Lighting Engines

Elysha Tsai
21 min readNov 6, 2019

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create an object that produces and modulates light for hanging out with friends in a living room

Before diving into the project, we were made aware of a few ideas:

  • We usually want to have control, or feel like we have control over the things around us. This can apply to the concept of turning on and off light.
  • Light having an on and off state forces us to consider design for different states of one product.
  • Consider diffusion. It is like a foggy day — what do the shadows look like on a sunny vs. a foggy day? What does everything light touches look on those days?
  • Glare has a bad connotation. Even in other languages, it has a meaning similar to “distraction.” We should be aware of this: the lighting engine isn’t evaluated purely based on form. Should people be able to see the lightbulb?
  • Experiment with different adhesives.
  • This lighting engine should mean something — should be something you want to keep. It shouldn’t be approached in a “mass-production” kind of way.
  • Other materials are allowed but the focus is on paper. It should look like a paper light.

Although paper can be manipulated in many ways, and we have the freedom to use other materials and adhesives to make our light, we should consider that lights have many purposes:

Navigation, Atmosphere (ambient), Task (acuity, crispness of edge shadow, color rendering), Decoration (light to look at light itself), Accent (decorative and ambient; cove lighting: illuminates an architectural element), Mood, Continuous/Intermittent (encompassing strobe light), Spectrum quality

The discussion made me start to notice light more: it made me consider how it is integrated in all of our lives seamlessly, yet they are designed in so many different ways.

I: Exploration + Research

These are all round lighting structures, yet their external elements differ. On the left, the light is lowered from the wall’s true height. In the middle, the light is very contained within the glass that diffuses it. On the right, the element of diffusion isn’t as restrictive. In the middle and right lights, the proximity of the light to the ceiling allows a halo of light to from around it on the ceiling.
These lighting structures project light on another surface. On the left, the light is not immediately apparent from far away, because its purpose is to illuminate the mural. This specific purpose is facilitated by the angle the light is set at. On the right, the lighting structure also projects light onto a surface. The projected light is continuous to the lighting structure, and allows the projected light’s reflection to illuminate the rest of the space.
These are all lightbulbs suspended by a pole. They all have a vaguely conical shape, but they give off very different feelings and aesthetics. On the left, the elegant curvature of the light makes sense in a cafe setting. In the middle, the simple structure that doesn’t attract attention functions well for a gym setting. On the right, the heavy duty metal encasings contrast against the glass lighting structures. However, they coexist in the “mismatched” convenience store environment.
These cylindrical lighting structures all function very differently. The one on the left projects from the ground, but the actual light comes from a middle segment. It projects a wide halo on the ground that helps navigation at night. The middle lights all rely on direct projection to the art store. The cylindrical lighting on the right projects light solely from one end. The other light attached to the wall projects light on walls that vary in angles, creating an interesting light beam.

My observations of the lightbulbs on campus can generally be categorized as bulbs suspended from a pole or screwed to a surface. I became aware of the number of lighting structures that project light onto other surfaces as opposed to shining down on what should be lighted.

In addition to exploring different existing lighting engines, I started to study paper and glue options for my own lighting engine.

Adhesive Study:

Considering the on and off stages. One thing I neglected at this stage was how different papers respond to the same adhesives.

All adhesives are invisible under the light, but the glues that are more liquid warped the paper. This effect will change depending on the thickness and type of paper. The tapes seem to affect the quality of the paper the least. I will continue to observe the effect of adhesives on paper in my following iterations.

Paper Study:

Printer Paper:

very thin, medium-fine texture when light illuminates it, true white color, medium-high diffusion

Construction Paper (white):

thin-medium thickness, rough texture when lit, neutral-pink color, medium diffusion

Canson Mi-Tientes Paper:

thin-medium thickness, medium-fine texture when lit, warm white color, medium diffusion

Folia Cardstock:

thick/stiff thickness, rough texture when lit, purple tone, medium-low diffusion

Just from studying these four types of paper, I realized that the color tone, texture when lit vs. not lit, and thickness vary considerably. I also realized the physical qualities of paper also determine the type of adhesive they require. For example, the Folia Cardstock was a stiffer material, so I needed to apply the tape differently to maintain the cylindrical form in the pictures above. These are factors I will continue to consider as I develop the structure and form of my lighting engine.

Discussion Takeaways:

  • Think about how form affects the associations we make (i.e. warm, red, personal, pleasant)
  • Notice consensus of descriptive words: high/low, dim/bright, for multiple people/1 person
  • Take pictures of lights in the off state. How prominent does it look?
  • Consider how something can be pleasing even when it’s not used. (i.e. chair: sit and not sit state)
  • Explore Turrel’s work

II: Sketch Models

Although I kept in mind the observations I made about adhesives and paper, I approached these sketch models with more of an open mind and intent to explore. Most of these are made with printer paper and tape to fulfill this goal.

I did not try to make any of them match my prompt, but I realized that in the creation of these models, I started to have a better idea of what better supports “hanging out with friends.”

MODEL 1: Completely enclosed + Long Hanging light

This light diffuses light well and disperses it to a decently-wide space, but it is not visually interesting and the round curves combined with the right angles don’t necessarily support a “hanging-out” environment.

