March 8th, 2009


In one flat, two conceptions of "Japanese lighting"

Lighting fascinates me. The cultural meaning of lighting.

Something strange and, I daresay, ironic has happened to the lighting in my Berlin flat. Basically, we have two rooms here. Although they're shared, these rooms have, over the last two years, become more personalised and acculturated. For most of the day, the living room is my realm. It's where my computer and my books and records are. Hisae, meanwhile, has set up a desk and her own computer in the bedroom. We like having separate areas to work in.

What interests me is the way the lighting has diverged in these rooms. If you look at our house from the garden, you'll see two quite different glows coming from the two windows. One room -- the living room -- has a warm, low glow. The other -- the bedroom -- has a harsh white overhead fluorescent glare. It's tempting to say that I light the living room in a "European" way -- essentially a dark space with pinpoints of warm local lighting of various kinds -- and that Hisae lights the bedroom in an Asian way. But it's more complicated than that.

Basically, I light the living room according to a misconception of Japanese lighting, whereas Hisae lights the bedroom the way real Japanese people tend to light their rooms; the way, for instance, her Osaka bedroom is lit. I have, basically, five light sources (if you don't include the computer screen or the video projector): an overhead 60w tungsten bulb with a "Japanese" paper lantern around it (found on the street, and rarely illuminated), an Ikea record box with an Ikea spherical lamp inside it (which is supposed to evoke the traditional box lighting I saw in a Gion, Kyoto restaurant once), a kitsch-gemütlich German table lamp with an orange shade, and a big floor-standing fluorescent panel I bought secondhand at a market, originally used for an advertising sign.

The first picture shows some of my lights, the second and third, Hisae's. None of my lights ever quite eradicates the ambient darkness; the local pools of different-coloured, different-charactered light in a dark space make the room feel bigger and more diverse. It's -- if you like -- a space of "lighting pluralism". Hisae's room is quite different. There the lighting is flat, bright, even, harsh. There are no shadows at all. Everything is equally clear, equally visible. Colours are accurately rendered, and intense.

Hisae has an 18w fluorescent bulb (a new economy bulb with a tungsten equivalent of 100w) hung in the centre of the ceiling, and an energy panel. Both lights are made by Philips, so they're European. The effect is very "Japanese", but in a totally different sense than the Noguchi sense, or even the sense Tanizaki spells out in his 1920s treatise on characteristic Japanese style, In Praise of Shadows. It's Japanese in the way... well, let's listen to a conversation between Italian designer Claudio Colucci and Japanese designer Akihito Fumita, printed in Kateigaho International Edition's Summer 2008 edition:

Colucci: I have been living in both Europe and Japan for the last ten years and am always very surprised to see how Japanese homes are lit with fluorescent lights that rob the spaces of intimacy, while many restaurants and shops are lit by high-quality lights, as are your creations. What explains the discrepancy between the private and public spaces?

Fumita: Only recently has the term "interior design" started to catch on in Japan... Now that interior design has begun to be featured in many magazines, people will gradually learn to apply what they see in hotels, restaurants, and boutiques to their homes. Good lighting is catching on, but it's still at an early stage.

Colucci: I have great faith in the next generation. "Superflat" designs -- to borrow a term from Takashi Murakami -- contain strong elements of heritage such as manga comics and woodblock prints. Is there any connection between the way both fluorescent lights and Superflat negate perspective?

Fumita: Superflat style does try to obliterate shadows, but I doubt if the idea came from fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Younger generations, particularly people in the creative industry, no longer live in spaces lit by fluorescent lights. The absence of shadows deprives us of a sense of volume and, eventually, of a sense of reality. I think that's where Superflat is heading.

Now, I agree with Colucci here. It is startling to see how Japanese people really live, with stark, harsh overhead fluorescent lights. When you see this, with a European sensibility, you can do one of two things. You can either say -- as Fumita does here -- that this is "backward" and that Japanese people will eventually learn more subtle lighting from what they see in the kind of restaurants and shops he designs. Or you can make a sort of fetish of this overhead fluorescent lighting, as I did when I tried to launch a style called MiniDeco in a 2002 piece entitled Fluorescence decoder, or, why the time is right for fluorescent light. This wasn't just a way to champion the real Asian lighting I'd discovered in Japan, but also a post-materialist celebration of the cheap lighting used in poor and working environments, even the cheap Bangladeshi patisseries and cafes on London's Brick Lane.

