Bright Ideas : Labs Test the Special Effects of Light, Color

Associated Press

Life on Earth would be impossible without light. Yet, few people understand the proper use of light, and what little understanding exists is often based upon untested observations and prejudices.

However, lighting designers are beginning to systematically test their practices in the lighting laboratory. Though there are only a few such laboratories, their use is expected to grow.

One of the newest lighting laboratories is at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The lab was designed by Douglas Baker and opened in 1983.

Installed in a ceiling grid in the 1,800-square-foot room are examples of many of the lighting fixtures now available. The lights are run by a computer program (also developed by Baker) and can be used to demonstrate the differences between incandescent, fluorescent and high-intensity discharge lights.

Disturbingly Ugly

But a lighting laboratory is a far cry from a home or an office. A stark room with its ceiling open to reveal the type of electrical connections and mounting necessary for the various fixtures, the laboratory is almost disturbingly ugly. Panels of various textures and colors lean along the sides of the large barn-like room.

In one area, small boxes line a wall; each is covered with an identical piece of printed fabric, and a different type of light can be shone into each box to demonstrate the effects of light on colors.

Despite its lack of visual appeal, the room helps professional designers study the effects of light and design more comfortable, efficient and beautiful living and working spaces.

Two-Day Course

The lab is used to train design students at the school and is the setting for seminars for working professionals. Recently, for example, it accommodated working designers and architects in a two-day course presented by Alexander F. Styne, an industrial designer who is currently teaches lighting and color theory at the University of Miami.

Styne and the designers considered the ways in which what is currently known about human vision can be used to improve the lighting in public and private spaces. He told the designers that fluorescent lights and high-intensity discharge lights (such as metal-halide and high-pressure sodium lamps) are likely to become the workhorses of the future.

Incandescent light--with which we are most comfortable in the home--is too inefficient and expensive to continue as the lighting of choice in large spaces.

Closest to Incandescent

With the resources of the laboratory, the students were able to compare the effects of incandescent light with various formulations of fluorescent lighting within the same room. The demonstration indicated that, among the widely available types of fluorescent bulbs, deluxe warm-white fluorescent light most closely approximates incandescent light.

But Styne considers the "triphospher" bulb an even better type of fluorescent light. It has been manufactured under different trade names--such as "Ultralume." The bulb is widely used in Western Europe but is not well known in the United States, according to Styne. It is quite costly compared to other fluorescent bulbs.

The existing lighting laboratories (often on college campuses) have already helped experts establish some general lighting principles. These include the fact that good color rendition improves vision. Consequently, it is important to strive for lighting that enhances colors.

Colors Can Be Distracting

Another point is that an increase in the level of light can compensate for the progressive loss of visual acuity which begins to occur at about 20.

The human eye is always attracted to the brightest object in the field of vision. That's why some colors can be distracting in a room in which concentration is required. Advancing colors such as bright orange or red seem to leap out if they are used on walls. Even receding colors such as blue and green can have an advancing effect if they are very bright and appear against a neutral background of lower brightness.

One experiment concluded that rooms with cool-toned light cause people to underestimate room temperature and the level of background noise and to overestimate the size of the room. Under warm-toned lighting, however, people tend to underestimate the size of the room while overestimating the amount of background noise and the room temperature.

According to Styne, lighting affects us in practical ways. The rendition of color depends on the type of light source and background color. As a result, matching a dress purchased in one store with a pair of shoes purchased in another is chancy at best.

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