Light fantastic

Ever since the environmental crimes of the incandescent light bulb condemned it to obsolescence, the search has been on for alternatives more acceptable than the mercury-filled compact fluorescent light and the light-emitting diode, both of them condemned for producing inferior and unappealing illumination.

Thanks to a trick of nature, there is such an option – albeit in its infant stages. If it is energy-efficient, earth-friendly lighting you want, it doesn’t come more organic than organic luminescence (OL), as witnessed at the tail-end of a firefly. After centuries of marvelling at such an alluring, spontaneous light source, scientists have now succeeded in replicating this natural glow and making it available at the flick of a switch, first for brighter television screens and now for the next generation of lighting.

Amazingly thin (less than 2mm thick) and flat, and with little heat dissipation, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) can be embedded into most materials with ease. The light they give is diffused and akin to the spread of warm sunlight.

“That gives designers almost limitless scope to mould and meld OLEDs into everyday objects, scenes and surfaces, from chairs and clothing to walls, windows and tabletops,” claims electronics company Philips, which is among the first to produce such lighting commercially. “As a result, not only could ambient lighting become an integral part of an object or building but also designers could use light itself to shape products and architecture.”

Although the technology is still expensive and in the early stages of development, Philips has just launched the OLED Lumiblade range. Because of its limited performance, it currently allows only for small, decorative work. Because of its experimental nature, the first product is a kit aimed at designers and architects.

The idea is that they might explore possibilities of the new technology by putting them to work in new and creative ways. Consumers should, however, be able to buy similar lights in 2012.

Leading the field in OLED uptake is 77-year-old German master lighting designer Ingo Maurer, who rails against the ascendency of the compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb, decrying its lights as “emitting a nauseating veil of sallow colours over their surroundings”.

Looking for alternatives and fascinated by unconventional sources, Maurer was one of the first in his field to dabble with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Now their natural alternatives are his passion.

Assured that these new technologies will provide superior, environmentally friendlier, superbly adaptable lighting for homes, designer Bernhard Dessecker, who has been working with Maurer since 1984, says there are several benefits: “They are lightness, airiness, and transparency. OLEDs are almost like floating light and fascinating because the modules are so thin and seem weightless. They don’t look like having the capability to generate light.”

In April 2008 he and Maurer released a world first – a branch and leaf-like prototype table lamp using 10 OLED panels supplied by manufacturer Osram. Only 25 lamps were made and the price to produce the lamp is in the thousands. Others toying with OLEDs include designer Elizabeth Clark, who has come up with an innovative lamp, the Nu Light, that allows users to mould it into different shapes. She used a bendable silicone skin with small OLED panels attached; because the panels do not get hot, the combination can be shaped without fear of scalding.

The Japanese, too, have long been involved in perfecting the new light source and recently electronics manufacturer Konica Minolta invited designers to come up with applications for the adaptable new lights, the panels for which they will put on the market next year.

Tokyo-based architect Yuko Nagayama produced a concept house where she uses OLED lighting to imagine a completely new living environment. Glass-walled inner spaces that contain gardens during the day transform into lighting sources at night. The prototypes she was shown that inspired her “Crystals of Light House” are transparent OLEDs buried in glass.

“So the possibilities are that you hide all your lights in glass panes that replace inner dividing walls, turning them on at night to generate bright ambient lighting,” she says. “Attaching the OLED panels to the walls allows us to hide and reveal the gardens and other rooms as we please. They can also be freely bent and curved, which made it very flexible for me to design the transparent partitions that surround the inner part of the house.”

Back in Europe, design studio Random International was commissioned by the Philips Lumiblade team to create an interactive light installation. What they produced was a type of mirror wall using OLEDs with a reflective finish. “You Fade To Light” allows the users to interact with the lit façade and demonstrates that such versatile lighting has an exciting future.

As Nagayama says: “Today our lighting design possibilities are limited. The introduction of OLED lighting will remove these limitations and allow architects and designers to more freely realise their ideas. We are going to see things we never thought possible.”

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