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Light Reading— Performance Decorative: The New Workplace Standard

September 18, 2019

Workspaces are evolving faster than ever, and architectural lighting is developing at a similar pace. However, one category of lighting used in corporate and workplace design has some catching up to do and that’s decorative lighting.

A variety of developments in the nature of the workplace have driven office design away from the bland, unchanging landscapes of the past. One example is choice-based seating, which essentially allows employees to find their own ideal work environment instead of being attached to a particular desk or workstation. Another is the highly competitive co-working space market: these short or long-term leased office environments are often loaded with shared amenities like informal work lounges and social areas.

Pictured: Akoya 22 in Camping World Offices by Eastlake Studio / Photography by Hall + Merrick Photographers

Choice-based seating is a concept that’s now mainstream. This might be implemented in a literal way, where no one has an assigned seat or desk. More commonly, end users may have an assigned workstation but also have the freedom to work in a variety of less formal environments, like work lounges, huddle rooms, “scrums”, coffee bars, etc.  For some of our clients, such spaces might occupy a third or more of a typical “workplace” floor. The proliferation of these less formal workspaces has opened the door for a greater variety of architectural lighting and certainly for more decorative lighting.

Pictured: AllSew 36 Square (left) / Photography by Federica Carlet (left) and Delta IV in Dropbox Austin Offices by Perkins and Will / Photography by Casey Dunn (right)

Huddle Rooms, for example, are a relatively new space type. These are basically the more “chill” younger siblings of the small conference rooms of old. Furnishings can be a table and chairs, but in some cases can easily be a sofa and a couple of club chairs. These rooms elicit a sense of informality and creativity but still require lots of functionality to support team collaboration, such as videoconferencing, marker boards, etc. The lighting in these rooms has to support a wide range of visual tasks.

Pictured: Palindrome in San Francisco LinkedIn Headquarters by IA Interior Architects / Photography by Eric Laignel (left) and AllSew 48 Square  / Photography by Federica Carlet (right)

Decorative lighting is a go-to design element to help create the look and feel of rooms like this, but often isn’t able to provide enough ambient light for more demanding visual tasks. Mixing a decorative luminaire with supporting “performance” lighting can work in some cases, but that approach inherently adds cost.

Pictured: Radient in Github Offices by Rapt Studio / Photography by Jasper Sanidad (left) and Monocle in Atlassian Offices by Perkins and Will / Photography by Casey Dunn (right)

The humble phone room is another space type that has proliferated in choice-based seating environments. There are often dozens of these small single-occupant rooms per workplace floor, acting as quiet refuges for both calls and heads-down work. Here, decorative lighting can contribute to creating focus and reinforce a sense of privacy but may not have the best light output or distribution to support the full range of visual tasks that might be needed (for example, videoconferencing).  Again, adding other layers of light in these spaces can solve the lighting problem but may be cost-prohibitive. How many fixtures is a client willing to pay for to light a 50-square-foot room?

Pictured: AllSew 48 Square / Photography by Federica Carlet

What’s really needed for cases like these is a special category of decorative lighting: performance decorative. These are decorative fixtures with light outputs much closer to that of general lighting with shielded or diffused light sources to reduce glare and possibly other useful features, like acoustical absorption, separately controlled direct and indirect light, full-range dimming, and color-changing capabilities. In other words, these fixtures can’t just look great; they must be robust, adaptable, and help solve a variety of design problems.

Pictured: Akoya 14 in WeWork Culver City by WeWork / Photography by WeWork 

In the co-working market, there’s a huge need for owner/operators to distinguish their product from the competition, and the product their selling is not just a furnished office space; it’s an experience. These environments often have very hospitality-like qualities, but they are still workspaces so lighting fixtures that are decorative but with performance features are often a necessity.

Tenants who are attracted to co-working are often drawn in by the networking and social possibilities.  The coffee pantry in a space like this might transform into a bourbon-tasting bar every Wednesday at 6 PM. A warm-dimming capability in the decorative pendants above the island countertop would really help set the mood for this type of special event.

Decorative lighting used to just be what the name implies; it was decoration! It was often utilized as just the jewelry of interior space. There’s a great need, and therefore a great opportunity, for lighting manufacturers to step up to this new challenge: continue to give us beautiful lighting objects that support the aesthetic needs of our spaces, but also help us support the increasing functional needs of our clients by incorporating more performance features.

- Gary Bouthillette, AIA, LC

Gary Bouthillette, AIA, LC, is Senior Director of Lighting Design at IA Interior Architects, with 24 years of experience in lighting and design.  He has provided design solutions for major organizations and Fortune 500 companies spanning an extensive range of industries, including technology, finance, entertainment, law, education, and energy.