The Art of Lighting is a Science. The Science of Lighting is an Art.

by | Oct 28, 2020 | News

The title of this article was taken from a presentation by Gerry Zekowski, a former IES President of the Chicago Section. I attended his presentation in 1986 and was captivated by the way he spoke of the art and science of lighting.


Light itself is best described as science. A stunning sunset is not art; it is natural science interpreted as art by humans who wish they could accomplish it. But this article is not so much about light – it is about lighting. Lighting is done by humans, an intentional act that applies light to accomplish an intended outcome. And because lighting for all intents and purposes is created using electricity, I will keep this simple and assume “lighting” means electric lighting since the late 19th century.

Lighting began as a practical necessity. It is the one of the earliest and still the best known of the uses of electricity. With omnipresent electricity, interior space is lighted as and when needed. Electric lighting enables buildings of enormous interior space with no access to daylight, making interior living, working, commerce and religion possible. It extends the daytime hours making for longer and more productive days, especially in winter. It provides light for activities of all kinds at night and adds security to streets and walks. Driven by practical demands, the lighting industry was born and grew rapidly. In only a century, lighting became commonplace, inexpensive, practical, safe, reliable, flexible, useful, necessary – and often, appealing, and occasionally beautiful.

At first, it was probably believed that lighting design involved designing the luminaires themselves. They are the “jewelry of architecture(1)”, as important in scale, style and detail as any other part of architectural design. Originally using candles, decorative practical lighting such as lamps, sconces and chandeliers became an industry in which artists designed luminaires guided by engineers and craftsmen to safely hold increasingly hot light sources. In the early 20th century, luminaires became an industrial art form of their own. No longer confined by the problems and dangers of flame, thousands of products for all situations emerged, creating a new design opportunity for architects, interior designers and engineers. While mostly the products of necessity, to this day I employ timelessly superb designs like the Holophane industrial glass reflectors and the RLM “barn” lights.

Some architects designed luminaires themselves to be certain that they were the right “jewelry” for their project. I often think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple where I was once the best man for a friend’s wedding. I relate especially well to the collections in modern museums because stylish electric lighting became commonplace about the start of the modernist period in art and architecture. I like looking at decorative lighting catalogs and websites as much as anything else I do.

Arguably, theaters and other performance venues were among those who immediately seized the science of electric lighting for its convenience and relative safety, and in the hands of set designers and technicians, its use in performance spaces quickly expanded. In his profound 1932 book, A Method for Lighting the Stage, Stanley McCandless described using light itself to achieve dramatic purpose, explaining technology and design skills that serve today as the basis of lighting design in architecture as well as for the stage. Many of the pioneers of architectural lighting design cite McCandless as their inspiration. But I think the idea started earlier. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, lighting was the star, creating night environments on a  scale and in manner that illustrated the potential impact of lighting. The 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition was noted for its use of floodlighting of buildings, an important departure from marquees and strings of lights. Like other forms of art, the practice of lighting design today combines and interprets the evolved theories and practices of lighting design with the almost unbelievable advances in lighting technology and technique.

Fast forward to present day, we enjoy dramatic improvements in lighting technology and efficiency that in turn permit lighting designs and effects. A simple example comes from McCandless, who first explained the use of using color temperature to evoke mood and exaggerate depth. What he might think about a single luminaire that could change color temperature from a dial! I think today’s lighting designers are a lot like McCandless. The challenging mix of architecture, physics, electricity, interior design, drama, three dimensional space, the feelings and emotions light arouses, revealing day and night, directing the viewer’s attention and perception, providing color and warmth, allowing adaptation from light to dark, driving focus, and as we now know, delivering key health and wellness to both the living beings in the viewshed as well as to the viewer. Lighting design is among the best practical pursuits that appeal to the Renaissance personality, who like Leonardo da Vinci are excited by both the art and science of their work.

Whether we knew it or not, lighting has always been a dance between art and science. Science enables and provides lighting within the limits of the day. Art reflects the culture and expectations of society and lighting. One example of this dance is The National Lighting Bureau’s new awards program, the Art & Science Awards. The Art Award focuses on key aesthetic design achievements, while the Science Award is for important technical achievements. Mary Beth Gotti is the chair and the NLB will launch these awards late this year.

Architecture and design – each both an art and science – are the musical score for lighting. Like dancing, lighting design involves society and its issues. Who leads and who follows? For this music, are we to be graceful? Fun? Athletic? Sophisticated? Are we happy? Serious? Conservative? Flamboyant? Ballroom? America’s Got Talent? Or is it impromptu and freeform(2)? So many ways to dance, realizing that the point is to dance and how is a choice, the style and method driven by many other factors.

Unlike dancing, though, lighting is also environmental and persists long after the premier performance. Together over the last 50 years we have learned to improve lighting and to significantly reduce its energy use(3). But while less scary than climate change, light pollution affects all forms of life as well as depriving the world of the nightly view of the cosmos. And we still have almost everything to learn about how lighting – including daylighting – can be used to realize health and wellness in living beings. Which of course, brings us back to where we started – science – and I think we need to start a new song to which to dance 

(1) James Benya, The Jewelry of Architecture, Architectural Lighting, March 2007, inspired by an article of the same name and author in Architectural Record Lighting Supplement, c. 1993

(2) I have been known to do the “alligator” and once won a 60’s style dance contest.

(3) James Benya, Our Work is Done Here, LD+A, May 2018

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of designing lighting.