a biophilic year: designing with light and shadow

in a biophilic year

“the interaction of light and shadow fills the space with wonder”

cit. a biophilic year - #228

Light is what allows us to see in the dark, but it can be so much more than that in a design project! Let’s explore…

adding depth

Light is able to add depth and dimension to materials.
This is notably evident in the use of accent lighting to emphasize a feature or surface. “Complex” design elements such as rich textures or water features benefit from it in particular. Grazing light will make textures even more three-dimensional, highlighting every roughness and smoothness in them. And water will get a whole new depth when lit, with movement being accentuated and every splashing drop being revealed to sight.
Something similar happens with fire, where its (self-produced) moving light is a good part of what makes a fireplace enticing.

Highlighting design features with light calls even more attention to them, inviting to touch those textures or get closer to that water body to observe what’s going on. In a way then, the alternation of light and shadow can encourage a closer connection with one’s surroundings, stimulating senses other than sight.

Textured wall emphasized with light.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Meyer Davis (opened in a new window/tab)
Textured tiles with a plant casting shadows on them.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Decoratori Bassanesi (opened in a new window/tab)
Water feature hit by light.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Outdoor Elements (opened in a new window/tab)

drawing with light

Light and shadows are brushes in the hands of a designer. Skillfully directed or captured, both sunlight and artificial lighting can literally draw shapes on surfaces, adding interest to otherwise plain areas.

When using natural light, this also introduces an element of variability in the space, as shadows will change in size and colour according to the time of day, the season, the weather condition.
Perforated partitions, screens, and beams of light are some ways to “draw with light” in a space.

Perforated partition letting light draw shapes on the wall.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Ralph Germann (opened in a new window/tab) – Ph: Lionel Henriod
Foliage casting shadows on a ceiling.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Yabu Pushelberg (opened in a new window/tab)
Light casting shadows on a wall in an outdoor patio.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Lambs and Lions (opened in a new window/tab) – Ph: Georg Roske, Brechenmacher & Baumann

setting the ambiance

The presence (or absence) of light adds a layer of depth to the space as well.
Well-lit spaces feel immediately more open and sociable, calling for gathering time, conviviality, and activity.
Darker spaces instead feel more collected and private, thus welcoming introspection and quiet self-time – like a den to seek refuge and privacy. Obscuring the view, darkness can also evoke a sense of mystery, inviting people to further explore the space.

This ambiance-setting ability of light is also useful when designing multi-functional or small spaces. How to make a small studio feel open and airy but also cozy and relaxing? How to use the same space for work, entertaining and relaxing? Light is certainly part of the answer!

Bright living room.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Resi Interior Design (opened in a new window/tab)
Dark outdoor space lit with candles.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Makhno Studio (opened in a new window/tab)

 
The world of light is much wider than an on-off switch. Real magic happens through interaction and alternation of light, shadow, and darkness in a space. This is what sets different atmospheres, suggests different uses of the space, and ultimately guides how the space feels.

The quote that opens this article is drawn from my book ’a biophilic year: 365 thoughts on the essence and practice of biophilic design’. If you have the book, you’re welcome to reach out and request which topic you'd like to see next in this series!

Biophilic interior design book cover: "a biophilic year: 365 thoughts on the essence and practice of biophilic design".<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>

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