There must be a reason why scientists from many disciplines, when faced with the problem of trying to determine an abstract concept like time, set aside terrestrial gravitation, lunar phases, quartz crystal vibrations or other complicated precision calculations, and opt for the extraordinary indeterminacy light, whose secrets are still largely unfathomed. Of all the most recent, exacting units of time, the most dazzling - and most relevant to our concerns as designers - would seem to be the phemtosecond - a millionth of a billionth of a second. It takes, for example two hundred of these time units, if you can call them thus, for light to react with the retina’s pigments and allow us to see, and so, interpret the world. Without light, the world would not of course exist, or rather, would exist as a blind person conceives it, as an intellectual concept. Which for designers, is the worst, most danger-fraught way of approaching existence, and responsible for the poor expressive quality of contemporary design that leans too heavily on superannuated intellectual precepts.
How much of the magic of natural light can be captured when designing artificial light for interiors? Little or nothing. The major concern of most architects (and designers) today is to build monuments to themselves with objects, interiors or buildings. Their major preoccupation is that the form of a lamp or building conform to their signature style. They are not attempting to fathom the marvel of light but determine its container. Which is like saying that a beautiful saucepan will produce exquisite food.
Similarly, even an expert, experienced architect like Zaha Hadid confines herself to containing light in the tangle of plastic forms that makes up her luminous sculpture Vortexx, designed for her retrospective show at New York’s Guggenheim. The result is doubtless aesthetically impeccable. The question that lurks in the back of the mind though, is what the underlying reason for such a formalist flourish was. One answer could be Hadid’s propensity for one-off creations that are never intended for the mass market, and much less as for the humdrum places of the everyday. Nor would it be right to see it as pandering to the “instant vintage” market, as Sandro Mendini, in a brilliant article written many years ago, described a segment of contemporary design, anxious to assure a place in modern art museums. Given her privileged position, Zaha Hadid has simply taken to the extreme a formalist trend adopted by many designers today in their attempts to work off their creative frustrations by making small changes to a series of consolidated objects.
The exception that confirms the rule is Ingo Maurer. For years, Maurer has made it his task to interpret light-producing objects. He has probably come closer than anyone to a poetic, non-formal representation of the mystery that is light. He invented and designed Yahoo, the first low voltage, industrially-produced, halogen lighting series (for whose name Ingo never claimed the copyright from the multi-billionaire owners of the website of the same name). He also invented the hologram lamp WO BIST DU EDISON (Where are you, Edison?). From 1997, he has experimented with LEDs, considered by many as the new frontier from which will come new, original, and more practical, artificial lighting systems.