Let there be light...

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on May 31, 2021

Hang in there: It doesn’t cost money to light a room correctly, said Danish designer Poul Henningsen, but it does require culture   -  ISTOCK.COM

Ambarish Satwik   -  BUSINESS LINE

... of the kind that exudes a warm glow and hides the mediocrity of desi homes

It might be a bit impolitic to say this, but what distinguishes the homes of the bespokely travelled, art-enlightened, knowing, liberally educated top quintile isn’t their miscellany of vintage kilims, or the surfeit of house-plants or books, or the piano, or the art on the walls, or the laboriously curated assortment of found objects. And the charming cluttered-with-purpose bearing of it all. It is the light. Actually, the lighting.

There’s something about its flattering quality that the rest of us can’t manage. Something about its arrangement and effect. Austere, warm, slightly amber, romantic. In the right places. Makes one fall in love with the occupants.

There was a bald and bulbous-headed, resolutely unglamorous (thick-rimmed black spectacles and constantly dangling cigarette) Danish designer and writer called Poul Henningsen who once wrote a treatise about this. It doesn’t cost money to light a room correctly, he said, but it does require culture. He was a bit of a voyeur: “When, in the evening, from the top of a tram car, you look into all the homes on the first floor, you shudder at how dismal people’s homes are. Furniture, style, carpets — everything in the home is unimportant, compared to the positioning of the lighting.”

Henningsen, a self-taught inventor and architect, was obsessed with designs to shape light. From 1925 to 1958, in between writing critiques of Danish cultural life, designing pianos and making documentary films, he designed a series of luminaires that were subsequently called the PH lamps. A luminaire was a complete lighting unit — the lamp, together with the parts designed to distribute the light, and the other parts to position and protect the lamp and connect it to the power supply. He was particularly obsessed with the pendant lamp aka the hanging lamp and how his designs could cast light without subjecting people to a direct glare. Henningsen devoted himself to developing and perfecting a lamp that could create an even, mellow glow that could hold sway over people: Light that could create interest and a sense of space, some amount of drama and fix the gaze. It was the light of the campfire, of the glowing embers around which stories were told, but, strangely, without the direct glare, and hanging from above. The PH lamps were regarded as works of art, but more vitally, they provided a manifesto for a cultural rendering of good domestic Danish lighting. They became the new hearth fire: Beautiful and self-referential, but not more important than the light they produced. Apparently, now, about 30 per cent of Danish homes have one of these.

Cold white light of the naked tube light (high up on the wall) is the cultural rendering of good, domestic desi lighting practice. One hundred per cent of desi homes have at least one of these. White light, 5000 Kelvin and above, is the brazenly inquisitive light under which our domestic affairs are conducted. It’s the light we read and work by. But it isn’t a matter of pink being the navy blue of India. The fluorescent tube light was promoted largely by the government and given to us to save on electricity consumption. It was what households graduated to from the incandescent bulb, and then some moved on, in the later decades, to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). Ambient luminescence, for people on the subcontinent, meant that everything had to be seen clearly; there was no need for drama, or the establishment of visual hierarchies. The only requirement was to make the ambient levels of light sufficient to avoid any appearance of gloom. White light of the tube, for the expanding middle classes, became a culturally discrete scheme of energy use. In a tropical country, what need had we for the hearth fire? Light for us was the light of day, the sun on our faces, bright, reassuring, physiological. Even at night.

But, there’s a cohort that considers that warm yellow glow (Warm White at 3000 Kelvin of the LEDs) as the vaunted navy blue. White light, for them, is vulgar — the light of stultifying mediocrity and conformity. And so, the self-indulgent will do everything within their means to appropriate the conceit of Henningsen. They’ll construct the motif of candlelit, intimate hygge (a Danish term for a feeling of warmth and conviviality), found in native western narratives. They’ll create pools of light for leisure and food and conversation with table lamps and floor lamps and fairy lights. They’ll get high drama out of it, but also get surroundings that are cast into darkness.

The problem is that lighting design is a process. Specifically, it is the process of integrating light into the fabric of architecture. Mostly, in desi homes, where you’ll have a light is determined by someone else’s design sensibilities. What’s important is not just what makes the light, but which objects and surfaces receive it. Apparently, successful lighting design (of the PH kind) is to decide what you want to light first and then work backward to determine the solution. What that means is to design the space, fill in the furniture and then decide on the lighting coordinates. That’s a big undertaking, not to say big-budget and protracted. That might involve carving walls and ceilings and rewiring. It’s not just selecting luminaires that reflect your personality. And where will you hang that pendant lamp (of the flattering light) when all the ceiling fixtures are taken by fans?

So, we do the next best thing: fairy lights. It’s a bit like Philip Larkin saying, “I don’t want to take a girl out and spend £5 when I can toss myself off in five minutes, free, and have the rest of the evening to myself.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why Henningsen was wrong; that it does take money to light a room correctly. And it’s certainly not DIY. That’s also why we look up to the top quintile. Because they don’t seem like pathetic masturbators.

Ambarish Satwik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer


Published on March 01, 2019

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