In a better light

"Good light quite simply means better profitability” That’s just how you would expect a “light freak” to speak, an epithet that certainly describes Torbjörn Eliasson, industrial designer, head of White Design (WD) in Gothenburg and a leading Swedish expert in both lamps and lighting.

He had already begun his practical training at WD, a department within one of Scandinavia’s largest architectural offices, several years before his finals at Gothenburg’s School of Design and Crafts (HDK) in the late 1980s. The link between the two was interior designer Olle Anderson, then professor at HDK as well as head of White Design, who became an inspirational figure for Torbjörn.

Not least had Olle designed many lamps in the course of his extensive career as an interior and furniture designer: the best known of them is perhaps the Stockholm outside lamp produced for a competition that Olle and his protégé won together. It was not long before the latter had become qualified in his own right and began to move along similar lines.

“Soon afterwards I joined Ikea, following a talk there that I had given on light, which led directly to various design jobs as well as lots of seminars and workshops, not least around the topic of lighting in department stores. Ultimately this work also became a book, known as the Light Book.”

This year he is again working intensively with Ikea on an exciting project to develop lamps of the future. Still shrouded in secrecy and planned to be launched in 2008, this project is being implemented together with glass designer Anne Nilsson.

“It’s fantastic fun to work with her”, he says.

As a lamp designer, he has been largely linked to Swedish manufacturer Blond, where he was responsible for the bulk of the product range. But most of his work has a more architectural slant, aimed at illuminating all sorts of environments. Interest in private gardens, for example, has grown with lightning speed, and orders are flooding in. But there is also much interest from planners of public spaces: squares and parks in various Swedish cities, or a spa with its associated park. He has often worked in a team with celebrated landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell, who just this year received great international acclaim for his Linnaeus Garden that was awarded the Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show 2007.

“Light is not principally a matter of technology”, says Torbjörn, seated in a glass meeting room at White Design’s main office in Gothenburg. “Calculating lux values is just not my thing. I prefer to start from real experience and highlight it. This aspect is also easiest to underestimate as it is not so obviously measurable.”

The cosy and functional aspects of light belong intimately together, he feels. The main thing is to configure and define the space, to highlight its horizontal and vertical dimensions. All his experience from Ikea came to good use here, in the guise of a full-scale experiment. The spread of the light and its variations have an extremely powerful impact in that kind of stark environment.

So step one is always to consider what kind of light is actually wanted in a particular environment. The more clearly thought-through the better. Both well-functioning work environments and strong brands can be created with light and contribute to better profitability.

To create good lighting depends largely on empathy and psychology, he feels. His straightforward and untechnical way of talking about light is often peppered with irreverent terms such as the “imp and cosy” factor. “Imp” is a somewhat impish shorthand for impressive. Designers are fond of such word play, and this key phrase occurs frequently in Eliasson’s way of talking about light.

“Yes, this is hugely important, not least with a view to the brand. If a customer experiences an office entrance as extremely dull, that will affect his idea about the company itself. But if he sees it as sophisticated and interesting, an effect that can be conjured up by the right lighting, this image becomes associated with the company.”

White Architects, of whichTorbjörn’s company is a part, is largely involved in designing and planning buildings. Lighting is not always an obvious part of the job. But he sees the cooperation between the architects and lighting designers as enormously important. It’s a matter of combining both natural incoming light and artificial lighting.

The basis of good lighting is to distribute the light. To guide the eye via light fields and points. This does not at all mean avoiding darkness, according to Torbjörn’s way of thinking. Quite the contrary.

“No, we ought not to be afraid of the dark”, he says.

It is also important not to think in terms of lamps. We should not think simply of light, but of a lively and varied light with many contrasts. Between light and darkness, shadows and daylight, warm and cold, between various colour shifts in the light.When it works best, light can facilitate various functions and imbue an environment with life.When we are clear about what kind of light we want, it is also easier to choose the right lamps.

If we have really begun thinking along these lines, we soon get a new view of lighting.The old rules that good function is supported by the interplay between background light and more strategically directed spotlights still applies. However, you don’t achieve an overall light effect by placing a pale ceiling lamp over everyone’s heads. As Torbjörn says, it’s done by placing lamps on vertical surfaces, often to illuminate the walls, and ideally by means of obliquely directed light. Apart from the soft background light, the room then comes into sharp relief. So it is defined architecturally and experienced as being light and having a distinctive ambience at one and the same time.