‘Designing for light’ and ‘Designing with light’ are phenomena that most architects respond to inherently. They are trained to look at light and react to it in their existing spaces and those that they desire to create. However, there are few designers, let alone architects, who can actually ‘design light’.
It all started with a sense of indignation: at the beginning of the twentieth century, electric light was becoming popular in Copenhagen, and the young architect Poul Henningsen thought it extremely unpleasant. The naked bulbs produced so much glare, they bathed the entire room in a cold light and reinforced the shadows – in short, causing the room to lose its entire ambience. It is also believed that Poul Henningsen ventured into the world of designing light due to a rather peculiar complaint by his mother. She found that the electric bulb made her look old, emphasising her wrinkles and fading the colour from her face. Henningsen decided to create a lamp that would use the now available electric bulb but render space in a warmth closest to that of a naturally lit flame.
He set off to develop a lighting system and outline a lighting philosophy, which defined the principles for glare-free and comfortable light. Commonly known as PH, he described, among other things, the three parameters which he felt were most important when lighting a room - function, comfort and ambience - summarised by the abbreviation FCA©. Based on these principles, PH began his journey in the field of designing lamps.
In 1924, PH partnered with Louis Poulsen in the anticipation to partake in the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris the following year. Winning the gold medal with his newly developed System, PH firmed their partnership and kick-started Louis Poulsen’s career as a lighting manufacturer.
The PH 3½-3 pendant from 1928 is one of PH’s first lamps in the famous system, and was designed just before PH and Louis Poulsen’s big breakthrough – and while the patent application for System PH was still being processed by the authorities.
After this, Louis Poulsen’s lamp production really took off. PH’s contacts in the architectural world gave him the opportunity to design the lighting solutions for a number of distinctive buildings for his colleagues, for example the large exhibition venue Forum in Copenhagen, which is still in use. However, it no longer features his lamps, as they were unfortunately destroyed during the Second World War when the Germans destroyed the structure.
By far the majority of PH’s lamps have been developed for specific building projects. The most famous is the iconic lamp which he created for his friends, the architects Nils and Eva Koppel, who designed Langeliniepavillonen, a restaurant and party venue on the waterfront in Copenhagen. The lamp is PH Artichoke, today one of the most famous lamps in the world. It can be found in some of the most prestigious concert halls, universities, parliament buildings and penthouse apartments, in addition to private homes, where it is often passed down from one generation to the next.
PH was close friends with Sophus Kaastrup Olsen, Louis Poulsen’s managing director, and together they ran the company as a radical business with clear views on society, culture and development – and on the products they manufactured. “You can’t spend your time advocating ideas like Poul Henningsen’s while at the same time producing a load of crap,” Olsen put it forthrightly.
The radical views on quality and illumination are clearly reflected in the manufacture of the lamps. PH worked to the highest standards of craftsmanship, and for more than 80 years Louis Poulsen has been the sole manufacturer of his designs. This is one of the reasons why many of his classics today fetch absolutely astronomic sums at auctions all over the world.
Another key factor when it comes to the durability and popularity of the PH lamps is their basic design, the logarithmic scale that is derived from natural, organic shapes and which directs the light so beautifully. At the same time, his lamp design has remained true to the simple principle that every detail should serve a lighting purpose. No decoration – only a functional purpose. It is this simplicity that gives the lamps their chameleon-like quality, and which also means that the designs endure year after year, and that today they are more modern than ever.
However, it is interesting to note what these lamps are capable of. Perhaps, more than any other product, they can add edge and character to a project. The light behaves naturally in the surroundings and sets the scene and lends ambience, because lighting design is always integral to the product. The advantages of each particular light source are taken into account, and not least its disadvantages, which are eliminated to perfection. This results in the creation of a lighting product that blends in, produces the right atmosphere and ensures comfort for the people using the space.
Louis Poulsen was introduced to the world of architecture by Poul Henningsen, and they were soon joined by new business partners and architects. In particular, the world-famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, who developed the lighting for the world-famed SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen with Louis Poulsen. The partnership also extended to other celebrated buildings such as the St. Catharine’s College, Oxford, several Danish city halls and Denmark’s National Bank, and resulted in a range of specially developed fixtures that were put into production and which have since achieved international recognition and the status of design icons.
