Modern Lighting Design: Material Matters
Lighting designers and architects pay close attention to what materials are incorporated into a lighting fixture, as well as how each material is used to help curate a specific look and feel. Different materials perform better than others when used for different design purposes, thanks to the way factors such as chemistry and workability affect light play, texture, suspension, weight distribution, and more.
These choices offer insight into what the manufacturer intended for the product, as well as clues into the craftsmanship and creative vision of the original designer. Learning a little bit about each type of material will give you a leg up when choosing a new light for your home. Common materials you should become familiar with include:
Before synthetic compounds, glass was your go-to transparent or semi-transparent material of choice for lamps, windows, vases, drinkware and pretty much everything else. Today, glass is primarily an aesthetic choice for lamps, one that allows designers to cleverly use variable textures, tones, and thickness to create light play and geometric intrigue.
Seemingly minuscule factors such as the edge thickness of a cylindrical diffuser can define its aesthetic tradition, whether that may be chunky and more modish or dainty and almost rococo in fashion. Glass can be perfectly clear for direct lamping, semi-opaque for a warm glowing light, or seeded to produce a dimpled lighting effect.
Nearly every lamp you find on the market will include some metal components. Metal is a popular choice for pendant and wall mount framing because of its strength-to-weight ratio. Unlike some other materials, it will hold its form for years to come.
When metal becomes the central element in a lamp, a lot of wonderful looks can happen. Different metals are defined by a characteristic look and touch. Think of what you associate with the look of brass, and compare it with your thoughts about aluminum or wrought iron or copper.
Metal can be textured or smooth, natural or finished in a vibrant color, which makes it especially versatile. It can look like something from the blacksmith’s shop or straight off the International Space Station. The smoothness in texture and form you can get with a cylindrical metal shade is unmatched for adding a futuristic feel to any mid-century lamp.
Human beings have been firing clay to make pots, tiles, and other household items since around 10,000 B.C. Cement in essence, is technology taking that cultural tendency into the new era. Since the earliest days of the 20th century, cement and steel have combined with glass to become the predominant urban building materials in most urban centers, which likely explains why it has such a strong modernist association today.
Cement has a weighty and organic look and usually comes complete with a more textured finish. It can create a brutalist effect, especially when used in sconces, or be more refined, using slow and smooth geometric flourishes that meld nicely with contemporary and transitional decor.
Another classic look, fabric adds texture along with light diffusion and shadow play for a look that is old school and sophisticated. Because different fabrics offer such a diverse range of colors and patterns, you can get a lot of different styles from fabric shades and accents. A pleated fabric shade is a classic Americana look unlike any other, whereas a looser burlap can give a rustic or even avant-garde feel to your decor. Depending on how it’s used, another unexpectedly advantage of fabric is its ability to muffle sound.
A relative newcomer to the world of lamps, acrylic components revolutionize the way lighting designers can create geometry and form. Acrylic is modern, precise, lightweight, and highly pliable, which is why it’s popular for making everything from swooping arcs that walk on air to intricate statuary that, with metal or wood or marble, would take an artisan weeks to create. Acrylic comes in any shape, any size and any color. Quality acrylic offers a high modern look that appeals to many folks, although it can be too synthetic for some styles (especially when it’s used to recreate natural looks, such as wood).
Knowing a little more about the materials a designer will use helps fill in the vision in ways you often can’t glean from even the best photography. Each material has characteristics that make it appealing for different uses, and understanding how each performs can help you choose just the right look for your home.