Lighting up the world of design

Last updated 05:00 13/10/2013
Best design awards
The winner of the Gold Pin - retail environments, spatial award is The Pavilions. It transforms Auckland’s long-dormant Britomart into a desirable daytime destination.

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New Zealand is a nation built on light.

We are the first in the world to see it each day; Maori folklore suggests Aotearoa was once a world in darkness until Tane, god of the forests, forced his parents Rangi, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, earth mother, apart, flooding the world with light.

In fact, according to some translations, Aotearoa actually means "long, bright world", rather than the white, cloudy alternative

And all of a sudden, it seems, light is everywhere. On one hand, design magazines are overflowing with ideas and ways to dress a room up by dressing it down.

Lonely light bulbs are chic rather than shabby. Lampshades have been chucked out in favour of naked bulbs with wire coils that have been circled, looped and threaded decoratively inside oversized glass.

If you look at the winners in this year's Best Design Awards, light construction is exploding in a different direction, but with just as much force.

The awards, which were announced on Friday, are the annual showcase of excellence in graphic, spatial, product and interactive design, and this year lighting was a clear trend.

From thin, twisted, and wrapped wooden light shades from Minnow in Christchurch, Tim Webber's symmetrical switch floor lamp, and the contemporary chandelier from David Trubridge that creates patterns negating the need for wallpaper, the medium dominated across categories.

Inside Design's Shjaan Versey describes her work 'Undulatus' (named the gold pin winner in the designed objects, product category) as the "marriage of the changing form of clouds with a language of topography to describe an ambiguous form".

In layman terms, that translates into something like an illuminated sculpture that resembles both the skeleton of a cloud and a mountain range. Stretching the length of a boardroom table it was described by judges as demonstrating "creativity and inventiveness; intriguing the observer".

It needed to be practical - providing the main light source for the company's Wellington office - but also unique and ambitious. Constructed from materials including polyester drawing film and utilitarian bulldog clips, this isn't your average office display of long, flickering fluorescent bulbs.

"Light has an overwhelming ability to change the way you feel and the qualities of your surroundings. By changing the lighting it is very easy to completely change a space," Versey says.

"I love that light can be distilled to its most functional and essential aspects, or it can be the fundamental part of a sculptural feature. There is so much scope for exploring ideas.

"It is essential to any design. The way light plays off a design reveals the form, the texture, where you are drawn to. In an interior, lighting can enhance and define, and the reverse is also true."

Think about that for a minute. We change the colour of the lights illuminating Auckland's Sky Tower to mark occasions like royal births and causes like breast cancer.

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Supermarkets manipulate us into buying more with different techniques, like using crisp white light to draw shoppers to, say, fresh produce. Makeup is all about 'photo-flex' formulas, 'light right prisms' and other light-reflecting science.

We're told we need sunlight for Vitamin D, but not too much, otherwise we risk long-term skin damage. Invercargill calls itself the City of Light, while Nelson and Whakatane fight over who has the most sunshine hours each year.

New Zealand historian and editor of Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Jock Phillips says light has always featured heavily in New Zealand art and literature too.

In his 1940 essay The Deepening Stream, writer Monte Holcroft made light central to his philosophy, describing the scene at Lake Heron in the Canterbury high country: "I watched the colours change on the mountains across the lake, wondering at the depths that lie between the hard brilliance of noon and the tender drift of shadows in the dusk."

On canvas, painter Colin McCahon emblazoned thoughts of light across his work, including, "As there is a constant flow of light we are born in the pure land" and "Light falling through a dark landscape"; while Pat Hanly produced a series called Figures in Light.

Dave Dobbyn and Th'Dudes even sang a whole song about it; who hasn't sat around the BBQ on a lazy summer night screeching, "I'm walking in light, I'm walking in light, I'm walking in light"?

Phillips says historically, the light here has also been the talk of the immigrant community. Most 19th-century arrivals came from Britain, a land Phillips describes as awash with soft, gentle light, mists and black coal smoke from industrial factories that added to the gloom and haze.

