Residential Lighting: Why did you write Losing Edison?
James Bedell: What sparked it was all the media hype around Congressman (Joe) Barton’s effort to repeal a section of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). It wasn’t the political debate that frustrated me, but the poor media coverage. The nightly news and mainstream media that hadn’t studied the topic pitted it as energy legislation that would take away your incandescent lightbulb and force you to install ugly, compact fluorescent lightbulbs. There was never any discussion about halogen options, which are still perfectly legal, nor much discussion about LEDs. When there was discussion about LEDs, it was described as tremendously expensive and a few years down the road. So, what started as a 20-page paper felt incomplete. I decided to flush it out into a book.
RL: Do you feel that energy efficiency inhibits your work as a lighting designer?
JB: I feel the global and national issues around energy are very important. And, I don’t think it is fair to look at Detroit and say, “Make more fuel-efficient cars,” or at the building industry and say, “Change the way you do things,” but then say, “Uh, we're going to keep our incandescent light bulb.” I want my sector of the economy to be leading the way, not holding back.
At the same time, I think EISA was fairly well-crafted. Decorative incandescent, clear incandescent, a lot of technologies, are still legal under the bill. So, it’s not like you have to put your compact fluorescent lightbulbs in chandeliers or sacrifice in ways that are completely untenable.
RL: You mention several sustainability tips in the book. Which are your favorite?
JB: Two. The first is lighting controls. There is an opportunity to reduce your energy output and increase the beauty of your home through dimming solutions, whether simple local switches, single-area controls or whole home systems. The technology is scaled to meet almost any budget.
The other is natural light. I think we overlook the importance of sunlight. I see homes with big, heavy curtains, yet natural light is important to our circadian rhythms and to reducing energy output. When I see lamps turned on at noon I get worried.
RL: What do you want the lighting industry to do?
JB: Better education. Losing Edison  and my blog  try to help consumers and interior designers understand lighting technology and basic lighting design principles. My feeling is we are doing a poor job of educating the consumer about their options and about good lighting. We’re starting the lighting conversation with a technical discussion: “This is a lumen. This is a lightbulb. This is the difference between ….” We have to start by talking about what makes good home lighting. The conversation is backwards.
At the higher end of the conversation, I’d like to see lighting designers own the sustainability movement a little more. Old-school lighting designers are resistant. They’ll always have a reason why LED isn’t good enough. They’ll always have a reason why compact fluorescent isn’t good enough. We have to move on. We have to find a way to achieve our design goals with better technology. We’re offered a seat at the table. It’s time to take it.
RL: And do what?
JB: Change the culture around how lighting is perceived. Lighting has far too long been considered a dark art. People allude to lighting in a mystical way. They’ll say, “That restaurant had such nice lighting,” but are then unable to put their finger on why.
RL: You can’t blame them. Light is a mysterious phenomenon.
JB: I suppose that’s true, but I think people go to stores and throw up their hands. “I always bought a 60W light bulb. Why do I have to buy something else?” On the home improvement shows, lighting is almost never mentioned. It’s rarely thought about even partially, because it’s difficult to translate on video.
Lighting designers need to drop the idea that what they do is a mystical art that cannot be understood by the average human. I know far too many who take this air. I don’t know if it comes from insecurity, or if it comes from pride in their education. Somebody asked me once why I write the blog. I said, “It’s a way to educate people about lighting.” They said, “Why give away for free what you get paid for?” My response was we need to increase the market for lighting design. We need to increase interest in lighting in general.
I’m not turning people into lighting designers. I’m trying to help them understand how important lighting is to their homes and their offices. To me, it’s about shifting the culture away from the thought that lighting is so special that only a designer or architect can understand it. I can’t replicate what a five-star chef does, but I can cook and appreciate food. This is the way I think lighting can be approached. Imbue some basic ideas of lighting, and people will retain them.
RL: The main conversation right now seems to be on lumens.
