Luxury Lighting Designer
A pioneer of lighting design, John Cullen is an award-winning architectural lighting company based on Chelsea’s Kings Road. Their world class lighting schemes span the luxury residential and hospitality industries. We speak with Design Director Luke Thomas about the significance of lighting to create ambience in the home and how the lighting industry has come leaps and bounds in terms of quality and sustainability.
Luke Thomas, Lighting Designer (UK)
1. How long have you been Design Director at John Cullen Lighting and what is it about the company that enticed you?
I’ve been the Design Director since the start of 2017 but joined the company as a trainee designer in 2008. I had been interested in lighting from an early stage and this formed the focus of many of my projects while studying Product Design at university.
I had the realisation that, rather than designing the physical form of light fittings, I wanted to be responsible for using the light creatively for its final purpose. Seeing John Cullen’s project portfolio on their website really inspired me and I connected with it immediately. I didn’t really know what lighting design was at that stage but it drew me in.
2. Energy-efficient light fittings are becoming increasingly popular as people become more aware of both the environment and the sustainability of their home. How have you seen this sector evolve since you began your career?
I started in lighting just before the LED revolution. Things changed partly because of an environmental awakening from our clients, but mainly because of changes to the building regulations which insisted on a minimum allocation of lighting within a new build being energy efficient. At the time, we really felt as though we were being forced to specify lighting equipment which was inferior in almost all respects to our much-loved halogen, other than the fact that the energy consumption was lower and it didn’t get hot. Early adopters not only had to use something which wasn’t as good as the more energy-hungry alternatives, but they also had to pay three times as much for the privilege!
I’m pleased to say that the technology has progressed immeasurably and I can happily light an entire property using LED without any sacrifice in quality. In fact, we can do things with LED that we could never have even dreamed possible 10 years ago.I would never consider going back to the old days of halogen, although it still provides an important benchmark that we now use to determine the quality of light sources.
3. How does the type and quality of a bulb affect the lighting outcome and why is it important to invest in this as well as the fixture itself?
Lighting technology is now, more than ever, a blend of science and art. A designer must be able to have the creativity to visualise how this invisible energy will impact a space, but also to appreciate how the lighting works and how it can be specified as part of the overall project. There are many things to consider when selecting a light source, but the top things to look out for are; colour temperature, colour rendering and colour consistency.
Colour temperature - We all know the terms warm white and cool white, but in reality, this classification is not very useful. Go to one supplier for a warm white and you’ll get a totally different colour to what another supplier will offer. Colour temperature is measured in kelvins (K) with the higher numbers being cooler/bluer in colour and the lower numbers more amber/red. If you need to go to different suppliers to complete the lighting design, go for consistent colour temperature. We usually specify 2700K which works really well in most residential applications.
Colour rendering - This is a measure of how accurately the light source will display colours in relation to how they should be seen under a perfect light source (like the sun). One method to measure this is the Colour Rendering Index (CRI) which is represented using a number between 0 and 100. If you get this wrong, colours can feel dull, flat, lifeless and grey. It makes such a difference, especially for artwork and fabrics. I’d recommend a CRI above 90 for vivid, true to life colours.
Colour consistency - If you tested 5 lights of the same model, from the same supplier, they will all be different. It’s the nature of the LED technology and there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. The key here is how to ensure that the difference is minimised to a point at which you won’t be able to distinguish it with the human eye. LED chips are categorised into batches by the manufacturer and made available to companies light John Cullen. Some batches have a wider grouping of colours and others have a tighter grouping. The tighter batched groups tend to have a higher cost premium associated, which is one of the reasons some lights can be more expensive than others as this premium is reflected in the consumer sale price. You’ll really notice colour difference when using a run of lights, such as on staircases or uplighting a wall. The process used to compare consistency is called “binning”.
4. What sort of lighting would you incorporate in a dining room to set the scene for a celebratory dinner party?
A dining room should have a good balance between decorative lighting, providing a soft and atmospheric ambience, and architectural lighting, to deliver accent and drama. Focussed light on the table is really important so that diners can see what they are eating. This can be achieved using either decorative lighting, ceiling spots, or a combination. If using ceiling recessed spots they should not be positioned directly above seats, as this will cause glare and a very unflattering light to the face. For special occasions, there is nothing that beats candles on the table.
5. What are your top tips for enhancing a fireplace with lighting?
The fire isn’t always in use so it’s a good idea to allow for some artificial lighting here. On a more traditional fireplace with a decorative frame, some tiny floor recessed uplights could be used to enhance this feature and add drama to the room. Some contemporary fireplaces are just a simple rectangular cut out in the wall, so the uplights may not be a viable solution. Those modern fireplaces sometimes have a cantilevered shelf under which a linear light source could be positioned for a discreet floating effect.
Lighting positioned at ceiling level has the advantage of being more discreet because nothing hangs over the frame, you simply have a spot of light falling onto the middle of the picture. A variety of beam angles and lenses help us to finesse the lighting effect even after completion to get the perfect results. Whatever direction is taken, the key above all else is that attention should be drawn to the art and not to the source of the light.
