Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson finds illumination in the philosophy of a Finnish master of light and darkness.

LESS IS MORE – that old minimalist edict attributed to Mies van der Rohe – has certainly found expression in contemporary architecture and design. Clarity and simplicity of line and form, rooms uncluttered by daily detritus, colours muted or monochrome; these rules applied for decades, though the current mood for comfort, nostalgia and visual distraction is drawing us back to chintz upholstery and printed wallpaper. I had never previously applied that philosophy to lighting design, but now I’m increasingly persuaded. And that’s thanks to a conversation with Håkan Långstedt, CEO and owner of Helsinki based lighting consultancy, Saas Instruments.

The Finns know a thing or two about the importance of light – they are largely deprived of it for two months of every year. Långstedt says: ‘For us, light is a precious gift from nature, our source of wellbeing. But to master the light one must be comfortable with darkness.’

How very zen. But also, brought home to me quite powerfully when I had the chance to stay in a hotel lit by Långstedt. The Baro hotel is a deliciously low-key, quietly luxurious eco resort, which opened in 2022 an hour along the coast from Helsinki. Designed by architect Lena Weckstrom, there are 12 cabins (modular, timber-clad frames perched lightly on the land) set within a forest overlooking the tranquil sea that flows between the multitude of islands along the Finnish archipelago. The Saas team has placed the bare minimum of lights inside these dark cabins so that you are only aware of the forest view through the huge, plate glass window in front of your bed. There’s plenty of task lighting – two small reading lights either side of the bed, just bright enough wardrobe and cupboard lights and fridge lights to guide you around the storage and facilities, as and when needed. And one slender beam of warm, orange-toned light placed down one side of the main window, mimicking the way the sun catches the trees as it sets. As night falls, instead of finding yourself gazing at a dark, shiny surface – or at your own reflection – you find your view gently fringed by trees, leaves and branches.

This subtle but effective ethos runs across the entire site. Around each cabin, you can find your way easily thanks to lights that line the underside of the timber walkway – providing illumination enough to see where you’re going, while keeping the trees and the landscape very present.

Baro is a low-key and luxurious eco-resort that opened in 2022 an hour away from. Image Credit: Peter Lundqvist

Says Långstedt: ‘We have lighting under the paths but then always where you’re heading – the room – is lit so it becomes like a beacon. Using light for orientating is a really big thing in making you feel comfortable. You know where you’re going.

‘At Baro, there’s minimal light pollution, so we were very careful not to affect that. There are a couple of trees that we lit, but most of the lights are downward. So you get the darkness, you get the starry sky, you get all the effects you have in nature.

‘For me the starting point is always: what’s the use of the space? And, inspired by that, what are the different textures in the space you want to bring out? I also think about people – how do you look in the space and how do you feel in it? With Baro, nature is of course the major thing. So we emphasise the surroundings, but we do not light you. We keep you in the darkness and you would become an observer of all the things around you.’

Not everyone is comfortable with that degree of darkness, he admits. ‘Contrasts can become scary, so you need to do it in a very subtle and soft way. That means the transitions between dark and light are smooth and they feel natural.’

As for the inevitable sauna – which no good Finnish hotel would be without – this is a similarly tasteful, charred-wood clad cabin down by the water’s edge with its own large glazed wall overlooking the water. But how to create the necessary privacy, even when sailing vessels are floating up and down the waterways in the summer? Långstedt has taken care of that too: he has only lit the underside of the steps and the benches, not the people. In other words, you can sweat there in perfect privacy.

Långstedt’s artistry has made Saas a soughtafter consultancy for the most luxurious homes of private individuals as well as spectacular hotels and restaurants all over the globe – including Copenhagen’s remarkable Alchemist (more of a theatrical eating experience than a restaurant). There is also a range of lighting products, at the higher end, but available in many hardware stores, he tells me.

Image Credit: Peter Lundqvist

What’s his formula for the perfect scheme, I ask? He responds: ‘I think that lighting is about three different things: volume – how much of it you have – contrast and colour. These three are used in different ways to create a mood. When you succeed the most is when there’s a symbiosis between whoever’s going to use the space, the architects and the interior designers. It sounds super easy that the lighting should be on your side, but it’s not always the case. You know, you can do gorgeous and beautiful places and spaces, and ruin them with light, or you can take spaces that are not so good but still transform them with light.’

The worst thing, he says, is too much lighting and no control over how it’s deployed. He admits that, when he checks into a hotel, he often rearranges the lamps and lights completely until he’s satisfied. ‘It’s about comfortable contrasts. Generally, spaces become more interesting if there are dynamics between shadows and the lit areas. Which means you can find yourself a place that suits your mood. If you want to be in the light and read a book, you can find a place to do that. But if you want to relax and kick back, you find a good place in the shadows.’

As we transition through the darkest months of the year, I’m going to be putting all of this good advice to use.

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