywall jobs).
  Mood— Floor plans are more open now. Guests will flow from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room. The kitchen should be just as inviting as the rest of the house. Make sure that there is enough ambient light in the kitchen. This softens the lines on people’s faces and creates a warm, inviting glow.
Tone— The warm end of the color spectrum works well with incandescent light, but cooler colors are adversely affected by the amber quality of incandescent light. Whites turn yellow and reds can turn orange. Make a color temperature choice that works well with skin tones and room colors.
Code— In California, designers must conform to Title 24 (the State Energy Commission’s requirements for new construction and remodel work that exceeds 50% of the existing space). It states that 50% of the wattage must come from fixtures that have an efficacy of at least 40 lumens per watt. California is not the only state with such regulations. In the near future, more states will be affected.
Windows— Windows that let wonderful light stream in during the day, while showing off landscaping, will become black reflective mirrors at night, unless some thought is given to exterior lighting. Outside lighting will visually expand the interior space out into the exterior
Sloped Ceilings— Even if there is enough space above a sloped ceiling to install recessed fixtures, special care must be taken to select units that don’t glare. Some recessed lights are made specifically for sloped ceilings, while others have a 90-degree aiming angle to accommodate the slope.
Pot Racks— A pot rack may look just perfect over that center island on the plan, but it’s extremely difficult to light a work surface through cookware. If a pot rack is demanded, consider installing recessed adjustable luminaires to cross illuminate the counter surface of the island or position them above the center of the rack.  Still the shadows cannot be eliminated, so having the option of increasing the ambient light is a way of combating the glare.
Door Swings—Make sure that switches are on the unhinged side of a door. Otherwise, you will have to reach around the back of the door to turn on the lights.
Of course, many aspects of this checklist apply to other rooms in the house, so feel free to refer to the list as you go from area to area.

The Bottom Line

An inviting kitchen is the true heart of a home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lighting Solutions for High Ceilings

Rooms with high sloped ceilings can often be a challenge to light. If done thoughtfully, they can end up being the most beautiful room in the home. Layering task, accent, task and ambient light creates a welcoming and cohesive space. 

In this home we started with the linear LED strip lighting, mounted on top of the beams which are running parallel to the apex skylight. The skylight brings in beautiful light during the day but at night it is a dark slot. Adding the indirect light on the sides helps this become a visually positive space at night. Along the perimeter walls a valence was fabricated to house the curtains and hide a run of uplighting to provide additional fill light and show off the beautiful wood ceiling.

Six recessed adjustable low-voltage fixtures were added to illuminate the coffee table and  the stone fireplace facade.

A wonderful over-sized lantern was selected to help create a human scale for the space and help give the illusion of providing the room's light, even though it only uses four 25 watt flame tip bulbs.

Pharmacy lamps provide reading light at either end of the two sofas.

lighting designer: Randall Whitehead
architect: Wm. David Martin
interior designer: Susan Schipmann
contractor: Brian Groza

In this very modern home, the ceiling in the living room was 16 feet high. What we designed was a series of floating panels that dropped 2 feet down from the ceiling, just below the clerestory windows.

Dimmable indirect lighting was installed on top of the panels to provide ambient light for the space, while creating a secondary ceiling line to help make the room feel more comfortable for people. 

Recessed fixtures, installed in the 16 foot ceiling, provide accent lighting for art and tabletops. A pair of fantastic Ingo Mauer "Oh Mei Ma" pendant fixtures hover  weightlessly below the panels to add visual interest and to help humanize the scale of the room.. 

lighting designer: Randall Whitehead
architect: Blue Design Studios
interior designer: Sonja Knutsen
contractor: Greg Holt

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mellow Yellow

Color Bind

Looking at an alternative way to warm up LED sources

LEDs with warmer color temperatures integrate better into primarily incandescent environments

In my ongoing efforts to help introduce LED lighting to consumers I continue to bump up against one major stumbling block…and that is the somewhat limited color temperature offerings.

Yes, there are plenty of uses for cooler colored LEDs, especially in landscape lighting where plants look greener and more alive when illuminated with lighting that is in the 3000° Kelvin to 5000° Kelvin range. I also specify cooler color temperatures in closets and laundry rooms so that people can do color matching in a daylight-type situation. And I know that we can get more lumen output from the cooler colored LEDs. But it is not always lumen output that people are looking for in their choice of light sources.

I do believe that for many years people will be mixing incandescents, fluorescents and LEDs in their homes; also in their restaurants, hotels, retail spaces and even offices. I think that giving people a wider variety of color temperatures will help meet the needs of a greater number of consumers. It will allow these disparate lighting sources to be able to blend better visually.

I also am learning that many people, including myself, will sacrifice lumen output for a warmer color temperature. I have been gently requesting from the LED manufacturers for many years to offer color temperatures that are closer to that of dimmed incandescent. Presently only a  few companies are offering light sources in a 2200° Kelvin to 2400° Kelvin range.

I’m beginning to think that I may be approaching this in the wrong way. Instead of forcing the manufacturers to go back to the drawing board and come up with a way to create warmer colored LED sources, what if the manufacturer simply offer filters to modify the color temperatures they already have? I’m not the first to think of this. I have noticed a few manufacturers offering what they call “warming filters” in their list of accessories. This is something that I would like to see more in practice.

