Lighting focus: StudioFractal's MD Tim Downey on lighting integration and concealment

Integration is integral to a good lighting scheme. The MD of StudioFractal, Tim Downey, looks at the art of concealment

Edited by Jill Entwistle

Hidden Depths,
Tim Downey, StudioFractal MD

We believe, in most cases, that light is more important than the light fitting. Our most recent projects are examples of the use of light to help shape how we perceive space and form. For us this is an ongoing study into how light can transform the world around us.

This stems from our appreciation of the natural world in all its beauty throughout the 24-hour daily cycle. The interaction of light (sunlight, moonlight, starlight) and the material world around us is something we all constantly marvel at. In our own way, we have an opportunity with artificial light to help shape what we see. To do this, we try wherever possible to hide the light source so we only see light falling onto surfaces. Only where necessary do we celebrate the light source – when we either can’t hide it or we choose to celebrate a lighting feature as a deliberate part of the scheme.

The Clarges Mayfair development in central LondonThe Clarges Mayfair development in central London. Image Credit: Gareth Gardener

I’ve often said to my team we’ve done a job well when people exclaim at the architecture or the materials or the ambience – never the lighting. To the public, lighting should only be noticed once they’ve spent some time looking and when perhaps their curiosity gets the better of them and they start to look at the details. We can’t always do this, of course – everyday practicalities often make this impossible – but the following projects are good examples of what we can achieve when we’re able to let the light play a supporting role.

The Clarges Mayfair development in central LondonThe Clarges Mayfair development in central London. Image Credit: Gareth Gardener

In our recent Clarges Mayfair development in London, our client wanted to create a new grand house on Piccadilly that was both luxurious and intimate, using a huge selection of luxury materials and intricate, crafted detailing. We developed a carefully layered lighting strategy that involved a close collaboration with client, architect and interior designer to complement and enhance the blend of traditional and contemporary materials (including Portland stone, antique brass metalwork and sumptuous fabrics) used throughout.

The Royal Opera House had to balance natural and artificial lighting to help opera goers, restaurant guests and casual visitors appreciate the spaces, forms and materialsThe Royal Opera House had to balance natural and artificial lighting to help opera goers, restaurant guests and casual visitors appreciate the spaces, forms and materials. Image Credit: James Newton

Lines of integrated light accentuate stepped forms in ceilings and stone walls and provide discrete levels of illumination. Concealed accent lighting illuminates a curated art collection, and bespoke wall lights draw the eye and provide a rhythmic accent to the public spaces.

In a recent review of the project, it was noted by the client team that most of the illumination comes from concealed lighting. The managing agent commented that many of the new owners of the apartments have noticed the unobtrusive and understated lighting – usually on their second or third visit – and the relaxing feel this provides. Most of the apartments sold have retained the base build lighting and only added their own floor lights or table lights. In a market where wealthy owners demand individually designed apartments and think nothing of ripping everything out and starting again, it’s very rare for so many to retain the initial lighting scheme and just add their own personal touches.

The Royal Opera House had to balance natural and artificial lighting to help opera goers, restaurant guests and casual visitors appreciate the spaces, forms and materialsThe Royal Opera House had to balance natural and artificial lighting to help opera goers, restaurant guests and casual visitors appreciate the spaces, forms and materials. Image Credit: James Newton

The key to this success, I believe, has been the rigorous attention to detail applied from the client through the design team and to the construction team. Everyone was determined to achieve the highest standards. The plasterers and stone masons even snagged and rejected their own work to make sure the surfaces were perfectly smooth so that the light washing across ceilings and walls didn’t pick up any surface undulations.

Cove lighting installed at Clarges…Cove lighting installed at Clarges

With this project, and a recent scheme for the Grace Han luxury bag flagship store in London’s Mayfair, we were able from the outset to develop a strategy based on concealing the majority of lighting within ceiling and wall details. The early integration of lighting into the architectural and interior designs was key – it meant the design team could work the lighting into the scheme and think about how the details worked, what fittings to use and where to locate control gear very early in the process.

an example of slot concealment in the same venue. Image credit: Joakim BlockstromAn example of slot concealment in the same venue. Image credit: Joakim Blockstrom.

