Where’s the innovation in lighting?

John Bullock talks about the word on everyone’s lips: INNOVATION

My diary is filling up with judging appointments for this year’s Lux Awards. The mood, as ever, is buoyant – mainly because we have such a fantastic history of good quality work being entered for the Awards down the years.

It’s the time of year when the word on everyone’s lips is: INNOVATION. It’s something that we recognise when we see it but we never know what to expect until we see it.


Let’s have a chat about innovation.

All you classics buffs out there will recognise the obvious Latin origin of the word, but did you realise that ‘innovate’ is, itself, an innovation. The root words are simple enough; in- + novatus meaning to renew, alter, improve. But the word had never been seen prior to the 1540s.  That Henry VIII, what a card!

But note that definition. It’s not about creating something from nothing; it’s about moving forward from the place where we find ourselves. The important thing about INNOVATION is that we can all come out to play with it. It’s not about coming up with something the world has never seen before; the wheel, the steam engine, the cyclone vacuum cleaner. Only the really clever chaps get to do things like that, but the real heavy lifting comes about once the original idea has stuck.  After all, the steam engine was just a waste of water and coal until someone else stuck wheels underneath it, or attached it to a dark satanic mill.

As a lighting designer, I’ve always admired the product designers who can start with a blank screen and whatever’s in their head and produce an entire range of luminaires – apparently from nothing. How do they do that? 

As a lighting designer, I’ve always admired the product designers who can start with a blank screen and whatever’s in their head and produce an entire range of luminaires – apparently from nothing. How do they do that? My personal experience is different.

I’m usually gazing down at a set of drawings, or standing in the middle of a building site when the magic words appear: “Wouldn’t it be great if could do something like . . . / we didn’t have to do something like . . .” (delete as appropriate). This is usually followed quickly by: “I doubt that we’ll find anything in any of the catalogues, mind you.” Of course, none of us start from an absolutely clean slate. We will always be somewhere along the winding pathway of innovation, adding a few footsteps of our own, if we’re lucky.

The things that we create don’t change the world, they just change the ways that we see the world. Despite our best efforts, light will still travel in a straight line and will still submit to the tyranny of the inverse-square law. If we ever get to the point where someone brings the curving ‘Banana Light’ to market, available in different lengths and curvatures, then that’ll be the end of this universe, my friends.

Here are three of my very favourite innovations, guaranteed to bore at a supper party near you. Let’s take three natural properties and riff off those:



As we all know, this is the ability of a body to emit visible light, usually once you’ve set fire to it. It’s how we’re able to see things at night and, no doubt, you’re expecting me to go with the incandescent light bulb because, after all, the ability to capture fire in a glass bulb is pretty amazing.

But no: that’s not the one for me. I’m going for the innovation that literally turned the lighting world upside down in the final decade of the 19th century – the inverted gas mantle. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach in the 1880s, the inverted gas mantle meant that, for the first time in human history, fire burned downwards. I wish I could have been at the first public demonstration for that.


Innovations in incandescence

This is a bit of a cheat, because it’s not really incandescence, but it does look like it. The LED filament has grown out of its hipster adolescence and is ready to take the place of the conventional GLS tungsten lamp as the go-to light source for decorative fixtures. Mind you, while the LED filament lamp has to described as an innovation, it’s also an example of how innovation can drive a backwards-looking approach to design. In this case, it encourages the on-going use of a form factor that’s over 100 years old and discourages the exploration of new LED-based form factors that would, ultimately, become the next generation’s classic designs.



It’s reckoned that there is no smoke blackening on the ceilings of the chambers inside the pyramids because the artisans used a system of mirrors to reflect sunlight deep into the heart of the structures. Every lighting designer should shut themselves away in a darkened room armed with nothing but a torch and a mirror – just to see what mirrors can do. My love for the light+mirror combo knows no bounds.

I have two contenders for best use of mirrors in commercial lighting. Given my age, my personal favourite is the crown-silver GLS lamp plus parabolic reflector. This is (well, was) a beautiful piece of technology coming from the very foundation of what photons can do when they bounce off specular surfaces.

Every lighting designer should shut themselves away in a darkened room armed with nothing but a torch and a mirror – just to see what mirrors can do.

My other contender in the reflection category has lasted the course much better than the crown silver+parabolic reflector, and this is the darklight downlight, introduced with great fanfare into Europe in the 1980s by Erco Lighting (There were others doing it only with smaller fanfares, but Erco made the difference). Originally designed to work with the humble GLS filament lamp, the principle is still in use today in its LED iteration.

Of course, the worst example of specular reflectors has been the environmental abuse created by the 600×600 Cat1/Cat2 fluorescent module. They were never a good idea even when they were relevant.


Innovations in reflection

You may not see many crown-silver lamps around these days, but look closely and you will see the silvered crown plus parabolic reflector making a comeback at a much smaller physical scale, as designers are realising that something has to be done to avoid the point brilliance of some of the new LED chips.



We’ve worked with lenses ever since we learned how to make glass, though for most of that time it was limited to improving our eyesight, whether using magnifying lenses, telescopes or spectacles. It took the arrival of the electric filament lamp to make sense of putting a lens between the light source and the object to be lit, though I would direct you to a display in the Bryggen Museum in Bergen. In there, you’ll find a glass bubble, about 120mm diameter if memory serves. Its intended to be filled with water, and then it becomes a condensing lens, used by lace-makers to carry on with their work by candle-light.

For many years, the use of lenses in architectural lighting was generally restricted to the face of display PAR lamps. Today, on a grander scale, we’re seeing lenses being used in street-lighting, floodlighting and industrial high-bay fixtures. But I must add my appreciation to the work done by iGuzzini in bringing together LED and lens design with its superb Laser Blade range.

And being as much a sucker for magnets (that may be a pun – unintended if it is) as I am for mirrors, I do like the way that Soraa has applied such a simple technique for shaping light beams in their ‘Snap’ system of MR16 and GU10 lamps.


Innovations in refraction

As the sources get smaller, so do the methods of control. Micro- and nano-lenses are becoming additions to LED technology. The way that JCC has brought together LED module and lens system into a twist-lock mechanism could be the start of one of those innovative moments that we’re constantly on the lookout for.

So here we are, talking about INNOVATION. There’s so much of it out there and so much to be inspired by. But as I say; you only know Innovation when you see it; it rarely comes if you just whistle. Let the judging commence.

See you at the Lux Awards in November!