Here’s the big news though, I met with Tal Janowitz the other day. She is the architectural product manager for Lee Filters USA ( She is developed the ”architectural series” of dichroic polycarbonate filters which are made specifically to work with LED sources. They are super thin (.03”) and fabricated for long-term use. They have five beautiful colors in stock. Additionally, she told me that they also have been able to coat the lenses of existing linear LED products. This would be great for companies that make linear task lighting and indirect lighting.

I think manufacturers would be very wise to add these options to their lines. I’m not saying that they should absorb the cost and offer this as a part of the product package. Instead I’m recommending that they be added in the accessories section or offered as upgrades to their standard product. As a specifier…and a consumer, I would be willing to pay the extra money to get the color of light I want.

The truth is that no one can agree what the perfect Kelvin rating for LED lighting should be, but I think we all can agree that having a choice of color temperatures will go long way to making everyone happy.

A glowing example of warm colored LEDs

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

LEDs go to the Olympics

As I was watching the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games I suddenly realized how much LEDs have become an art form.  I was fascinated to see a boat, carrying the Olympic torch, speeding up the Thames River with David Beckham at the helm.  As they transition to an aerial shot I saw that the boat was illuminated with brightly colored LEDs, while the buildings and rooftops along the banks were also dressed up with solid-state lighting.

     LEDs brighten up the torch carrying speed boat

Then the world found out that the entire stadium seating had been wired with blue LEDs, making them a      part of the show.  And while I can’t confirm it, I feel pretty sure that the illusion of the Olympic rings being forged from molten metal, during the opening ceremonies, was also created with amber colored LED lighting. 


      Blue LEDs make the stadium part of the show                 

      Yellow LEDs create the illusion of molten metal

I think the oddest use of LEDs was the illuminated blankets for the “sick” children in the hospital beds.  How can anyone fall asleep if your whole bed is glowing like a giant Arctic night light.  For me most lyrical use of LEDs was the illumination of the winged cyclists who represented doves, floating around the perimeter of the stadium.  It was then that I teared up a little while clutching my twinkling LED pillow. 

      Children trying to sleep while covered with bright white LEDs                

    The dove bikes were magnificent

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Perfect Light in a Small Package

I've been following the development of a particular LED MR 16 lamp that is going to offer some distinct advantages over other similar products that are on the market. The lamp is made by a company called Soraa (

There are many things I like about this particular lamp. For starters, it produces more light than competing LED MR16s- it's a true 50W halogen equivalent in light output, as opposed to 20-35W equivalent from other manufacturers' MR16s. Next, it's a single source lamp, while most of the other manufacturers use 3 or 4 LEDs, which produce multiple shadows behind the objects being illuminated. 

The Soraa lamp is compact in size, 
but offers a great punch of illumination
The Soraa MR16 is compatible with many different types of dimmers and transformers and is virtually the same size as standard halogen MR16's, which means that they fit in to almost all fixtures that take an MR16 lamp, while many of the other LED MR 16's are too large to fit into a majority of the existing fixtures on the market. They also have a lifetime of 25,000 hours, which beats the pants off typical halogens, which require seemingly constant replacement. Considering this last point, they will be priced competitively, especially given the lower costs of maintenance, and of course electricity, as they use only 20% of the energy of halogens.

As you can see from the photos, they have a very cool form, which comes from an ingenious heat rejection configuration that eliminates the need for an internal mechanical fan, which some competing LEDs must use in order to operate at a high enough power level to get acceptable light output. 

But the real reason these lamps are starting to look like my new heroin is the amazing quality of their light output and beam spread- it's just about "perfect." (I'm probably falling under the spell of their marketing, which has the tagline "Simply Perfect.") Like they say in Texas, it ain't braggin if it's true. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One-stop Shopping for Solid-state Lighting and Dimming

One of the things I've been advocating for a while now is the idea of having one company that makes both SSL (solid-state lighting) fixtures as well as dimmers and dimming systems. That way we as lighting designers, architects, contractors and interior designers would be able to comfortably specify products that we know will be able to communicate clearly with each other. I was surprised and happy to find out that Lutron had started to manufacture recessed LED fixtures under the umbrella of their recently acquired Ivalo collection. The series is called Finire. I don't yet have one in hand, but I'm very excited about what is being offered. As a designer working in California my first question was to see if these fixtures met the efficacy requirements of Title 24. I was told that they do, which is good news. Here are some of the features that they list on their website:
  • Smooth, flicker-free dimming from 100% down to 1% 
  • Extended LED driver and lamp life- the fixture is rated for 50,000 hours 
  • Downlight, wall wash and adjustable trim options, suitable for a variety of applications 
  • Immediate light output (without warm-up time) 
  • Flexible with field interchangeable light module, driver and beam spread 
  • 15W or 18W LED options providing light output equivalent to 60-90W incandescent lighting 
  • Energy-compliant meeting ENERGY STAR and California Title 24 standards 
  • 3-year warranty 
Stay tuned, and I will give you my feedback on the fixture once I've had a chance to test it. Having compatible fixtures and dimmers in the same family would be a wonderful marriage!