Another important element in this kind of lighting is the surfaces being illuminated. Layering indirect lighting is more subtle and results in higher luminance (surface brightness) but usually lower illuminance levels (lux levels on the floor plane). No-one wants the cove details to be large, so the smaller they are the more precise the detail needs to be to position the LED striplight within the detail so that sufficient usable light escapes. I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years – starting with fluorescent lamps – but the overall technique has remained the same while the scale of the detail gets smaller. A properly hidden source is paramount, and an important part of the lighting designer’s craft is explaining to architects and interior designers the effect of making details smaller: the lighting effect can be compromised. We always build scale models of lighting details and take them to design workshops so designers can see how the light behaves as the dimensions reduce. Many don’t realise that to hide the light source there are a number of ways of both designing the detail and positioning the light fitting that will give varying effects. Ceiling coves, wall coves and lighting integrated into joinery and furniture all require different details – and often different fittings – to achieve the right effect.

Another issue is that while LED light strips are getting smaller and smaller, the output is increasing, which means the LEDs themselves are becoming impossible to diffuse into the desired ‘line of light’. This results in reflections of individual LEDs in reflective surfaces – very often seen on polished floors under reception desks or in the glass jars and bottles in retail shelving, for instance. Once it’s there, it’s very hard to correct. Knowing how to create the detail, and resisting attempts to make it smaller or to install a cheaper light fitting, is key to the finished result.

The garden at London Wall PlaceThe garden at London Wall Place. Image Credit: James Newton

For the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a very large-scale project, the same approach to lighting had to withstand four years of challenges: from a very tight budget to a complex building programme that had to keep the opera house open throughout the refurbishment and, not least, the well-known attention to detail from the architectural team at Stanton Williams.

We understood very early we had to balance natural and artificial lighting to help opera goers, restaurant guests and casual visitors appreciate the spaces, forms and materials, and intuitively navigate throughout the complex interior spaces. We had to decide very early which surfaces we wanted to light, to help frame views into and through the spaces, and also to help contribute unobtrusively to creating a balanced ambience. In this case, we asked for and were able to construct a series of mock-ups to test lighting details having first modelled them in our offices.

An interesting element was using light to help create different feelings within each major space, and it’s a classic example of how visible and invisible light fittings work together. The main lobby had a lot of daylight, so we integrated tunable white linear lighting into the ceiling coffers to create a bright, welcoming experience that changes colour according to the time of day and when performances occur.

Stanton Williams wanted the new Linbury Foyer to be energising and more contemporary than the main auditorium foyers, so the lighting techniques used in this case are more visible and rhythmic. And while the new level-four restaurant and terrace overlooking the piazza has bespoke pendants to add an overt feature highly visible from across Covent Garden, there is a lot of concealed lighting doing most of the work – relying on the pendants alone would have made them too bright.

The Paul Hamlyn Hall was a later addition to our scope – and we didn’t have much of a budget to work with. This was a project where we couldn’t hide anything – the walls and ceiling were glass and the floor couldn’t be lifted, so we had to be very careful where we positioned lighting. We realised with some lighting trials we could rely on the multiple reflections from the glass – so we concentrated on highlighting the structure. There actually isn’t much light in there, but the reflections make it look much brighter.

A rather different proposition was a very understated garden in the middle of London at London Wall Place. We initially designed a comprehensive interior and exterior lighting scheme for two buildings, set in an acre of landscaped gardens that retained historic St Alphage Church ruins and a piece of the original London Wall. A significant part of the scheme was the recreation of a series of high-level walkways, connecting to the Barbican and allowing views across the landscaped gardens.

We were interested in creating a night garden, and wanted to understand how little light we could use that would still allow people to appreciate the gardens, navigate safely, but nevertheless get a sense of the tranquillity and solitude. Once our eyes are properly night-adapted, it’s amazing how much we can see by the light of the moon. We had an interesting palette of materials – metal, stone, concrete, water, foliage – and we wanted to develop a scheme that allowed the different textures and tones to be seen.

