After a decade of preaching the importance of low lighting, I’m going to stick my neck out, perform an audacious design U-turn, put my hands in the air and wave a small white flag of surrender: maybe I got it wrong. My conversion struck as I walked into a new-ish restaurant in London a couple of nights ago. It’s called Bonnie Gull, a small but perfectly formed seafood shack the likes of which you’d find in any of the more gentrified coastal towns in Britain, transplanted to the heart of central London. The day’s catch is displayed on a blackboard, with a map of Britain pinpointing which fish came from what part of the coastal sea. I had salmon and it was scrummy. So far, so cute.
As interiors go it was fairly unremarkable if spot on for what it needed to be. Whitewashed wood walls, soaped oak floorboards, wood chairs, pastel gingham tablecloths, a marble bar and some old wooden fish crates and seaside paraphernalia dotted around. But it was bright. Dimmable filament bulbs hung from the ceiling and rather than flickering with a barely there glow, they were properly on and up. And it worked perfectly. Outside it was bucketing with a typical London spring downpour; inside it felt like a different world. Light made us happy. It was so unusual and uplifting not to be huddled in an atmospheric, shadowy fug. It was so nice to see properly what we were eating and who with.
I’ve always been intrigued that architects and designers credit light as the most important thing to “get right” in delivering their work. It’s controlling what’s visible and what’s not, be that the corner of a room or the wrinkles on a face. Light brings space to life.
We’ve all struggled with the migration from bad but charming incandescent lighting to cold but efficient LED. Light-emitting diodes are complex, arcane beasts that hardly anyone understands and those who do can’t really explain. At the biennial Euroluce lighting fair, which ran concurrently in Milan this year alongside Salone del Mobile, it finally felt like designers and manufacturers may have wrestled this beast into submission. The four hangar-sized halls of the lighting fair used to sizzle with incandescent heat; sweaty deals were literally done under spotlights. This year, thanks to LED, the halls were positively chilly. And the lights on display were things of beauty: elegant, old-fashioned, dimmable and, crucially, covetable.
Until now I’ve been a sheep in the herd that believed bright light to be bad: disarming, draining, deadening – the stuff of supermarkets and dental surgeries. Dark spaces by contrast are naughty and secretive. Or so I thought. But I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Things get thieved in low-lit bars and restaurants. Eyes get strained, people mumble and feel lethargic. It’s hard work. I’m not advocating blanket strip lighting but let’s turn the dimmers up a bit and step into a brighter era where we can see who and what’s in front of us.
Hugo Macdonald is Monocle’s design editor.