JB: I’m not enthusiastic about the lumen conversation. You don’t teach a language by repeating a term over and over again. I’m not saying we shouldn’t explain what a lumen is, but I’m not so enthusiastic about making it the thrust of the conversation. I’m more interested in teaching by demonstrating. I’m more interested in giving examples of appropriate light output. Lumens involves a level of technical information that I fear is off-putting to the average person. “Do I really have to learn how many lumens come out of a light bulb right now?” I don’t see the average consumer being interested.
I actually think color is the most important thing. Frankly, LED manufacturers are making leaps and bounds and gains in brightness, so they want to talk about brightness. But what kills the compact fluorescent lightbulb in people’s minds, even to this day, is not brightness, but that the color is wrong, or the shape is wrong, or the aesthetic of the lamp is wrong. If we rush LEDs to market with the same flaws, we’re going to see an unhappy consumer base.
RL: What would you like from manufacturers?
JB: If a manufacturer right now has the best alternative A-lamp products, the best LED A-lamp, I’d partner with a major reseller. I’d partner with lighting showrooms. I’d do similar to what paint manufacturers do. I’d have “paint chip” walls. I’d have a demonstration of red, blue and white on a wall, or maybe on fabric, maybe on paint, and I’d light it with an incandescent lightbulb, a compact fluorescent lightbulb and an LED. It doesn’t have to take a huge part of the store, but I’d give consumers the ability to dim each source and get a sense for the color and brightness they can expect from comparative sources. It would be a huge step in getting people to say, “Now I see what I need to replace the 60W bulbs in my living room.”
RL: Are the cost savings of the new technologies registering with people?
JB: I think so. Our conversation has been centered around the A-lamp, but when you get into architectural applications it’s obviously much easier to sell LEDs. If I’m designing a cove for a residential client, selling LEDs is a no-brainer. LED is marginally more expensive upfront, but just to be able to tell a homeowner, “You're never going to have to climb up to your ceiling and replace a fluorescent tube, or if you do, it will be years from now,” gets people to respond immediately. When I show LED under-cabinet lighting and say, “It’s going to last long. It renders well on your food. It reflects softly off the surface” — that is a no-brainer, too.
But when it gets into soft, A-lamp applications, it’s tough. The cost upfront is so much higher, and if you’re specifying quite a few A-lamps it can be tough to get the client at the end of the day to switch. They read about LED changing rapidly and about better bulbs being just around the corner, so they often want to wait.
RL: What about the idea of saving the planet? Does that message gel with clients?
JB: Most clients are not ecologically motivated. I find the Mother Earth articulation is always secondary. Really, at the end of the day, if you’re selling a sustainable solution, beauty has got to be part of that solution. If the solution is not beautiful, if the client doesn’t love it aesthetically, it’s much harder to sell the environmental benefits.
Let’s say you’re comparing an LED cove and a halogen cove, and let’s say aesthetically they are pretty much equal. There is a higher upfront cost to LED, but a low-energy payout. You can say, “You’re helping the earth. You’re saving money on your energy bill. You’re not going to have to maintain it, and it’s always going to look like this” — you have to make a complete argument, and not only the ecology argument.
Still, some lighting designers hide behind this. Many say to me, “My clients don’t care about ecology, so I’m not going to force it on them.” If you’re doing the best job for your client, then I feel you have to include “saving the planet” as part of the conversation.
RL: Are you working on a second e-book?
JB: Not yet. Losing Edison was self-published. I put it out on Amazon and iTunes myself. I have no marketing department, so quite a bit of my time is spent self-promoting it. My next set of ideas is to put together a seminar for interior designers so they can explain the principle of the book to their clients. I’d like to get more evangelizers. My next goal is a series of books that deal with specific rooms of the house — kitchen lighting, bedroom lighting, family rooms, home offices — in a form more digestible for the reader, so they can sit down and in 40 pages understand the principles of lighting that room.