“We In The Lighting Field Now Have Tools On Hand We Often Can’t Find The Benefits Or User Scenarios For. This Is Crazy.”
Interviews, Opinions March 26, 2019 TiL Editors
Licht Kunst Licht is a multi-award winning design studio with a reputation for innovation, effective, and sometimes provocative work. Based in both Bonn and Berlin, the German lighting designers have delivered work in more than 800 domestic and international projects in all project categories ranging from residential to masterplan. Currently, 26 people from various disciplines, including lighting design, architecture, interior design, scenography, electrical engineering and product design work on a wide range of design tasks, passionately pursuing the cutting edge of innovation.
As part of the “Knock on effect of Tech” series we spoke to Head of Design Edwin Smida, and Director Laura Sudbrock from their Berlin office, about how their work has evolved, their need to work with manufacturers and their hopes for the future.
TiL: What new technology in recent years has affected your work and what has had the biggest impact for you and Licht Kunst Licht?
Laura: There have been drastic developments in the past ten years in terms of LED. We are not focused on quantity anymore, we are all about quality. LEDs have evolved to be of a quality that we are confident in using across our project portfolio. Miniaturisation has had the greatest impact on our designs. With their small dimensions we can now integrate LEDs into any architectural application and that benefits us in our creative work and discussion with architects. LEDs are a fantastic tool in many respects, enabling us to put the lighting effect into the foreground instead of focusing on the design of lighting fixtures. One of the pillars in our design philosophy at LKL is to fully commit to architecture and the architect’s design intents without in any way imposing our signature. With the miniaturised tools, today we can achieve this much more easily.
Edwin: Also BIM has had a huge impact. It is here, and we all need to work with it. LKL is adapting to it. To keep up, manufacturers need to bring their product data to this software – it has to become more collaborative with BIM so we can use their products.
TiL: How long did it take LED quality to catch up with your requirements for better lighting and how long have you been confident in using them?
Edwin: It all came in small steps and it varied across manufacturers because some were more advanced, even years ago. It was dependent on the project but we started to use them very early. The first project we worked on was the “City Light House” in Berlin and it was a façade lighting design. We placed LEDs into the façade to make it more present and significant in the urban fabric – it is located at a prominent and highly frequented intersection. The LEDs then were cold white, and in this instance, it was perfect for the project because it delivered the brief – and it is still running today. Today, 17 years later there is no failure rate, it works perfectly!
Laura: My first project with LEDs back in 2011 was a conversion of a church in Dortmund into a Columbarium. Mainly because of the high mounting locations and maintenance issues we went for the long-lasting lighting elements. We worked with a manufacturer to tune the light colour in order to match the spatial and atmospheric qualities of the building. I remember our team experimenting with amber-coloured LED dots in the projector to achieve a nice and warm hue the vaulted ceiling. The manufacturer reacted promptly and developed a fixture with 2,700K and good colour rendering qualities for us which we finally went for. The fixture then became a standard product in their portfolio.
Edwin: Going even further back into our past I remember working with Hilton, now Marriott Hotels, and we were using one of the first ever LED from Osram, which was only available in amber. We incorporated this amber into a golden metal sheet, forming an incredibly harmonious effect. It was already programmed so each amber panel could be controlled individually, and we used them to animate effects including a waterfall and also the game Tetris. This was almost 15 years ago!
TiL: Its sounds as if you could work with the technologies to deliver your designs, working to create and adapt around what is available and also inspiring manufactures to rethink what they are making.
Edwin: Both are happening. You have to wait for the right project that is fitting to what the industry can offer. But sometimes we also push it. If there is a project that requires a specific solution which the industry does not respond to then we look for the right partner to develop it.
TiL: Do the industry listen to what you ask for?
Laura: They do listen!
Edwin: They really listen. Most manufacturers come to us to not only showcase what they have been developing, but also they come to ask for guidance and insights. We are much closer to the end user and the architects than they are and we have a deeper understanding of what the market needs. They are dependent on what we know.
