Creative lighting has become a necessity for shopkeepers, and an expected touch of luxury for customers.

Whenever the design of a new restaurant, club or store is up for discussion, the first order of business is usually lighting.

“The idea is to have a beautiful design and then have someone really good come in and light the crap out of it,” says Steve Lewis, a co-founder of SLDesign, whose New York–based interior design firm counts nightspots Marquee and Home Guesthouse, and restaurants Amalia, Butter and Aspen among the group’s star projects.

Lewis’ nightclub background—he operated Palladium, World, Life, Limelight and Tunnel—has stamped him as an unofficial expert in creating sexy spaces where the beautiful set can shine brighter than usual, and where—for an instant—mere mortals can catch the eye of the unattainable.

“We can use light to show off what we want to see and hide what we don’t. Light is like makeup,” Lewis says.
And unique lighting is increasingly in demand. Experts say the bar has been raised in terms of the public’s expectations of lighting—and design overall.

“It is sort of like the idea of the Bilbao Museum that [Frank O.] Gehry did,” says Michael Cummings, a senior designer at New York–based Focus Lighting, an architectural lighting design firm. “It seems like, as design gets more complicated and integrated into architecture, it requires more considerations.”

Focus Lighting usually partners with property owners or interior and graphic designers to take a space to the next level. “The work we do is typically the gem of a project,” Cummings boasts.

Most recently, SLDesign worked with Focus Lighting on the restaurant Amalia on 55th Street in Manhattan. There, light is embedded in the bar, in a staircase and is used in a wall of electric candles. The concept, explains Paul Gregory, a principal of Focus Lighting, is simple.

“You just see reflective light. It comes out of the sconce or chandelier or accent and hits the wall of red fabric or whatever wonderful materials of the space, which then bounces off into your eye. This was never understood before. Now it is a design element that is critical to the way a space feels,” Gregory says.   

That is something Ingo Maurer has known for decades. Highlights from his 40-year career as well as creations that have never been seen in the U.S. will be celebrated when “Provoking Magic: Lighting of Ingo Maurer” opens Sept. 14 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Aside from being one of the first to dabble in halogen and light-emitting diodes, the German-born artist has developed 150 types of lamps and lighting systems since 1966. Fashion runways, public buildings, monuments and public houses are among the mediums he has used to exercise his talent.

Visitors to the Cooper-Hewitt will get a taste for his expertise through Rose, Rose on the Wall, a futuristic installation that adjusts color and brightness based on one’s mood, his homage to Thomas Edison called Bulb, and Tableaux Chinois, a compilation of live goldfish, mirrors and a projector that create an interplay of light and dark shadows. Further evidence of his whimsy is Lucellino, a bare bulb that only illuminates when its delicate white wings are touched.

“Lighting can be sensual, it can be comforting, it can be dangerous,” says Maurer. “It goes beyond science or nature or even art. It is as potent as life itself.”

Another force in lighting design is Chile-based Ximena Munoz Abogabir, who, 18 months ago, teamed up with fellow architect and lighting designer Paulina Villalobos to start two companies, Diav and Luxia.They develop architectural lighting design projects through Diav and new lighting products like the Anemix through Luxia. The Anemix is a lighting system that creates unique 3-D effects. Busy with projects for restaurants, bars and hotels in the U.K., the U.S., Kuwait and Israel, the pair is considering diving into Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Germany.

“Lighting gives life during the night to architecture. Architects always think of their buildings during the day when they are full of life. But at night, you can make magic with lighting. You can make a building be seen in a completely different way,” Abogabir says.

London’s 2012 Olympic Games are at a safe distance timewise, but her company is already creating a communications lighting system that will be used in the London Underground. Aside from revealing that 3-D panels would be used, she steers clear of any specifics regarding the massive project. One assignment she will discuss is the Apumanque, a shopping center built in the Seventies that is being renovated in Chile. Diav is dressing up the facade with sequential LED lines.

Both women are proponents of low-energy consumption products and projects that enhance lighting qualities that lower the environmental impact. They developed efficient lighting for Titanium La Portadad, Santiago’s second-tallest building behind the 840-foot Cesar Pelli’s Gran Torre Costanera. Titanium will be the first LED-certified green building in Chile, Abogabir says.