Since this kind of overhead fluorescent lighting is also associated with the fashion industry and the art world (at least on the production side), I disagree with Fumita that "younger generations, particularly people in the creative industry, no longer live in spaces lit by fluorescent lights." In fact, the kind of recessed lighting used by Fumita in boutiques and stores is what, it seems to me, is no longer fashionable or creative; people associate it with slick, tricky retail environments rather than productive creative spaces. Hisae's room, it seems to me, is a fairly typical young Japanese person's workspace, and the lighting is overhead, and fluorescent. I'm not sure if I'd go as far as Colucci and drag in Takashi Murakami's Superflat idea, but it's true that shadows are completely eradicated in this style of lighting, replaced by brilliant, accurate colours. There's an admirable objectivity, purposefulness and productive feel to it, and I admire it in -- for instance -- the kitchen scenes of restaurant drama Osen (picture above), or the farm scenes in LOHAS farming show Hatake No Uta. Nevertheless, the first thing I do when I come into the bedroom to sleep is ask if the harsh overhead fluorescent light can be switched off. We light low tungsten lights at that point, and the room becomes a bedroom.

I'm interested in the fact that, no matter how Japanophile I might be, I can't ever quite adjust to Japanese lighting. And I'm interested in the fact that what I thought of for much of my life as Japanese lighting actually wasn't. I was brought up in the 1960s in the New Town of Edinburgh. Our flat, like many in Edinburgh's Georgian crescents, had high ceilings and central light fixtures. In the 1960s, the bourgeois-bohemian thing to do was to sand the pine floors of these flats and hang "Japanese" paper lampshades from the central light fittings. These shades -- and many of our Edinburgh friends had them too -- were cheap mass-produced copies of Isamu Noguchi's Akari light sculpture, "considered icons of 1950s modern design. Designed by Noguchi beginning in 1951 and handmade for a half century by the original manufacturer in Gifu, Japan, the paper lanterns are a harmonious blend of Japanese handcraft and modernist form. The ceiling shades are made of handmade washi paper and bamboo ribbing."

The Akari "Japanese" shades actually aren't terribly Japanese. They're an interpretation by Noguchi -- a half-Japanese, half-American designer born in Los Angeles -- of Japanese traditions no longer much observed in Japan, and blended with Modernist ideas of form which owe a lot to Scandinavian mid-century minimalist Modernism. It took about ten years for the shades to filter through to the mass market, to Britain, and to fashionable Edinburgh apartments.

I phoned my mother up to ask where she'd got the "Japanese" lampshades that used to hang in our Edinburgh flats (and still hang in my Berlin flat), and why. She said they were available -- and cheap -- from Habitat and British Home Stores, but that the stylish thing in lighting at the time was lamps, not overhead lights. She didn't know the lampshade was designed by Isamu Noguchi, though she did think of it as Japanese. When I asked her if she'd ever have considered using fluorescent lights in living rooms or bedrooms, my mother gave a very vehement "No!" The only place she'd use fluorescent lighting is in the kitchen, recessed in crannies behind kitchen units. ("Though even that looks very old-fashioned now, I know," she adds.)

My mother tells me that British stores, in an energy-saving gesture, have agreed to stop selling 100w tungsten bulbs from this month -- 60ws are more efficient -- and that, hearing this, my mother had run to the shops to bulk-buy 100ws while she still could. I told her there were alternatives which were just as bright -- LED bulbs, halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps and high efficiency incandescent bulbs. And I told her about new legislation in the US which will phase out all tungsten lighting by 2012. "We have improved on just about all of Thomas Edison's inventions," said the bill's author, Ted Stevens, "except for the light bulb", which has basically not changed in 125 years. Similar legislation is afoot in Germany.

Waxing lyrical in my Fluorescence decoder piece back in 2002, I described a "MiniDeco" space: "Picture colour-crucial fluorescent strips illuminating light plywood or fake wood, bubblewrap, cardboard, polythene and other repurposed packing, wrapping and shipping materials, exotic silks or silk substitutes, lurid non-authentic ethnic artefacts, third world vegetables and canned goods in a stark functional display system -- refrigerator units, catering cabinets in brutal white metal under harsh cool colour lighting, taped, plain generic photos of fruits, meats, spiky vegetables, fish, lychees, okra...

"Picture information-dense projection, fluidity, semi-transparency, fluorescent lighting, irreverent neon signage, 'electrographic architecture', surfaces seen as a mere pretext for a rapidly-changing flow of information plumbed in from the internet by high speed cable or through the air, and the combination of the techno-rationality with colour, ritual, religion, custom, all that's redolent of the distant and the religious and 'otherness'. Remember that first generation immigrants often preserve a somewhat conservative, outdated, rigid, even kitschy picture of their culture of origin, a picture almost as sentimental and unrealistic as the one projected by western orientalists, and ultimately rather compatible with it."

Actually, that describes rather well the environment I live in today: we have bubble-wrap, okra, fluorescent lighting, information-dense projections straight off the internet, and some kind of compatibility between exiled Asians and Western orientalists. But I still ask for the fluorescence to be extinguished when I come to bed. As for the ripped, rip-off Noguchi shade in the living room, Hisae doesn't like it much. The reason nobody has them in Japan, she says, is that the rooms aren't tall enough.