Laura: We have found that the manufacturers are very grateful for us sharing this information. The insights from us lighting designers are valuable input for their strategic decisions in product development. There are very interesting dialogues these days.
Edwin: We also had, for example, a time when warm-dimming was not established and the manufacturers asked us if there is a demand for it, and if users need it. We were able to tell them that it’s totally variable depending on the projects and the clients. If you are working in a hotel or a residential environment, then yes, you want to offer warm-dimmable lighting because people will be closer to the actual bulb. If you are in outdoor spaces and offices then the actual lighting is further away and dimming is not essential at all.
When it comes to tuneable white and HCL the manufactures still ask us if they should follow the trends. They want to know if it is necessary to bring these products to the market.
TiL: Do you think manufacturers really understand what HCL means?
Laura: One of our biggest challenges at the moment is that we are in between all the questions, with no certain answer. It is our job now, not only to research the market and gather information on technology developments but we also have to talk to the manufacturers to make sure they are educated about the end users’ needs. When talking to our clients we are trying to reduce fears that naturally arise when confronted with this complex subject. “Get control of the controls” … we all need to make the subject more intuitive and approachable for people by actually beginning to use the technologies. Education in lighting remains an important role in the future.
TiL: Since LEDs have evolved, and fixtures have ‘disappeared’, how does this affect your work with the architect and can you now incorporate additional functions beyond illumination, for example, connected or smart lighting?
Laura: Lighting controls and smart lighting systems have been playing a greater role for us lately. We are gaining experience beyond the familiar use of controls, such as DALI, and have started playing with newer technologies and products such as Bluetooth Mesh, Philips Hue, connected smart phone apps and so on. In order to discover scenarios with real benefits for the clients, we have to expose ourselves to these technologies first to understand advantages or disadvantages.
Edwin: We always have to find out what the users’ and the client’s needs are. Only then we can also add what the potential technologies might offer, giving them ideas about the future. Sometimes clients want to know more about the latest innovations, what is possible at present, and a little way into the future. When you discuss with them the complexities that come with these new technologies, they always decide to keep it simple. They do not want chaos or products they can’t handle.
For us, when we see all these developments, we are smart enough to know we can’t understand them on our own. We will integrate experts into our team who can support us by helping us understand more about the potential. More and more lighting design is becoming complex, and we can’t know everything about it. We will combine our knowledge of lighting design with an engineer’s understanding of the technologies of the future. Bringing understanding in-house is how we can evolve.
Laura: Only with close collaboration with specialists, under one roof, we will be able to deliver holistic packages to our clients and the end users.
TiL: How has your portfolio changed in recent years?
Edwin: We have worked on many projects over the last 4 to 6 years which use, for example, tuneable white light. We have also designed and delivered HCL environments in 2 projects. One of which was a scientific research project “parametric (dream) space design” here in Berlin, which was a pilot project by GRAFT Architects, Art and Com and the Charité here in Berlin. We really learned a lot from this project. As I mentioned before, projects vary and sometimes we push to incorporate new technologies and other times the client pushes for it.
Laura: In past years, we successfully completed a couple of projects using tuneable white lighting; For example, the Conference Centre in Munich with a colour tuneable luminous ceiling for an underground, 300-seat auditorium, and the State Parliament of Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart. For the latter, with the team of Staab Architects we developed a unique and innovative daylight system for the plenary hall. The result was a luminous ceiling generating vital light atmosphere, also by using LED light with colour temperatures tuneable between 2,700K and 6,500K. Even complex sets of requirements, such as broadcast standards can now be met by the recent technologies – in projects ranging from offices, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and beyond.
Taking the example of our Cafeteria project in Dusseldorf, you can see that even a daylight-deprived basement can be converted into a space with an unexpectedly attractive and vital atmosphere by the sensible use of an “intelligent” HCL control system.