Arne Jacobsen was a master of modernism and minimalism, and architect of the ‘total design’ concept. Everything from taps, toilet brushes, towel rails and shirt drawers to glasses, mugs, vacuum flasks, ashtrays and door handles, and even keyholes – were designed down to the smallest detail. In his buildings, nothing was left to chance.
His most famous lamps are still part of the Louis Poulsen product programme: Munkegaard, developed for Munkegaard School in the Municipality of Gentofte; the AJ Royal family for the SAS hotel in Copenhagen; and AJ Eklipta which was designed for Rødovre Town Hall, and was used extensively at St Catherine’s College in Oxford.
The Munkegaard fixture evolved from the need to alter the installation at site. While the school ceilings could only accommodate 100mm deep holes, the fixture remained 130mm in height. Addressing the protruding edge, Arne Jacobsen designed the transition from ceiling to fixture edge as an illuminated slit, thus creating a halo effect around the luminaire and obliterating daylight shadows and the contrast between the fixture’s own light and shadow. It now appeared as a disc hovering just below the ceiling, glowing with a soft and diffused light.
Munkegaard and AJ Eklipta have won particular acclaim among architects all over the world, and are today found in some of the most stunning buildings worldwide. The reason undoubtedly lies in the simplicity of the lamps – their quiet presence, which nevertheless makes all the difference to the lighting of rooms, imbuing them with atmosphere and identity.
Both designer, Poul Henningsen and Arne Jacobsen brought forth their training in architecture, a deep understanding and perception of the human mind, and brilliance in visual aesthetic to their creations. They worked in distinct styles, yet catered to the larger need for quality lighting. Their approach was to address indirect, glare free illumination, through thorough detailing and exploration of form. Their architectural language facilitated their pursuit of working with varied material, textures and colours.
Be it the PH Artichoke or the AJ Lamp, these masters of enterprise created masterpieces of light that till today stand as iconic symbols of great design. Now as then, their designs enjoy widespread appeal, and whenever world-leading design museums organise exhibitions of their legendary lamps, people flock to see them.
With unfaltering support from Louis Poulsen, they crafted not only collections, but also eras of lighting products. Poul Henningsen and Arne Jacobsen are probably the two architects who have played the greatest role in establishing Louis Poulsen as a lighting manufacturer.
Having collaborated with many other architects as well, Louis Poulsen has seen much popularity. They have worked with renowned designers such as Jens Møller-Jensen, who designed one of the most well-known and also the most copied outdoor lamps – the Albertslund lamp; Vilhelm Lauritzen who, in close collaboration with Louis Poulsen, designed the lighting fixtures for Radiohuset in Copenhagen, the concert venue Vega, and the original airport terminal building ‘Træslottet’ (The Wooden Castle) at Copenhagen Airport; and Alfred Homann, who also achieved worldwide fame as a lighting designer with his Nyhavn series, which enjoyed considerable success in the USA, and was subsequently followed by the Kipp series.
The holistic design tradition has been upheld throughout the company’s history, with Louise Campbell, Foster+Partners, nendo, Christian Flindt and Øivind Slaatto as some of the more recent representatives. Where the Scandinavian lighting tradition meets some of the world’s most innovative architects, it results in lighting solutions that are elevated beyond time and space – and into the realms of international top-class design. In developing tomorrow’s lighting solutions, Louis Poulsen is constantly being challenged by architects and lighting designers. In return, the company challenges the designers with its views on lighting – and no design enters production without having first been tested for its feel good factor.
With a history of working with architects, Louis Poulsen has crafted many lamps as project products. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that most of the product programme has been designed in cooperation with architects for specific commissions. Known for its close customer cooperation, they develop each individual project as a creative process to which everyone contributes know-how and passion in order to achieve unique solutions that will withstand the test of time. Although technology never plays the leading role, the ultimate lighting solution does require a technically sophisticated product. This also applies to the classic fixtures, whose technical innards are continually being updated and developed to adapt to new science, such as the infamous LED.
Louis Poulsen has been a forerunner in lighting, and long-standing, successful collaborations with master architects-turned-designers such as Poul Henningsen and Arne Jacobsen have aided in establishing the repute of the name. They continue to stretch their limits, carrying traditional work forth as well as exploring new bounds. They strive for well-being, a philosophy close to their heart for over 100 years; and armed with their lighting philosophy derived from PH, they continue to pursue the mission of creating functional, comfortable and atmospheric lighting, the ideal that PH and AJ both strived towards.
(The article was first published in Issue #4 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)