Bulbs Shape Your Light Part II:
On Choosing a Light Bulb

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

If you're picking potatoes at night, you need a square beam to illuminate the row. There's a lamp for that. If it's carrots, the light needs to be long and skinny, and so is the bulb on your harvester. Industrial lighting uses thousands of specialized bulb shapes, to get the light exactly where it is needed. Think of tiny surgical lights, bright projector bulbs with enormous forward throw. Lighting for the home is the same way -- bulb shape determines function, as much as the medium of LED, fluorescent, or filament burning incandescent...

Drawing by Thomas Edison, January 27, 1880. United States National Archives

Drawing by Thomas Edison, January 27, 1880. United States National Archives


But it’s Saturday and you’re at the hardware store. What now?

The best thing you can do is get your hands on several types of light bulbs -- and before you pick between technologies, consider the SHAPE of the bulb. Shape determines function. Do you need a blob of light or a focused beam? LEDs are bundled directional beams. The pear shape we think of as a standard bulb (the A lamp) gives a 360 glow. The perfect sphere of a globe (the G lamp) does roughly the same thing, but has a more decorative quality and is best used without a shade or fixture covering it. On the other hand, there’s R lamps - backed with reflectors that give the light direction. There’s also the Par and the R and the tiny little MR, which we’ll get to in future posts. Bottom line, you have to decide what you want a light bulb to do before you decide what technology you want to employ.

You may have noticed the new compact fluorescent you screwed in overhead has a powdery quality, and it kills the warmth of your red textured carpet. Maybe that would do better in the kitchen or bathroom, or rooms done in cool matt tones. For a warm space, incandescent A lamps will bring out the warmth in your materials - and it will highlight textures. Remember, we don’t see light - we see reflections on surfaces, on skin.

The A lamps come clear or frosted. When it is clear it has a more retro quality (see every bar in Williamsburg!), and the light has a bit of an edge to it. The holy grail of LED technology is to produce an A lamp just like the incandescent, but it will never be clear with all those diodes to disguise. It will do the same job, fit into the same fixtures and in theory at least last forever. They are getting closer. The good versions cost about 55 dollars…maybe enough said for now.