Compared with New Zealand's crisp, clear light he says it was quite a change, and, to many, it still is.

"There is no doubt that both 19th-century immigrants to New Zealand and 21st-century tourists frequently commented on the quality of New Zealand light. Anyone who has got off the plane at Auckland Airport and looked around after being outside New Zealand for several months knows what they are talking about," says Phillips.

Scientist Ben Liley of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has the stats to confirm visitors aren't imagining it. He is part of a team based at the Lauder Atmospheric Research Station in Central Otago, where the air and light quality are second to none. Studies show air there is clearer than almost anywhere else it has been measured - comparable with that at 34,000m altitude on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, or in the Antarctic.

So we can prove the light in New Zealand is different, but why is it? Liley explains it's all down to the clarity of our air.

We have a lower concentration of aerosol, or atmospheric dust, which is about 100th of the diameter of a strand of human hair, than many other countries, especially in our rural areas.

The aerosol, along with soil, sand and sea salt on the coast, creates haze, making distant objects hard to distinguish and stars less visible in the city compared with the country; because our air contains less of it, the light tends to look sharper.

Liley says very clean air means the sky is a deeper blue, compared to the milky white haze often found in polluted areas. Low aerosol levels also mean shadows seem darker, while brighter colours 'pop', in part because of high levels of ultraviolet light that causes fluorescence from some surfaces - UV light in New Zealand is about 40 percent higher than at equivalent locations in Europe or the United States.

It's not something we can forget once we step out of the sun's gaze. Famed American architect Louis Kahn once described light as a building material, to be sculpted and used, its power often, initially at least, overlooked: "The sun does not realise how wonderful it is until after a room is made."

On, Australian architect and lighting designer Antony Di Mase recently mused on light's impact on the body.

"We may live in a virtual world of bright city lights, but our bodies still work on a continuous 24-hour cycle. In a building with ample natural light, people see and feel the rhythm of the day, the time of day, the weather patterns and a sense of season. The dance of daylight promotes human comfort and well-being," he wrote.

Wellington architecture group First Light Studio has cottoned on to the importance of natural light. The firm, made up of former Victoria University of Wellington students, formed to enter the Solar Decathlon in 2011.

In the biennial competition run by the US Department of Energy, solar-powered homes are designed, built and judged on criteria including energy balance, engineering, home entertainment, and architecture.

First Light Studio was the first entrant from the southern hemisphere and claimed third place. The design also won a New Zealand Institute of Architecture Award for International Architecture.

Eli Nuttall, the firm's architectural design coordinator, says when designing the award-winning house and those that have followed, light was everything.

"Light is the most important factor... We start every design by carefully considering the aspects of sunlight. Where is north? What obstructions to the sun are there, and what climate are we designing for? To us, this is the most important thing to get right when designing an energy efficient, liveable home. If we are smart about how we capture light, our houses can be warm, dry and really comfortable with minimal use of electricity."

Nuttall believes it's in the Kiwi DNA to seek out light spaces, but it pays to be subtle when designing with it in mind.

"People have a natural attraction to light and open spaces, lit passively by the sun. Artificial lighting presents great design opportunities to enhance our everyday lives, too. Many homes are over-lit by thousands of recessed halogens - but we take the opposite approach. We try and understand exactly the types of activities that are happening within a space and arrange lighting to suit. Often less is more."

Architect Guy Marriage, who plays a mentoring and advising role in the firm, worked in the United Kingdom for 10 years and agrees the way New Zealanders use light is markedly different to anywhere else in the world.

"We detail our houses with large windows and so have to deal with reflections off the ocean and around the house. In comparison, a traditional British seaside town, such as Dartmouth in Devon, will have small windows, often pointing away from the view - and the weather.

"We are a land of contrasts, bright and dark, versus the slightly more muted, washed-back light of Britain...but there are some truly great architects in New Zealand who deal with the building and the landscape at the same time, in an effect the Italians call chiaroscuro - the contrast between dark and light."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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