Technology Profile – Lighting
The New Lineup
linear lighting goes beyond eye-catching details to enable the most progressive vision and wellness strategies.
By David K. Warfel, CEL
LINEAR LIGHTING IS EITHER the best new way to illuminate — or the worst. The difference comes down to your design. From 1950s neon-filled drive-ins, to 1970s fluorescent-lit offices, to 1990s fiber optics, to 2010s cheap LED tape light, linear lighting has been good, bad and ugly. Now it is essential.
I started my architectural lighting design career with a project in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Long since dismantled, the exhibit of rare timepieces held everything from a Pompeiian sundial to an atomic clock. Within the base of the sundial were multiple runs of the most cutting-edge linear lighting solution of the day: glass fiber optics. Their light slowly changed color and pulsed as the sundial rotated in its shortened 24-hour cycle. And buried into a carefully crafted steel channel along a slowly rising metal ramp was the other linear lighting solution of the era: linear low voltage festoon lamps.
Fiber optics were ridiculously expensive and tricky to install. Linear low voltage systems had thousands of tiny bulbs prone to burning out and leaving dark spots and famous for extreme electricity draw. But the exhibit looked pretty cool, and that was the point.
Today’s designer has a much broader palette of linear tools at their disposal and just as many new reasons to use them. Linear lighting goes beyond eye-catching details to enable the most progressive vision and wellness strategies.
We can effectively eliminate shadows on kitchen counters with linear lighting. We can illuminate entire spaces with zero glare with linear lighting. We can reduce the risk of falls for our elderly parents with linear lighting. We can trigger circadian responses with linear lighting.
We can clean up ceilings with linear lighting. We can make stone and brick and tile look their best with linear lighting. We can discretely illuminate traditional details with linear lighting.
In short, linear light can help us live happier and healthier lives. It can also be ugly and distracting. The difference? Technology . . . and design.
Design is the thoughtful, intelligent application of linear light, yet design is nothing without good tools. Sorting through the myriad of linear products and weeding out the poor technologies can be a full-time job. How do you know good products from bad?
ONE OF THE EARLIEST LINEAR LIGHTING TRICKS WAS NEON, WHICH HAS SINCE BEEN REPLACED WITH LINEAR LEDS ENCASED IN SILICONE AS SHOWN HERE. BUT LINEAR GOES BEYOND THE BLUE LINE… IT’S THE WARMTH AT THE ENTRANCE AND THE GLOW BEYOND THE MACHINE-CUT STAINLESS STEEL SIGN.
DESIGN BY LCHY,
PHOTO BY MIKE HEINIGER.
Linear lighting has been a niche category for decades, since neon gasses were first electrified in glass tubes. The saturated colors and bent shapes lent themselves well to outlining details and buildings, and before long everything from gas stations to hotels to restaurants were edged with neon tubes. This was perhaps the first recognizable major landmark in the development of linear lighting and it established the product as flashy, bold, and even gaudy. Now that LEDs allow us to do the same effects for lower cost and higher reliability, the neon-like aesthetic has returned to many commercial and hospitality projects, but most would never consider this approach tasteful or refined.
Technological advances are not always universally loved. Our next communal association with linear lighting likely came from the linear tubes of fluorescent light that graced offices, homes, and stores for decades. And still do. For many, fluorescent is the most hated, most reviled light source, and this negative association might carry over into all linear lighting. We are happy to leave fluorescent behind us, but the first linear LED sources that came into the market did little to assuage our fears.
Early LEDs, such as the low-cost color-changing product most commonly referred to as tape light, typically had exceptionally poor color quality and limited uses. This changed dramatically when high quality white LEDs hit the market. Now linear lighting is used “anywhere and everywhere” according to Jennifer Kirkpatrick, American Lighting’s National Sales Manager, Residential. “Linear lighting has made huge strides in the last 10 years and can literally be used just about anywhere.”
The rapid technology advance in LEDs brought linear lighting to the forefront, in part due to its extreme flexibility. “The sky is the limit and linear lighting can be customized to fit any application,” Jennifer told me. That’s no surprise. Our team has a standard details sheet with twenty-five custom details made possible only with linear LED lighting. We bury light into cabinets and steps, but also shelves, beams, crown molding and coves. We incorporate optically controlled LEDs in uplighting stone walls and grazing down textured surfaces and cascading down tile in showers. Silicone optics embedded on every LED chip allow us to curve around columns while projecting light 10, 20, and 30 feet in height. Chip-on-board (COB) products are just hitting the market that completely eliminate the individual LED diodes and provide a true continuous line of light. The sky is the proverbial limit and these products are perfect for creating a virtual sky.
LEDS CONTINUE TO BE THE BEST SOLUTION FOR DRAMATIC COLOR AS SEEN IN THIS PHOTO FROM COLORBEAM LIGHTING.
