In the olden days, we’d all be hunkered down around a golden yellow candle flame about now. In the really olden days, we’d maybe have sat in our caves, a low fire burning at the entrance, looking out at the dark and praying we’d survive the winter. These days, of course, we just flick a light switch and think no more about it. But take a moment, because not all light is created equal.
You can remind yourself of that by walking into the Harrods food halls. A mood of tranquility and happiness descends. In the back of your mind there’s a vague sense of excitement, like you’ve just remembered that you’re going to eat with your best friends in your favourite restaurant later that day. It’s reminiscent of the moment after the first sip of a cocktail. There’s a sense of expectation: good times ahead. And, really, it’s just a trick of the light.
No one knows that better than Lewis Taylor, design director at David Collins Studio. He has recently overseen a redesign of several of the Harrods spaces. “Lighting really sets the tone as soon as you walk in,” he says. “If the Roast and Bake hall had typical retail lighting, it would kill all of the emotion that we're putting into the space – and the sense of theatre that comes with the smell of roasting coffee and baking bread.”
We’re sat talking in the samples library at the Studio, and I am fighting an urge to get up and jump on the number 14 bus to Knightsbridge. Evolution has made us almost ridiculously sensitive to light, and all it brings. Scientists have shown that the human eye can detect a single photon, the packet of energy that constitutes the smallest possible amount of light. But most of our interaction with light is unconscious. It changes our mood, and tells us to sleep or wake up. If it hits our eyes at the wrong time, in the wrong intensity, it is literally painful. Set the lighting just right, and humans are like putty in your hands. You know this: when did you ever bring a date home and switch on a fluorescent striplight?
Getting lighting right depends on a gut feeling, Taylor says. But there’s plenty of science in there too. Designers choose bulbs based on the “warmth” of a light, for instance, and that’s rated on a scientific temperature scale: the Kelvin. That’s because any solid that’s at, say, 2,000K, will emit exactly the same spectrum of light.
Lighting gives back to science, too. Quantum theory, was literally born out of trying to understand how an incandescent light bulb works. At the turn of the 20th century, a German physicist called Max Planck was tasked with improving the efficiency of light bulbs, and on the way he accidentally invented quantum theory, which describes the strange behaviours of atoms, molecules and everything in the universe. That means that Albert Einstein’s Nobel Prize, Stephen Hawking’s insights into black holes and the entire consumer electronics industry all owe a debt to the humble light bulb.
Not that Taylor gets to use those incandescent bulbs much any more. Clients now want to exploit the brutal energy efficiency of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) – which are also a spin-off of quantum theory, by the way. LED technology made things a lot more difficult, he says: the early generations of these bulbs just didn’t have the quality of light that incandescents could give. Things are better now, though. “Today’s LEDs are comparable with incandescents in terms of the warmth and colour rendition.”
But they’re still not without their problems. One manufacturer’s 2,700K light can look subtly different from another’s. Sometimes it’s not even a difference between manufacturers’ standards: bulbs from different batches can occasionally give a different light. Whatever the problem, it has to be put right. “The quality control on the lighting is as strict as the quality control on the rest of the project.”
It has to be, because lighting can make or break a space. And if that space is in use throughout the day, the lighting has to be responsive. “It has to be brighter in the morning, and get slowly warmer from 3 or 4 o clock,” Taylor says. “In a restaurant it will be brighter at lunchtime because we want a bit more energy and activity. In the evening, we change the colour temperature to warm it up a little bit, because that makes everyone feel a little bit more glamorous – and if you feel like you’re looking glamorous, you relax and enjoy yourself. ”
Taylor is aware that the lighting should be enhancing the experience right from the moment you open the door, especially in high end restaurants. “We work hard on the sense of arrival and the ceremony as you come into a restaurant,” he says. “We’ll work through the customer experience: how you’ll be greeted, how you’ll be taken through, and so on. Each one of the experiences is layered with the lighting and the sound, the vistas that you see.”
The lighting design also has to work with the features in the room, whether they are on the floor, walls or ceiling. “Textures have to be lit correctly to make them stand out. If you don’t light a texture properly, you might as well have used paint rather than, say, tiles.”
That’s why David Collins Studio custom design their own decorative lighting elements. It’s also why the Studio has just refitted the lighting here in the sample library. The room has huge variations in its natural light, and the designers needed to wrest back control. I casually ask who designed the library’s lighting, and there is a significant pause. “We had a lot of arguments about the lighting in here,” Taylor says, eventually. He’s grinning, but I’m fairly sure that’s because he got his own way in the end. It’s probably time to draw this to a close. And, anyway, I’m off to Harrods.