Light becomes a furniture fixture

The light-emitting diode (LED) is trading a prosaic past in cheap watches and calculators for the good life in Swarovski chandeliers and cutting-edge furniture design.

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Despite colossal achievements in most areas of civilisation, it does seem extraordinary that the last breakthrough in the march towards cost-effective, more efficient lighting was back in 1962 with Nick Holonyak's LED (light-emitting diodes) technology.

"Though the word 'revolution' has been devalued by overuse, LEDs are only the third revolution in illumination technology since the dawn of fire," explains Mark Mills, a physicist and co-author of the verbosely titled The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005). "To crudely analogise: LEDs are the quantum equivalent of using a butane lighter instead of rubbing sticks to start a fire."

Despite the breakthrough, early commercial use of LED technology was hardly earth-shattering for the lighting movement due to their poor quality - although the cheap digital watch industry did rather well. Today however, the new generation is literally 1,000 times more effective. "High power LEDs are on the verge of being able to radically alter the entire lighting landscape with staggering improvements in both lighting efficiency and efficacy," predicts Mills.

Lighting designers tend to agree: "When blue LEDs were developed about five or six years ago it made an enormous difference to the scope with which you could work with them," says the American lighting designer James Clar, currently working with Traffic Gallery in Dubai. "Along with the existing red and green LEDs they completed the toolset for lighting design."

The knock-on effect of LEDs in lighting design has even been felt in the most traditional sectors of the industry with Swarovski attempting to break the monotony of the ubiquitous three-tier crystal confections that have been in favour for generations. Their annual Crystal Palace Collection collaborates with the world's leading contemporary designers to re-invent the chandelier as an art form.

The star of Crystal Palace 2008 was an installation by the designer Ross Lovegrove incorporating a chandelier and a table. Within its dining art space, the inverted chandelier appears to have melted through the ceiling to deliver three-dimensional light above and below the table while its crystals are reflected on the table's aluminium surface, reflecting their liquidity and light. Stunning - but far too awe-inspiring to eat dinner off.

The blurring of light and art is becoming a recurring theme with younger designers, many of whom are inspired by the work of Ingo Maurer, a German lighting designer who has been producing whimsical lit art for more than 40 years. Maurer's signature device is a light bulb with little white wings handmade from goose feathers attached to its metal base and incorporated into wall lights and chandeliers on the ends of twisted metal rods. These Lucellinos, as he calls them, appear to flutter about like birds or tiny cherubim. The designer was also called upon to design a giant, gleaming snowflake of steel, light and crystal that has hovered over the intersection of New York's Fifth Avenue and 57th Street during Christmas's past and was joined this year by a twin in London's Knightsbridge.

Although critics may argue that Maurer's work is less art and more high-end kitsch, there's no denying his experiments with new technologies have yielded some gorgeous objects melding lighting design and furniture. "Bench" is exactly that - albeit made of plate glass and embedded throughout with wireless LED lights that sparkle like stars reflected on water.

Maurer has also created wallpaper with built-in circuitry and LEDs as has fellow designer, the Dutchman Jonas Samson. The wallpaper slowly changes colours and patterns to mesmerising effect.

Sotirios Papadopoulos is another designer fusing light and furniture with his Full Moon console table. Coated with ELI (Eco Light Inside), an eco-friendly material developed by the designer, it creates a realistic, glowing effect when the lights go out - for added va-vroom it is delivered with an accompanying CD of music designed specifically for the Full Moon.

Going back to his roots, this month also sees the launch of -Papadopoulos's Gamma Ray light, which will glow in the dark for eight hours after it is turned off.

But even if the lighting cognoscenti are ready for furniture that does double-duty as a lighting system, are the rest of us?

Clar thinks so: "People want to see crazy cutting-edge lighting design and they have become far more accepting of electronics. For instance, 10 years ago no one would have a clue what to do with an iPhone but now most people could find their way around one. It will be the same with electronic art and design."

It may be some time before most of us find our way around the technology of Kunal Kushor of the -Dubai-based designers Born Unequal. With a Masters in electronic engineering and robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - alma mater of no less than 26 Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry - Kushor just wanted to go into lighting.

"After I graduated I came to Dubai and had a few friends working in residential interior design," he recalls. "They were buying extremely expensive chandeliers but they seemed so big and dull. I felt there was a lack of innovation in the industry so I decided to design one myself."

The result was a concept Kushor calls "a cocktail of art and light". Crystals, spotlights and LEDs come together alongside robotic technology so they move and change their shape. In the Dipti lighting series, the Amorphous chandelier has the ability to change its orientation up to several dozen times creating a -series of flowers, stars and arcs.

"They are the first chandeliers in the world with the ability to do this," states Kushor, explaining the simplicity with which their owners can programme in different sequences with the simple touch-screen remote. He's even done a similar installation at floor level with his -Crystal Garden, suitable for anyone with the odd 20m x 20m spare space waiting to be filled with ever-changing blooms and sunbursts. According to Kushor, dynamic lighting is the future. "I'd like to think that within five to six years people can have lighting throughout their home that changes with their mood - why should it be static when it doesn't have to be?"

Not surprisingly, it's difficult for Kushor to explain his technology in layman's terms but suffice to say it's a smorgasbord of latching, rotating, spring cables and linear slides - with up to 600 motors and activators used in each installation. He's currently working on lighting with butane so a fire appears to float within the installation. "The crystals present in three dimensions, so they can appear to be suspended. Just like the candles that float in mid-air in the Harry Potter movies - this technology can do the same."

The Portuguese-based designer Beau McClellen has also used robotics in his chandelier for a client in Qatar. When unveiled later this year, at a staggering 64 metres long, it will be largest in the world. Fashioned into a gorge with a "river" of light running through it, the chandelier's small robot runs along the inside to remove any exterior dust - relief indeed for anyone who might have otherwise been summoned to clean it.

McClellan describes himself as a designer working to change the focus of the lighting industry through the implementing of LED technology: "I'm a fan of LEDs not only because they are more efficient than typical light sources, but from a design point of view they are small, lightweight and powerful," he says.

He's not alone. At last year's LightFair International 2008 in Las Vegas (no stranger to a chandelier or two) LEDs were the talk of the event. The message from its key-note speakers was that the solid-state lighting technology that was cutting-edge a few years ago is now approaching mainstream status - a fact borne out by LightFair's Innovational Awards programme where almost 45 per cent of the new products involved LEDs.

Clar feels that the UAE is the perfect vehicle for taking cutting-edge lighting outdoors as well as in. "You can do some incredible lighting around the architecture here; it's the perfect backdrop." Like many lighting designers (McClellan included), he has a background in film. "One of the key ideas that struck me when I started to get into media theory is that as you look at light your brain is interpreting it as shapes and colours. Over time these are combined to become storylines that begin to evoke an emotional response. That's a powerful tool."

Clar feels it is the job of a designer or artist to think outside the common structure. "I am observing everything that is around me and am trying to develop a new way of looking at things. The possibilities with light are just so much more than what is being produced today."

One of Clar's latest projects is the development of a lighting design with a sensor that can measure carbon dioxide output from cars. "The idea is to put it on the highway, and then as cars pass by they will help form installations that change with the emissions from every passing car - it sounds crazy, but we have the technology to do it - it can happen."