In the past decade, European lighting designers like Louis Clair and Tomas Alia have helped propel the medium. American Rick Joy also is pushing things ahead, she says. Two years ago, Joy turned to Stockholm-based lighting designer Kai Piipo to pitch in. “I had to go all the way to Sweden to find him,” Joy says. “I’ve exhausted months trying to find someone in the U.S.”

Joy, who is the scheduled keynote speaker at the International Lighting Design Association’s conference in London in October, will emphasize the need to create ambience with lighting, instead of just using it for safety or specific tasks. “What I’m trying to do is to get them to do side light like a Vermeer and to think more along those lines,” he says.

Architects Yoshiko Sato and Michael Morris of New York–based
Morris Sato Studio used light as a type of balm in “Lightshowers,” their DuPont-sponsored exhibition at this spring’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair. In a darkened area, a video projector was used to splash waves of light across dome-like spheres that doubled as stools. Talks are under way to use the concept in the waiting rooms of children’s hospitals
or in libraries as a way to reduce stress, Sato says. “Lightshowers” also will be on view at the Gwangju Design Biennale in Korea Oct. 5 to Nov. 3.

Nonarchitects also have delved into architectural lighting. Lola Bodansky, the designer of T Salon, a tea emporium in Chelsea Market, took on the store’s lighting herself, using sustainable light fixtures with recycled parts and energy-saving bulbs, and partnering with an eco-friendly artist for a light sculpture. “There is a universal image of brightness at T Salon, so it kind of sparkles,” says Bodansky, who owns Inprogress LB Design Consultants Ltd., based in London. But a closer look shows lighting the space was a bit more involved—with the process broken down into sections, in line with the store’s retail, tasting and lounging areas.

At the store’s entry are “task” lights, which, as the name suggests, serve a particular purpose: lighting teapots, cups, saucers and other tea paraphernalia. The second area of the store is a tea-tasting bar. It’s here where two 15-foot lighting structures, made entirely of recycled tea bags, are suspended from the ceiling. Energy-saving bulbs illuminate the piece, staying true to the Astoria, N.Y.–based artist Eveline Feldmann’s belief that items should be environmentally friendly and sustainable.

“Light is a big part of the experience for a visitor to a space,” says Feldmann, who collected the estimated 2,007 tea bags to make the sculptures.

Sam O’Donahue, a principal of Established in Manhattan, and Rafael Berkowitz, a principal of RB Architect, also in New York, say unique lighting is no longer just a necessity, it’s now a requirement.

“Because of boutique hotels and the average person who travels through them, customers are more sophisticated and they expect it,” says Berkowitz, who worked with O’Donahue in creating the Chris Chase hair salon in Chelsea.

While many agree retail design lighting is a well-established and well-developed discipline, setting a mood is what consumers have come to expect. With that, the lighting in Chris Chase uses contrasts, such as white paint in the main salon area and a deep purple black paint in the waiting area, while modern recessed lighting is built into styling-station mirrors and a dramatic yet traditional chandelier is in the center of the space.

“The idea of contrast to create intense highs and lows goes back to the artist Caravaggio,” says O’Donahue of the Renaissance painter who used the chiaroscuro technique to create drama.

These days, Cummings is especially interested in investigating more environmentally friendly ways of lighting homes.

“We are working on creating high-output, low-energy lighting, such as fluorescent light, to put where it is appropriate for residences,” says Cummings.

Berkowitz also sees a shift toward more environmentally friendly lighting.

“There is a higher consciousness about using energy-saving and eco-friendly lighting in the construction and design businesses,” he says, pointing to LED lighting as an emerging option, which lasts a long time and allows for cool effects in terms of changing the ambience of a space. However, its initial cost is very high.

The cost of lighting depends on a person’s budget, experts say, and can start as low as $10,000 and go as high as $100,000. Berkowitz says a good rule of thumb in estimating the cost of lighting a project is to allot about 10 percent of the overall construction costs for lighting.

But lighting doesn’t always have to be so serious. Take Lewis’ work in Wesc on New York’s Lafayette Street, where the apparel store’s lights have been rigged to go on and off concurrently with a subway that passes directly under the store.

“We made it work,” says Lewis.

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