Edwin: Last year, we developed an office desk light in collaboration with Trilux, called Bicult LED. In this design we incorporated everything we had learned up until then. It is the only desk light on the market that is connected and can be totally personalised. The whole luminaire package can recognise you, react to you and adapt to suit your personal needs. A circadian curve is integrated in the luminaire adapting the light colour automatically to the natural course of daylight, while the user can individually adjust the light colour and intensity.
TiL: As lighting designers, is this the first product you have made?
Laura: In accordance to our firm philosophy, it is our goal to use lighting design and its means to materialise the spatial qualities of architecture. We believe that lighting design is not mainly lighting fixture design. Hence, we try to realise our projects with the fewest possible elements and to keep lighting fixtures out of sight wherever possible. However, if a space or site requires a specific response in terms of lighting we do develop custom fixtures in order to serve the architect’s design and spatial experience intent. In the past, we have developed luminaire designs and lighting solutions that have quite an assertive visual presence within a space, for example the ring chandelier we developed for the State Parliament of Vaduz. The main question is always what the architecture needs. Some of the projects we have worked on over the years, such as ambitious hospitality and gastronomy projects, architecturally innovative government buildings, or various representative spaces required luminaires that form design elements on their own.
Edwin: I have been with LKL for 22 years and can remember when we had the project from the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. For this project we developed a whole series of luminaires that were completely new at that time. Naked linear profiles without any decoration, was a very modern concept then. The manufacturer made a whole series out of that design and added it to their catalogue – we have been inspiring manufacturers for decades through projects that have special needs.
TiL: How do you balance design and the clients’ needs with the evolution of technologies in the lighting industry?
Edwin: That’s a very good question because it makes a current conflict clear. Of course, the industry tries to push the technical possibilities, you can feel that especially with the topic of HCL, colour changeability and/or flexible light cones. At the trade fairs, we often find innovative products that, however, do not find any or only a few consumers. This is not only a pity, but difficult for the industry, because the permanent development costs are at the expense of profit margins. I’ve heard of some manufacturers who are struggling with it. So, our lighting field has tools at hand that are looking for new fields of application. As mentioned before, as lighting designers we are, of course, closer to the users and their needs and can help to report to the industry and find out where new fields of application arise. We as LKL do this intensively, but always have to keep an eye on the project and its special requirements.
TiL: How are you addressing this problem?
Edwin: To keep the human in focus is a good idea presumed we keep an eye on the sense and benefits. Never use something just to make money – the benefits for people have to come first. Finding balance is key.
Laura: Coming back to office lighting and the work we do, we are now forced to deliver new solutions that we have no experience with because it is all so very new! We have to leave our comfort zone to establish something new. With open plan offices, the normal lighting planner’s response would be one blanket solution for the area, a high-quality lighting layer with no differentiation of areas and high energy consumption. With the digitisation and the intelligent – smart – lighting systems we have perfect tools at hand to balance light with the user needs. We just have to ask the right questions to find out about the actual needs for our clients to tailor our solutions for them.
TiL: Do you think standardisation in HCL would be beneficial?
Edwin: First of all, scientists need to be of the same opinion, which they are definitely not right now. Secondly, it is also dependent on projects and needs, balance of daylight, and it would need to measure compensation. We do have outline rules already, but I am not sure if they should be firmer.
Currently, there are hardly any aesthetically appealing solutions with HCL being created, because too much is planned too scientifically. If I could choose, I would rather anchor an atmospheric and an “intuitive” factor in the DIN. But I aware that the update of the regulations rather brings more numbers… but let’s wait and see.
TiL: What do you want to see change in the future?
Edwin: I return to the conflict of new opportunities and the missing customers. This situation is partly due to the natural inertia of our society; Meaningful technical innovations also need time in other areas, until they find widespread user acceptance. But this is also because we in our industry often jump directly to possible user scenarios, without critically questioning what benefit we actually generate for the human. Exploring and critically questioning the latter is the responsibility of our industry and, of course, we should do it justice. I hope for attentiveness and perhaps a bit more patience in dealing with the new technologies, and I wish that we not only put the human in the focus from a financial point of view.