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Confessions of a lighting junkie

by Steve McKee on June 23, 2010

It has happened that I’ll be at a party at someone’s home and notice that they’re not taking full advantage of their lighting scheme, so I’ll take the liberty of adjusting some of the light switches to bring up some accent lights on this wall or that. I should mention that I only do this every once in a while (so I don’t seem like too much of a weirdo) and usually only at the homes of former clients whose lighting scheme I helped design with them. Two seconds effort sliding a dimmer switch and suddenly artwork comes to life and the room is now a richer place.

I guess I dig lighting. Big effects can be had for not big money. Parties that I host at my own house are usually pretty average when it comes to food and drink, but you can be quite sure that I’ll have pretty decent music on at just the right volume and, of course, mood lighting will be doing its thing.

In my dorm room at UCLA I remember changing out the bland institutional light fixture at the center of my dorm room for a chandelier that my roomie and I had found at a salvage place (complete with “tear drop” bulbs and beveled glass accents. Fairly kitschy, but all the more fun.) I used a screwdriver and needle-nose pliers to change the light-switch to a dimmer while the wires were hot. (It simply wouldn’t do to tell the building manager what we were up to. “Please sir, could you shut off the power to the seventh floor for just a little bit so I can mess around with the wiring?”) It made for two or three zappy moments for me, but the end result was worth it. My roomie Stuart dubbed our room “The Last Bastion of Chivalry and Fine Living.” I still sort of miss that guy.

In grad school I once again put my lighting hypersensitivity to good use.

We architecture students were divided into six different groups who then spent many weeks designing a project together that would then be presented using a slide show and some printed material. The panel of professors would need to look at this printed info periodically during the slide show. Because the classroom had no windows, the lighting in the room needed to be dim enough so the slides were visible but bright enough to allow the written material to be read.

My group was going to present our scheme on one of the last days, so I got to watch group after group go on before us and never get the lighting right. Each group either had the room lights on (which made it too bright to view the slides very well) or they had the lights off (which made it necessary for the professors to try and read the handout using only the dim light bouncing off the wall from the slides.) Months of hard work had gone into these projects and they were not even being fully seen at the critical moment. I guess it didn’t occur to anyone in these first groups to try to solve this problem.

That blew me away. These were students of architecture who were supposed to take the lead in finding solutions to make buildings more livable, yet were so clueless as to not even notice or care about the reality of what was happening in front of them.

The evening before my group was to present, I visited the room and took two minutes to jump up on a desk and aim a row of four or five small spotlights away from the front of the room to instead bounce off the back wall. (These were small fixtures designed to be aimed about as needed.) By switching on only these spotlights the result was perfect – a dim wall in front that would allow our slides to show perfectly, and a light source glowing from the back of the classroom that would give just enough light to let the professors comfortably read our written material.

And that’s how it went down. We had a good scheme and it showed great. We got great comments and were awarded a grade of “A plus.” (In the interest of full disclosure: “A plus” is really not all that hard to get in grad school.)

I’m not even sure if anybody overtly noticed the change in lighting I had created for our presentation, or if they remained as blithely indifferent to such nuance as always. Indeed, the group that presented after us ended up showing their scheme with all the lights on and their slides all bleached out. I think that pretty much says it all.

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