What do movie palaces have to do with how you light your home?
Early predecessor of indirect lighting:
Limelight spotlight, used to illuminate
the front stage area of theaters
until the end of the nineteenth century.
Plenty. After electric lighting replaced gaslight at the end of the 19th century, most electric lighting was “specular”, a fancy way of saying it came from a point source like the white-hot filament of a standard light bulb. That situation changed during the 1920s with the arrival of indirect lighting (“indirect” meaning that the light source is hidden).
Indirect lighting took a while to catch on because, at first, electric fixtures were used just like gas mantles. No one thought of hiding them, since doing so would have been foolhardy with gas. Moreover, exposed light bulbs were initially seen as an emblem of modernity.
If you’ve ever tried to read by the light of an unshaded light bulb, though, you know that the glare they produce can be a real problem. Indirect lighting provided a dramatic solution: by concealing the light source, it diffused the light and, unlike an ordinary shade, completely eliminated specular glare.
|Spectacular use of soffit lighting in the|
auditorium of the Wiltern Theater,
Los Angeles, c. 1931 (Architects: Stiles O.
Clements and G. Albert Landsburgh)
Movie theaters were among the first to adopt indirect lighting. Auditoriums needed subdued lighting for safety even during the show, and of course having a lot of glary specular lamps wouldn’t do. Since live theaters had long used concealed footlights along the front edge of the stage—the well-known “limelight” you’ve heard about—it wasn’t much of a stretch to use indirect lighting in other parts of the building.
Perhaps the most dramatic new form of indirect lighting in theaters was soffit lighting. Typically, it consisted of a ceiling that stepped up from a low level at the perimeter (the “soffit”) to a higher one in the center. Lighting fixtures were hidden in a continuous horizontal recess separating the two levels, so that a diffuse, glare-free light would bounce off of the upper ceiling into the space below.
|Indirect under cabinet lighting|
provides the most even and
glare-free lighting for
kitchen work surfaces.
But don’t think indirect lighting is all just theatrical razzle dazzle. It can be practical as well. For example, if you mount miniature fixtures under your kitchen’s wall cabinets and conceal them with a shallow skirt or “valance”, they’ll light the countertop beautifully, but won’t shine in your eyes.
What’s more, indirect lighting can be remarkably cheap. Since you don’t see the light source, you can use ordinary fixtures costing a few dollars—instead of overpriced boutique fixtures costing hundreds—and still get very sophisticated results. Today, LEDs have vastly expanded the opportunities for indirect lighting. LED lighting strip is available as narrow as 3/8" wide, allowing it to be hidden practically anywhere.
|LED lighting strip has made it possible|
to install indirect lighting in places it
couldn't go before.
However, indirect lighting can be low-tech as well; depending on the space available, ordinary porcelain sockets, light ropes, or even strands of miniature Christmas lights will do the job. Nor does the structure that conceals the lamps have to be expensive: most soffit lighting, for example, consists of little more than an ordinary lumber framework finished with drywall.
Regardless of how you design your indirect lighting, though, remember that the lamps—yes, even LEDs—will need replacement now and then. Make sure that you have reasonable access, especially in tight locations like ceiling coves. And for heaven’s sake, turn off the juice first.