6. What do you have to consider when designing the lighting scheme for a piece of wall art?
With artwork, it’s critical to ensure good colour rendering. As I’ve mentioned above, lights with a CRI of 90 or above should be selected to see the true colours of the artwork. There are different techniques which can be applied to light artwork. Picture lights and ceiling directional spotlights (recessed or surface mounted) are the most commonly used. There seems to be a divide in client opinion about picture lights. For me, they can be a great solution and if you get the right fitting specified it can work wonders on the artwork.
We’ve recently launched our Wallace picture light range. Rather than being very glary and lighting the wall above the picture, the Wallace focusses light down the canvas and uses baffles to control the light.
7. What advice would you give to an aspiring lighting designer?
A successful lighting designer would have a passion for interiors and architecture – background study in either field tends to be a good starting point and many members of our design team have taken that route before narrowing their focus to lighting design. You’ll also need the ability to absorb and understand information in relation to the technology used and the practical considerations of installing it.
At John Cullen, we are really focussed on education and awareness. We want everyone to understand the power of light to transform and enhance our environments. We deliver RIBA CPD programmes, work with interior design schools to provide work placements and demonstrations, and have a huge wealth of educational information available on our website. Our showrooms in London and Dubai are spaces where you can really experience the impact of light and well worth a visit.
8. Can you tell us about one of your favourite current lighting design trends?
At the moment I’m really loving integrated joinery lighting. We’re progressing from a single layer of joinery lighting to adding more texture and depth using multiple light forms and positions. It adds so much drama to the room. My current favourite is using a linear LED for providing backlight to a shelf in combination with a miniature accent light to spot an object.
9. People often think of LED lighting as overly bright and colourful. What are the benefits of LED and why should we consider incorporating them in our interior and exterior lighting schemes?
It’s common knowledge that LED uses less energy than halogen or other traditional equivalents. The LED is very efficient in maximising the amount of energy converted into light (the efficacy) and reducing lost energy through resistance, which is evident through heat. Although LEDs can still get hot, the touch temperature is far lower than halogen which has led to wider application possibilities.
There’s no risk of fire should you leave a bag on top of a floor recessed uplight and artificial lighting will not scorch planting when used outside. Maintenance requirements are much reduced due to the lifespan of the LED with most suppliers quoting in the region of 50,000 hours life expectancy, so essentially no more lamp changing. The equipment has dramatically reduced in size with a huge shift in the market towards miniaturisation making it easier to conceal and disguise light sources, meaning our lighting schemes are even more dramatic than before. In terms of colours, for a sophisticated effect, I would suggest sticking with the warm whites with colour changing reserved for games rooms, and swimming pools.
10. What different types of lighting should be considered when lighting an open-plan kitchen/dining/ living space?
The key with open plan living spaces is flexibility and the layering of light. I would always try to combine ambient, task and accent lighting layers across the space. Although one big room, a kitchen/dining/living space is essentially 3 separate spaces, each with its own unique lighting requirements.
So, using intelligent circuiting to zone the lighting in each space is advisable, but there should also be some common themes tying the space together. For example, the kitchen is not just a functional space, it also needs to have a suitable lighting scene for use during dining or entertaining so we would try to introduce some accent light or something decorative.
With an open-plan space, true flexibility and good lighting design mean there will be several circuits, possibly around 12. It’s not practical to use traditional switches for this. Imagine the wall acne and the time it would take to turn them all on and set the desired scene. I think the only practical solution would be a scene-setting system. It doesn’t have to be super complicated; it can be very basic and the idea is that it should simplify life, not make it more difficult.
11. How have you seen the functionality and capabilities of lighting controls evolve since you started at John Cullen Lighting?
When LED was introduced to the domestic market, we quickly had to adapt to solve issues with flickering, buzzing and malfunction. We use totally different methods of dimming now. Rather than just reducing power to a light (which is how a halogen dims), we now send a digital signal to the low voltage driver, specifying which level it should dim the LED load to. It’s much more scientific than before and there are so many options available. I don’t really like the term “smart lighting” or “smart controls” but the possibilities of what can be achieved with the controls are really broadening. If required, lighting systems can now sit on-line, giving us the ability to control settings through a touch screen device. This gives added convenience to the end user, but also providing us with the ability to dial-in to the system remotely for servicing and adjustment.
12. If you could design the lighting for any room or building in the world, what would it be?
I’ve always thought that it would be good fun to light London’s underground transport system. I can see so many lighting possibilities for some of the long winding tunnels and dramatic cavernous spaces of stations like Westminster. Ready and waiting for Sadiq Khan’s call….
Turnkey Interior Design Service
We hope this interview has been both interesting and informative and that you've enjoyed reading about our work with John Cullen Lighting. If you're looking to transform your interiors with luxury lighting schemes, please get in touch with our team:
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