WAC LIGHTING’S NEW STRUT SYSTEM.
linear lighting goes far beyond tape light
The technology revolution has also brought us an ever-expanding array of linear products that combine the flexibility of yesterday’s track lighting with the sleek lines of LEDs. WAC Lighting just released a major new product line, STRUT, that has a low-voltage backbone and a series of components that can be added and subtracted as desired. Need a linear pendant with uplighting to bounce off the ceiling? STRUT does that. Need a downlight to illuminate a space? STRUT does that. Need an adjustable spotlight for art? Need to flood a space with light? Need a pendant over the island? Want it to be suspended? Surface-mounted? Recessed into the drywall? You get the picture. The extreme flexibility of these new systems goes way beyond track, tape, or any previous system.
I have heard many designers say “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” when it comes to technological marvels. Why should we use these new tools? Because we’re designers.
“If you think of architectural lighting in its most basic form,” WAC’s Brand Ambassador Thomas Wang told me, “you can reduce designs into lines of light or dots of lights.” In that statement I heard something else: that if you think of architecture in its most basic form, you can reduce designs into lines and dots.
Our team was recently presenting lighting concepts to an architect for a very modern home. The home is expertly designed with clean modern lines (yes, lines) and bold geometric shapes. Yet all over the ceiling of this home, if we stick to traditional lighting methods, would be pockmarks of recessed lights. Is that really the best solution for this kind of design? Or would a home designed with clean lines be better served by clean lines of light?
LINEAR LIGHTING CAN EVEN MAKE A FLAT DRYWALL CEILING MORE INTERESTING, AS WE DID IN THIS CONDOMINIUM. LINES OF LIGHT VISUALLY SEPARATE THE SEATING AREA AT RIGHT WITH THE DINING AREA AT LEFT. AND JUST FOR FUN, LINES OF COLOR-CHANGING LIGHT CIRCLE THE EXPOSED CONCRETE COLUMNS.
DESIGN BY LCHY,
PHOTO BY ALLEGRO HOME.
“Linear lighting naturally ties into most architecture with lines of illumination to compliment the straight lines used in architecture. Walls illuminated by linear lighting have minimal breaks in the light and we gain more of a feeling of openness.” Thomas pointed out that wall washing and grazing with linear lighting can add entirely new feelings to a space and that without the dark/light contrast from multiple spotlights, our minds move from a concrete sense of depth to a more expansive view of space. To put it more simply, linear lighting can help our spaces feel, well, more spacious.
I was giving a presentation to lighting professionals a year ago on the topic of linear lighting when a participant raised their hand. “Linear seems fine for modern homes, but do you ever use it in traditional homes?”
When I replied that we typically use far more linear lighting in traditional homes, he was surprised. The wine cellar pictured here would not have been possible before linear LED technology advanced to include great color quality and smooth dimming. There is one single visible fixture in the photo, a recessed spotlight for the art. The rest of the space is 100 percent% linear lighting. Now, if I could, I would go back and upgrade that recessed downlight. The linear? It’s doing just fine.
OUR TEAM USES MORE LINEAR LIGHTING IN TRADITIONAL HOMES THAN MODERN.
DESIGN BY LCHY, PHOTO BY MIKE HEINIGER.
a better line, a better life
Our use of linear lighting goes well beyond wanting to stay on the cutting edge of design. Linear lighting is always a key component of living well.
In the introduction to this series of articles I claimed that light can help you live a better life by designing with what we call the five promises of light: light can help you do better, know more, feel better, focus clearly, and adapt to changes easier. Delivering all five promises takes a nuanced and layered approach to lighting design and a full toolkit of modern technologies. Linear lighting delivers in all categories.
EVEN THE SIMPLEST OF HOMES CAN BENEFIT FROM WELL-DESIGNED LINEAR LIGHTING. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY WE UPGRADED THIS FARMHOUSE KITCHEN. WE DID IT FOR A BETTER LIFE.
DESIGN BY LCHY, PRODUCT BY AMERICAN LIGHTING, PHOTOS BY LCHY.
Take the simple farmhouse kitchen above, originally illuminated with 4-inch recessed downlights and warm white undercabinet lighting. We re-lit the kitchen for one simple reason: to explore how linear lighting could help the residents adapt to their advancing ages. Linear lighting replaced all the recessed downlights and provided twice as much light for half of the electrical usage. But the biggest win was a much more even and shadow-free illumination throughout. Upper cabinets were better lit. Countertops had no shadows. And toe kicks provided navigation aid at night to reduce the risk of falls.
Great lighting is no longer measured simply by how small the recessed lights are and whether or not you have cove lighting. Now we know much more about human biology and psychology and use light to support happier and healthier lives, as discussed in the Spring 2020 issue. In nearly every photograph we’ve used in this series, there have been three constants.
Linear lighting, technology and design.