Throwing shade: begone downlighters, modern design is far more illuminating
Until around 20 years ago, you'd go out and buy a light - a lamp or a pendant - in much the same way as you'd buy a table or a chair. Light fittings were visible, tangible objects. They weren't always pretty and they weren't always functional. I grew up under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent strip lights. They emitted light that hurt your eyes and gave off a persistent, irritating hum.
Then, in the 1990s, recessed down-lighting came into play. Every builder in the country learned to slap in a row of downlights. Downlights were a mixed blessing. They threw pools of bright light onto the floor below and were usually positioned geometrically, rather than where you'd actually need them. Often, you'd find yourself standing in your own shadow. Not good, when you're trying to peel the spuds.
Downlights were our introduction to architectural lighting, but that's where it stayed for the next decade. Anything more fancy was prohibitively expensive. Around the same time, design pundits started banging on about "LED technology". Early versions emitted a cold, nasty-looking light. Now, you can buy decent quality LED tape for around €20 per metre. Even at this basic level, it comes in a range of colour temperatures (neutral white, warm white, ultra-warm white). This opens up a range of possibilities, most of which come under the heading of indirect lighting. That's lighting that illuminates part of the room, like the walls or the ceiling, rather than the task to which you might be attending.
"With indirect lighting, the whole room illuminates but the light source is invisible," says Shane Crowley, director of Eames Lighting, a new online shop based in Tramore, Co Waterford (it's an offshoot of the high-end lighting design company Dlight. Indirect lighting is a sophisticated look and, as LED technology changes, the prices are coming down. "A lighting project that would have cost around €10,000 a few years ago can now be done for €2,000," Crowley explains.
Indirect lighting can wash light up or down a wall, it can draw attention to historic plasterwork or illuminate the edges of a drop ceiling, and it can provide functional task lighting around mirrors or under cabinets. The key is to plan in advance. Ideally, indirect lighting should be discussed at the beginning of a building or renovation project. It's much less easy to add it after the fact.
Crowley finds that his customers still want conventional light fittings - pendants, floor lamps and table lamps. But, thanks to indirect lighting, standard fittings are no longer required to carry the whole burden of illuminating a room. The pendant - that old familiar workhorse - has become an illuminated decorative feature that can be used to change the mood or the focus of the room.
"In new homes and rebuilds, the main focus is on the chandelier or pendant as the pop-out fitting," Crowley observes. "People augment it with floor lamps and table lamps, but the feature pendant is the one that pops." Pendant lights from Eames Lighting range from the Axo Light Fedora pendant (€350 each), a simple fitting in glass and rose gold that can be used singly or in clusters, to the Etoile Suspension Lamp from Il Fanale (€2,152). The latter is a restrained, contemporary chandelier, in that it has nine arms. If you like that type of pendant, but have less money to spend, the Plumen Drop Hat pendant chandelier costs €461. Lighting a standard room is relatively straightforward - it's difficult to do well, but there's plenty of precedent to follow - but open-plan spaces are increasing popular and a lot more difficult to light. "Look to the function of the space," advises Willie Duggan, lighting supplier and lecturer. "Once you understand how the space is going to be used, you'll be better able to light it."
While Duggan admits that recessed downlights still have their place, he's not a massive fan. "If you put in too many, you end up with a huge amount of intense light coming down at you."
A well-chosen pendant, though, can save a dining table from looking as though it's floating aimlessly in the middle of a large room. "The pendant makes the dining table more intimate and more romantic. It's a decorative piece and it needs to tie into the style of the place, but it's also focal," he says.
Pendant light fittings from Willie Duggan Lighting, based in Kilkenny, can cost anything from to €160 to €3,665. "A lot of the time you're paying for originality," he says. "You can get a really good quality pendant for €1,000 - really nice materials and excellent craftsmanship. Above that, the big thing is that it's different."
He's a big fan of the Kelly pendant from Studio Italia, a metal hemisphere that's laser cut to create interesting shadows, but also of the handmade lamps from the Spanish company, Arturo Alvarez. "They're handmade in natural materials, like wood, and the designs are quite earthy. There's a bit of a call out for that sort of thing."
If you like the handmade bentwood look, the British designer Tom Raffield has a series of distinctive pendants made from undulating loops of timber. Prices start around €150 and go up to over €1,000, depending on size, with a good selection around the €300 range. Or, if you prefer to buy Irish, the Cathedral pendant from Lightet Studio in Dublin, is both sculptural and sustainable. "The pendant shades are fully recyclable and plastic-free," says designer Renata Pekowska. "They're statement garments for lights, easily assembled, and easily slipped off and transported. They are aimed at the environmentally mindful contemporary nomads!" The Cathedral lampshade costs €40 from Designist and is named for the shape of its leaves, which are inspired by the arched window in a cathedral.
See eameslighting.com, willieduggan.com, tomraffield.com, designist.ie