LEDs shining a light on interior design

Advances in LED lighting are promising not only to brighten our homes, but also spark our imaginations.

Mary Breckenridge


So perhaps you thought the lighting at the recent Summer Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies was cool?

Well, get ready to be wowed right in your own home. Advances in LED lighting are promising not only to brighten our homes, but also spark our imaginations.

LEDs are freeing lighting designers from the constraints of conventional bulbs, and those designers are responding with products that could change how we think about lighting a room.

Picture lighted wall panels that respond to our movements, windows that morph into lighting sources and starry arrays suspended from the ceiling.

Those sorts of innovations are probably years away from common residential use.

But some are already starting to find their way into hospitality and other business settings, and even into some high-end homes.

They’re possible because of the unusual properties of LEDs.

LEDs are light-emitting diodes, semiconductor devices that light up when electrical current passes through. We’ve become familiar with them in such uses as traffic lights and automotive lighting, and lately they’ve been inching into the home in such forms as under-counter lighting, recessed lighting and even replacement light bulbs.

But the Olympic ceremonies showed us that LEDs have a wow factor, too.

LEDs lighted the Olympic rings and gave the wings of costumed characters an ethereal glow.

Mounted on stadium seats, LEDs made the audience part of a digital light show that pulsed with vibrant colour  and flashed messages around the arena.

An LED is tiny, about one-fourth the size of your pinkie fingernail. It takes a number of LEDs to produce the light of a conventional light bulb, but those teeny light sources can be arrayed in interesting ways.

“You’re seeing a lot of creativity,” said Jeff Dross, corporate director of education and industry trends at Kichler Lighting.

“…Essentially, a designer is unleashed at this point.”

Take, for example, the edge-lighted panels that  GE Lighting Solutions unveiled last year. They’re thin, transparent acrylic panels rimmed with LEDs, which illuminate the acrylic when they’re turned on.

The panels can be recessed in a ceiling or wall or suspended from a ceiling like a sleek, contemporary chandelier.

Kichler is starting to incorporate LEDs into its lighting fixtures, Dross said.

It recently introduced an ultra-thin wall sconce and is planning to come out with an LED chandelier in a few months, although he said details are hush-hush.

The sconce is noteworthy in that it’s only about 2 inches deep, so it doesn’t extend far into the room—“almost like a framed picture on a wall,” Dross said.

That makes it compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which limits how far a fixture can protrude so it won’t endanger people without sight, he explained.

Perhaps the biggest innovations promise to come from a type of LED called an organic light-emitting diode.

Whereas an LED produces a point of light, an OLED is a plane that lights up, explained Joe Rey-Barreau, who teaches lighting design at the University of Kentucky and is a spokesman for the American Lighting Association.

OLEDs produce a homogenous, diffused light that’s easy to look at directly, said Angela Hohl-AbiChedid, an OLED expert with Philips Lighting.

They’re less than one-tenth-inch thick and getting thinner, and they’re lightweight and cool to the touch, she said.

Philips’ largest OLED is four inches square, but they can be customized in a variety of sizes and shapes, such as rectangles, circles and ovals.

Lighting designers are capitalizing on the qualities of OLEDs to create innovative lighting products.

For example, WAC Lighting’s new Vela chandelier is a contemporary fixture that incorporates 24 OLEDs. Twelve shine upward to create a glow overhead, and the other 12 shine downward to illuminate the surface below.

The chandelier produces 2,040 lumens of light, a little less than the light output of one conventional, 150-watt incandescent bulb. But it uses only about 58 watts of electricity to do so, according to the company.

Even more intriguing are light sources that are unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Philips Lighting has already introduced a mirror made of OLED panels, which produces diffused illumination when the OLEDs are lighted and becomes a mirrored surface when they’re off, Hohl-AbiChedid said.

The mirror even senses when someone approaches and turns off some of the lights, she said.

Philips has also produced OLED wall panels that respond to the movements of the people in the room. The panels, about 8.5  feet wide by 4.5 feet tall, contain more than 1,000 small OLEDs that translate movements into a show of light.

The OLEDs provide both a warm glow to the room and a source of entertainment—“very gentle, very elegant, but very much fun,” Hohl-AbiChedid said.

(You can see a video of the panels and other examples of Philips’ OLED lighting innovations at http://tinyurl.com/ledphilips.)

And even more dramatic effects are on their way.

WAC and Philips are both developing OLEDs that will be transparent when they’re turned off.

“Imagine what that would do…in windows,” said Shelley Wald, the company’s president.

Eventually, flexible OLEDs, which could be bent into three-dimensional shapes and wrapped around columns, will be available, Hohl-AbiChedid said.

Don’t expect that kind of innovation at your local big box store anytime soon. WAC’s OLED lighting fixtures, for example, start at $500 a panel, and Philips’ wall panels are around $70,000—not exactly mass-market products yet.

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