Beyond the Bulb: All About Lighting Design History

March 12, 2024

Take Away

Modern lighting has come a long way, which is crucial because it plays such an important role in our daily lives. Few things have proven as transformative as the invention of modern lighting, but before the illumination that we currently enjoy, every era developed its own systems. In this article, we are exploring lighting design history. Let’s take a look at where lighting has been, and how it impacts building and architecture today.

Ancient Lighting Design

One lighting expert has said, “Light is a very flexible material where often we don’t even know if it exists or not. Research in a field like this never ends.” In ancient times, humans used their ingenuity combined with the natural resources around them to light their spaces. Dependent on natural light and then fire, ancient civilizations maximized daylight and made advances in fire as the earliest introduction to lighting design.

Prehistoric Era

In prehistoric times, lighting would have been primarily dependent on two sources: fire or natural light. Fire played a crucial role in not only light but also warmth for humans. The fire was used for cooking and heating but also, importantly, for light after dark. Natural light, such as sunlight and moonlight, also played important roles. During the day, sunlight would illuminate the surroundings, which allowed people to engage in various activities like hunting, gathering, or playing. Moonlight was softer and less intense, but allowed for navigation at nighttime. Prehistoric humans were also known to use a variety of materials to enhance the efficiency of their lighting source. Everything from torches made from sticks to bones wrapped in animal fat could be used to create a brighter and longer-lasting flame. 

Medieval and Renaissance Lighting Design

In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there were several notable advancements in lighting design. Various sources of candlelight, chandeliers, and more creative use of natural light were all explored.

Candlelight and Chandeliers

Candlelight played a huge role in lighting during this period. They were mostly made from tallow or beeswax, with the latter often preferred because it created a cleaner and brighter flame. You could normally find candles in households, churches, or other public spaces. Candleholders were normally made of metal or wood, which provided stability and protection from the flame. The invention of the candle was a game-changer for lighting since it meant that illumination was now portable. The increased flexibility that candles offered gave people many more options for the daily activities that made up their lives.  Chandeliers and candelabras were often seen in monasteries and castles, and these fixtures became symbols of wealth and status. Ornate chandeliers were designed for lighting larger spaces and became a prominent signal of status in larger homes. These fixtures were typically suspended from the ceiling and they would hold multiple candles or lamps, and were mostly made from materials like metal, crystal, or glass. It was important to be able to provide enough space in large spaces, and these fixtures made that possible.

Natural Light in Gothic Architecture

In Gothic architecture, natural light played a more prominent role, particularly in the design of cathedrals and churches. Gothic structures often featured large stained glass windows that allowed sunlight to filter through and create a captivating and colorful scene inside. Many times, these windows were adorned with intricate designs and showed various religious scenes. They added a spiritual and awe-inspiring element to a religious space. It became more popular to try and create this sort of special atmosphere in other buildings as well, as people were intrigued by the connection between the earthly and the divine.

Baroque and Rococo Lighting Design

In these periods, lighting design became even more elaborate and opulent. The introduction of ornate candelabras and advancements in oil and gas lighting played crucial roles.

Candlelight and Candelabras

You could find candles and candelabras mostly in palaces or mansions. They tended to take on a more prominent role, used not only for lighting but also to show extravagance. Made from things like bronze, crystal, or porcelain, they often featured intricate designs and embellishments.

Introduction of Oil and Gas Lighting

These periods witnessed some of the more important advancements in lighting, including the transition from candles to gas lamps. Oil lamps, like those used in ancient civilizations, were reintroduced and improved upon. They featured more refined designs with elegant glass or metal reservoirs and decorative bases. The use of oil as a fuel provided a steady and adjustable light source, which created a more reliable source of controlled lighting than ever before.

Industrial Revolution and Electric Lighting Design

In this era, lighting design underwent its most dramatic transformation with the advent of electric lighting. We also saw several new artistic movements like Art Nouveau, and gradually revolutionized the way that humans interacted with light.

Introduction of Electric Lighting

The invention of the incandescent bulb by Thomas Edison in the late 19th century paved the way for an entirely new era of lighting. Electric lighting was completely new, but it offered a brighter and more reliable source of illumination than all the options before it.

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Lighting

The introduction of electric lighting happened to coincide with some artistic movements, like Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Art Nouveau lighting fixtures embraced organic motifs with floral designs and curvilinear features. Light fixtures were often made from materials like glass, wrought iron, or bronze, and showcased intricate craftsmanship. Moving into the 20th century, the sleek and geometric designs of Art Deco became popular. These designs embraced a more streamlined and modern aesthetic with geometric shapes, metallic finishes,  and more luxurious materials.

Modern and Contemporary Lighting Design

In the second half of the 20th century, we saw incredible improvements in lighting technical advancements. We have seen a diverse range of styles and approaches, including the influence of each of the elements below. 

Mid-Century Modern Lighting

The Mid-Century movement places an emphasis on functionality and simplicity in lighting design. The use of new materials and technologies, such as fiberglass or various plastics, became more prominent and offered manufacturers more flexibility in production. Some of the more iconic designs from this period included organic and geometric shapes, natural elements like wood or glass, and an intentional balance between form and function. 

Minimalism and Architectural Lighting

Minimalism is another influential movement in the lighting industry. This design emphasizes clean lines and unobtrusive lighting fixtures. The goal is to create a sense of calm and clarity within a space, with a focus on reducing visual clutter. Around the same time, the integration of lighting into architectural elements has become more prominent. Designers know how to use design and new technology for energy efficiency,  versatility as well as aesthetics. Lighting is no longer an afterthought in architecture, but a component that is approached thoughtfully as part of the total project.

Interactive and Dynamic Lighting

Finally, we have entered a phase of smart lighting systems and highly controllable technology. Lighting design is incorporated into immersive experiences and interactive environments, while dynamic lighting effects can enhance the overall mood in a space. Interactive lighting has become increasingly popular in modern design and allows users to adjust color, intensity, and more to personalize their lighting environment. In our modern age, we can expect more technological advancements to make lighting an even more dynamic part of the spaces we create.