Lessons from the Stage, Part I

the logan wall

Some of the key lessons I’ve learned about the nature of light and its inherent properties were acquired through my theatrical design education.

This post will begin a four-part series that will discuss the main components of light as used by theatrical designers and how they relate to architectural design.  The first component will be Intensity, followed by Color, then Pattern, and lastly Focus and Positioning.  Together these characteristics of light can be manipulated to create visually stunning and dynamic spaces, whether on a stage or in the real-world environment.


This is the core quality of light.  Quite simply, intensity refers to how bright or dim the lighting in a scene is and sets the overall contrast of a scene.  The architectural lighting designer’s role is to provide enough intensity for the tasks being performed in a space, but also to provide contrast that draws people through a space.  Since eyes are drawn to the brightest parts of a scene first, the careful use of shadows to create contrast can help keep a space lively and vibrant.  Often, interior lighting tends to be more even and flat to keep lighting uniform and meet recommended foot-candle levels.  However, by lowering overall levels and creating smaller areas of brightness and shadow a space will become more dynamic.  In an office environment, this may mean adding decorative pendants in seating and reception areas, washing key walls with light, or adding accent light to the artwork.  It is also important to lower intensities where appropriate and use shadow to hide undesirable areas; e.g. lighting above a floating ceiling will expose the structure above and lead the eye away from what it should be seeing – the floating ceiling.  Many factors affect the intensity of light – lamp wattage, fixture optics, fixture placement and focus, etc. – and an architectural designer’s main job is to leverage those factors of intensity to create interesting and dynamic spaces that fit the needs of the people using them.  The photos below illustrate how intensity can affect the appearance of different spaces.

A high contrast space: The decorative walls of The Logan are the most prominent feature, followed by the tabletops and seating areas.  Its exposed ceiling disappears into darkness.  The varying intensities make the seating seem secluded from the corridor nearby.

A medium contrast space:  Anthropologie is evenly lit to allow all merchandise to be seen but uses accent lighting in key areas.  Notice how the mannequin on the right and the clothes rack on the left are brighter than the surroundings.  The wall behind the transaction counter is lit brighter to identify that area, spaces between floating ceilings are left in darkness to make the structure above disappear.

A low contrast space: The Northshore Mall retail corridor is uniformly up-lit to create a continuous appearance and encourage travel along its entire length. Sparkle from accent lights adds interest to the ceiling, while the shop fronts are the brightest areas, attracting customers.

*Lighting Lesson by Stephen R. Hoppe,  former Associate with The Lighting Practice

the logan wall

Northshore Mall Stores