In the most soigne magazine spreads, and at designer show houses, hotels and major retailers all over the world, lighting has become much more than a footnote. It can be a tour de force. Thousands of pieces of porcelain flutter like birds from the ceiling to the ground floor in a multistory stairway, commanding as much attention as a Dale Chihuly sculpture. Feathery poufs stretch across a dining table, an ethereal glow within. Light shines through pastel glass lamps to create an enchanting scene.
Sometimes edgy and often brilliant, modern lighting designs go beyond lighting a room. About four years ago, the French brand Blackbody lit the way to innovation at the Maison et Objet trade show in Paris. An overhead constellation dazzled, in a sinuous composition of staggered-height OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes). It was unlike what designers had seen before, intended to be experiential. Then, in 2016, another installation showed the capabilities of bendable light, which was applied like irregular pieces of stone or wallcovering against a black ground.
Bolstered by such impressive installations, lighting has moved into the worlds of theater and even art. At the SOFA (Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design) show in Chicago in November, artist Anthony James created the 5-foot Portal, a polyhedron with 20 faces, fitted with LED tubes illuminating mirrors within, giving the illusion of infinity.
Even more conventional forms are elevated with staging. British designer Lee Broom set up his minimalistic light fixtures in a series of narrow spaces for effect; the Observatory collection launched at Salone del Mobile last spring in Milan. And in April, all design eyes will be on that show, because it's time for the biennial Euroluce, where the most innovative lighting will be introduced.
While LEDs have expanded creative tools for designers with their compact size and capability of changing color, a mixture of materials has broadened the range for more conventional lighting as well.
Tom Dixon has tapped into special production and finishing techniques, creating glass orbs that look like melting-hot blown glass and other iridescent pieces that appear to look like oil on water.
So, now, homeowners who want lighting that's directional, decorative and inspiring have plenty of choices in scale, height and width, with long horizontals and verticals. Materials range from warm and cool metals, which can be very architectural or sculptural in highly polished to matte finishes, to textiles and beads, shells and wood to crystal and glass, which offers a rainbow range of color and opacities.
YLighting, a catalog with the tagline "The Best in Modern Lighting," suggests that modern "isn't just about a look," explaining that "modern design ... pushes the boundaries of innovation and possibility, propelling you into new frontiers of technology, material and artistry."
Designers, of course, take their inspirations from a variety of sources, including fashion. When Martyn Lawrence Bullard debuted a new collection for Corbett Lighting at High Point in the fall, one stunning piece was a circle studded with metal and hand-blown glass flowers. His muse was Chanel -- namely, the silk camellias in the fashion designer's atelier, and the piece reflects his take on her whimsical elegance.
Bullard's collection includes aged beaten brass sconces that look like pea pods, fixtures covered in hand-blown Venetian glass butterflies flirting about a gilded metal frame, mid-century-inspired acacia shades on sculptural chandeliers that pay homage to similar designs from 1950s Italy, striking with the mottled wood finish paired with black and a touch of gold. Simple frosted globes in chic burnished brass take inspiration from '40s Parisian cafes.
"There's a very strong visual," says Bullard, "very sexy lines. I wanted to create this aged image -- like lights in a French diner where someone was smoking for the last 50 years. We managed to do it without the nicotine, just wax," he says, laughing.
Some of the smaller pendants, he says, would be great in a kitchen, where they may not be expected. "That's really what this collection is all about -- for designers, homeowners to create their own look within the fantasy."
Gold, paired with either black frames or white spheres, has been enormously popular, just like the appeal of this warm metal in other areas of home decor.
"I feel that lighting is like jewelry," says the Bullard. "It's a finishing touch. It sparkles in a room." In one frosted glass globe suspended in a gold framework, he sees a beautiful earring pendant.
Even the details on vintage crystal chandeliers may well be reminiscent of jewelry. A few years ago, chain mail was popular as a medium, lending a kind of punk rock vibe. Sea shells and beads lend themselves well to coastal or boho looks. Regina Andrew presented a similar look in painted wood beads, enchanting in a blush hue in drum or chandelier styles. But the beads took on a new hip attitude as a lampshade topping a squarish wood column base.
Los Angeles-based designer Windsor Smith riffed on a strapped bench that she had previously designed for Arteriors for a new table lamp. She repeated the gray suede straps and applied them to the base of a table lamp, which she topped with a simple white rectangular shade.
Another West Coast designer, Jonathan Browning, reached back to the '60s and '70s for his latest collection for McGuire Furniture, which he says pays homage to the brand's "quintessential California ethos." The Morro chandelier is visually light, with shapes of dandelions in antique brass and plated steel stems that flow out from a solid core, dotted with handmade porcelain spheres.
And Browning's Jalama pendant features hanging strands of vintage brown bottle glass, like those worn from sand and surf, that recall the eclectic doorway dividers once a mainstay in 1960s California.
Using sustainable materials also is a strong development in current lighting design. One Thai brand, Ango, employs rattan, cocoons, mulberry bark and metal filigree.
Another area poised for growth is that of acoustical lighting. Though designed primarily for office and hospitality spaces with materials that absorb sound, these innovative pendants and sconces are particularly useful in condos or apartments, as well as hotels.
Drama created by light is not a new concept -- think sound and light shows at historic monuments like the Pyramids or the Acropolis. But new technology, unique combinations, unexpected materials and refined finishing techniques are generating the wow factor today.
It may be a statement piece -- organic, sculptural or architectural, color-changing lights that add a new dynamic, textiles that celebrate tactility, materials that baffle sound, or synthetics designed for outdoor use that look so good, you want to bring them indoors.
With such an enormous variety, it may be a challenge to choose. Check out design magazines, blogs and retail catalogs for some insights. Here are some ideas on how to light up design:
-- Set an artistic tone with impact lighting in the foyer.
-- Take advantage of height in a two-, three- or four-story stairwell with lighting that can extend from the ceiling to the ground floor.
-- Try a sleek modern piece in a traditional setting -- like a light tube framed in gold, which will add a warm touch.
-- Go small for a big statement, perhaps ganging a trio of pendants at the same or staggered heights.
-- Use a long corridor as a canvas for two or three large-scale pendants.
-- Make a powder room memorable with lighting that reflects with glass prisms, crystals or polished metal
-- Ango, available through wakaNINE, www.wakanine.com, 512-284-9672
-- Artemide, www.artemide.com, 212-925-1588
-- BlackBody, www.blackbody.fr/en, New York showroom, 212-625-0050
-- Bover Barcelona, www.bover.es/en, 404-924-2342
-- BuzziSpace, www.buzzispace.com, 336-821-3150
-- Corbett Lighting, www.corbettlighting.com, 626-336-4511
-- Lee Broom, www.leebroom.com, 212-804-8477, available through YLighting or Lumens
-- McGuire Furniture, www.mcguirefurniture.com, 800-592-2537
-- Regina Andrew, www.reginaandrew.com, 734-250-8042
-- Roche Bobois, www.roche-bobois.com, 212-799-0090
-- Se, www.se-collections.com; in the U.S., through Atelier Gary Lee, 312-644-4400
-- Y Lighting, www.ylighting.com, 855-726-1962