A hierarchy of concealed light sources was developed and positioned within architectural detailing, drawing the eye between historic and contemporary forms and materials. High-level wallwashing integrated within the building form creates a backdrop to the new structures and materials, drawing the eye across the project and into the interiors. High-level spotlights multi-task – providing plant health illumination, projecting gobos on to the walkway below, and illuminating the gently moving water feature. Warmer, low-level lighting directs pockets of brightness across the historic stonework, contemporary corten steel, GRC building columns and low-level planting and walkways.

Care has been taken to avoid glare and present illuminated surfaces against silhouetted forms, creating a playful and atmospheric series of spaces. Reflections of moving water activate sections of soffit, adding a sense of tranquillity.

The garden at London Wall PlaceThe garden at London Wall Place. Image Credit: James Newton

Both creating a nuanced lighting strategy that brings the project to life and getting the details right are the biggest skills a lighting designer brings to each project. Often the architect or interior designer already has some thoughts on the lighting, which is good because it helps get the conversation started. After considering the options and agreeing the right approach, we concentrate on getting the details right. We always try to integrate amenity and accent lighting into the project fabric because then the eye is drawn to the forms, spaces and materials. Only when these are correctly balanced do we look at what any feature lighting will add.

Getting the details right starts with collaborating with the design team, but usually ends with having the same discussion with the construction team. They have to build difficult details or try and get cabling and transformers into impossible spaces. Working with them, and being prepared to adapt our design to make life easier on site, is very important and often results in them helping find solutions to challenges. Getting the best result is almost always a team effort.

Key Concealment Techniques

Spots within ceiling troughs
Popular in retail, this allows directional lighting to displays or pools of light on the floor while keeping a cleaner ceiling. The slot needs to be exactly the right depth as a shallow recess will result in the fitting obtruding and spoiling the effect. Fittings also need to be carefully positioned so they light the intended target not the slot itself.

A similar effect to backlighting can now be achieved by using LEDs on the edge of a transmissive surface. Very effective on glass shelves in retail display to light merchandise with a soft glow.

An even diffuse glow emanating from fittings mounted within a recessed area at the foot of a wall immediately says high end. Ideal where ambient light levels can be kept low though levels are perfectly adequate. As with any concealed fitting avoid using on highly reflective surfaces where the luminaires may become visible by mirroring.

A concealed, indirect light source that provides a soft wash onto an adjacent surface requires experience to design and expertise to construct, but creates the best effect for the luxury feel of soft lighting.

Suspending a rectangular element beneath the ceiling level allows fittings to be concealed above and adds visual interest through creating a secondary level. Sometimes used to mount spotlights, they are more often used with linear LED sources to create a smooth, unbroken halo around the perimeter of the raft. Colour-changing can be used to vary the effect.

Backlit panel
Creating a uniform glow, backlighting Barrisol (around for 50 years, it’s probably the best known of the stretched ceilings) is one of the most common techniques. But whether fabric or glass, the key is the positioning of the light sources behind the diffuser. Originally fluorescent or cold cathode tubes, now most likely to be a grid of LEDs, the sources need to be of sufficient depth to create an even diffuse glow without hot spots.

Architectural elements
Concealing linear LED strips – particularly beneath seating, under steps and within handrails, for example – creates very attractive lines and washes of light, sculpting the space. The soft lighting is not only attractive but also functional. Even areas that are safety-critical, such as stairs, don’t need to be floodlit to within an inch of their life.

Active materials
These are an emerging range of products that emit light and can accept a data link, and so can be programmed to change in appearance. OLEDs, media panels, invisible LED mesh set into glass – it’s the future of lighting and beginning to emerge in high-end retail and brand-conscious interiors. Requiring less building work and offering the ability to convey branding messages, the cost is high, but will reduce as more manufacturers enter the market.

This is a recessed extrusion with an integrated light source behind a diffuser. It creates a crisp, contemporary look, and both an attractive feature and one that can be used for navigation, leading people through a space. Detailing is everything to achieve a flawless finish.

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