Bulbs Shape Your Light Part I: From Glow to Throw
A Short History of the Light Bulb

“A new art for a new architectural language”
— Phyllis Lambert, “Stimmung at Seagrams: Philip Johnson Counters Mies van der Rohe”*

It was modern architecture that conjured up the practice of lighting design as we now know it. We learned to strive for an invisible source, tucking bulbs into ceilings, under and behind structures. Lights morphed from decorative objects (chandeliers, lamps) in to 'Lighting' - instruments of atmosphere seamlessly concealed. The shape of the light bulb itself adapted to this desire.


The Reflector bulb - or R lamp - came into its own as the early workhorse of modern architecture. The R throws light forward - or down from a recess in the ceiling - and we repurposed it from stage lighting. Today, I’m afraid the only thing we can say about the standard R is that it’s done. It’s over. It’s a food warmer. Like Kodak film or oil lamps, it’s wonderful and continues to reside in galleries and homes - but has sadly reached the end of its arc. I love working with the standard R, but it’s not efficient enough to survive.

Dining Room, Colorado, by Maya Lin. Photo by Paul Warchol

Next up in the modern lighting tool box was the PAR. PARs are powerful, and sealed so it can rain on them without causing an explosion. We need PARs to light the barn, the stage, the patio. But in the future, they are going to be LED PARs. If you have a PAR lamp and you need to replace it, please, please, do so with an LED PAR. Don't screw in a compact fluorescent and then wonder why everything looks half-dead. The LED PAR is going to be considerably more expensive, but it should last much longer. Replace a PAR with a PAR.


And then there’s the MR16. A lifetime ago, I went to an industry event. Prominently displayed were three bunnies -- large chocolate bunnies, each positioned under a lighting fixture. We knew we were there for a new very small bulb, but other than that, we knew nothing. They don’t say anything, they just flip on the lights: an R and a PAR, and the MR16.

The bunny under the R lamp is a puddle within seconds. The one under the PAR is melting quickly and losing its head. But the chocolate bunny under the new product, the MR16, is not melting. “It’s not melting!”

The MR16 appeared to be the ultimate cool lamp, in all senses of cool. It’s very small, and all the heat kicks out the back - a bit of film projector tech. Most folks are now familiar with MR16s as a bright white halogen bulb, but it's not always halogen. MR refers to the envelope, a multi-faceted reflector with many, many tiny mirrors that focus and throw the light. It is a low voltage bulb, tiny and bright, with a long life. Sounds like The Perfect Light Bulb, The Light Bulb of The Future. And so it was, for a time.


We all invested heavily in the MR16, in our homes, in galleries, in all sorts of commercial spaces. We loved their adjustability, flexibility, small package, and low voltage. They’re sustainable in the sense that the bulbs last a long time, and they use less electricity - and they don’t melt bunnies. Display people love them.

But here’s the trick: when this bulb burns out, it’s hard to change. You have to stick your fingers behind the bulb to pull the prongs out, AND you have to adjust the fixture every time you change the bulb. Lighting designers and electricians obviously know how to do it, but not many people want a service contract attached to something that should be so simple. There’s also many many choices of degree (flood to spot) with the MR16, perhaps too many to face at the hardware store on a Saturday morning.

The MR16 is still in the race tho, because - like the PAR - they are going LED. They’ll still be hard to change, but you won’t have to do it so often!

Notably, LEDs are diodes and don't need to be closed into a glass envelope - i.e., they don’t need a light bulb of any shape. I work with light sources all the time that look like circuit boards, luminous tubes and flat sheets. But the industry learned with compact fluorescents that people still want something to screw in with their existing fixtures, at least for the time being. Slowly but surely the screw-in technology will fade out as well.

*“Stimmung at Seagrams: Philip Johnson Counters Mies van der Rohe” essay by Phyllis Lambert in “The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture” (Yale School of Architecture)

Illustrations by Charlie Dumais, Tillett Lighting Design