MODEL 2: Abstract form + Experimentation with Slit Joints

This model stemmed out of a desire to join different paper forms by means of slits. The result is not refined in any way, but I think it was an interesting exploration of how different strips of paper can be joined together to make varied forms.

Making this model also introduced me to bounce light. I don’t always have to rely on light passing through the paper, but I could also take advantage of how light reflects off a surface. The result is often brighter and creates more visual interest.

MODEL 3: Lantern-Inspired Hanging Light

This is another super unrefined model, but it steered me away from using papers with a lot of cut-outs. If I were to pursue using cut-outs in the future, it would have more layers to diffuse the light better.

MODEL 4: Exploration of Gradient Effect with Layered Papers

I made this model to explore the effects of layering papers and how leaving a gap between papers creates bounce light and an additional means for light to project upwards.

MODEL 5: Segmented + Varied Stacking Table Light, Exploration of “Gaps”

I explored using multiple pieces of paper again, but instead of overlapping them, I tried stacking them. I think the folds create an interesting geometric form, further emphasized by different means of stacking. I also noticed that where the stacked piece doesn’t cover the bottom piece, the gap/corner projects light onto the stacked piece, an interesting effect.

MODEL 6: Sewing “Adhesive” Experiment + Unique Conical yet Angular Shape

This was an exploration of using sewing as an adhesive and folding to create an angular origami-inspired form. Many of my peers commented that it looked like a paper airplane. I think this means that it could have a “playful” feel which can support my prompt.

Discussion Takeaways:

  • Revisit given prompt — how can your light give cues to context given size, shape, temperature?
  • Height of light matters. Orientation in general — hanging, standing (to what level), on side?
  • Consider whether lighting engine sparks associations that are nouns or adjectives.
  • Consider which direction the lighting engine is pointing at (“directing”).
  • For 2 or 8 friends? What situation are you imagining and how will you support it?
  • Consider repetition, pattern, and rhythm.
  • Consider effects of gravity, and how it acts differently depending on the paper.
  • Build lighting engine to scale, because paper acts differently at different scales.

After the discussion, I was very inspired to explore different ways to manipulate paper.

Next steps:

  • Buy more and larger paper (more freedom to manipulate paper)
  • Buy more types of adhesive
  • Buy paper that promotes structure, like foamcore
  • Choose 1–2 sketch models and further develop in context of prompt
  • Consider discussion considerations + prompt

III: “Alternative” Models

After creating the sketch models, I had a better idea of what does, but more importantly, does not support “hanging out with friends in a living room.” With this knowledge, I started to intentionally create forms that pertain to my prompt.

I listed word associations of “living room” and “friends,” and performed simple Google searches of “living room” and “living room lights” to get a general feeling of what a living room light should look like before formulating my own.

For my alternative models, I built upon my sketch models and this newer understanding of what a living room light should look like.

MODEL 1: Buiding off the shape of Sketch Model 5

Because I liked the overall shape and stacking possibilities in sketch model 5, I decided to translate this into a hanging/ceiling light. I realized ceiling lights better fit the necessity I need to fulfill to accommodate more people in a “hang-out” setting.

I decided to join the folds on the top to create a more tapered form.
I then experimented with ways to accessorize and cover up the lightbulb on top.
Pushing the stacking method → overlapping pieces. This creates a distinct hierarchy and separation in regards to how much light passes through depending on the number of layers of paper.

Asher’s feedback:

  • The folds create an interesting shape
  • He enjoys the versatility of the overlapping elements, he says this can be translated into a customizable light concept (shifting pieces up and down, side to side to allow more/less light to show)
  • He agreed with me that the decision to translate the desk light into a ceiling light fits better with my prompt

MODEL 2: Explores way to make cast light wider and visually interesting

I realized that the matboard was accommodating to the scoring technique I adopted from the cardboard carriers project. The picture on the right shows how I used construction paper to create the dynamic rings to diffuse the light.

PROS:

  • the “chandelier” form dispersed light outwards pretty effectively, which supports my prompt well
  • The rings give off a playful vibe, which also was my intention in adhering to the prompt
  • The rings diffuse the harsh light from the lightbulb
  • The light looks interesting in both the on/off states

CONS:

  • The lightbulb is still somewhat visible even through the rings
  • The rings feel unresolved and not planned enough as it goes towards the center
  • The angles of the curves are not “idealized” enough — they aren’t curved at the same angles
  • In general, people had a strong negative reaction to the light. It made them feel uncomfortable.
  • Strong association with octopus, squid, tentacle

I was also dissatisfied with the form of the light, but I think it was a good exploration and making this made me want to explore more chandelier forms and ways to manipulate matboard to establish structure in a lighting engine.

Steve also inspired me to explore more chandelier-type forms by suggesting the following images to look up:

Compared form of the light to tentacles of a humboldt squid. Should idealize curves so that they resemble branches of a blue spruce.
Pediments in Greek Architecture. This is meant to inspire different forms of the chandelier’s structure.
Labor-intensive way to make curved paper: laminated wood method like in Eame’s chair. These structurally perfect curves are also present in the curved beams in Japanese architecture.

Next steps:

  • Create variations for both alternative models
  • Do more research about chandelier forms
  • Explore bounce light ideas
  • Revisit some initial lighting explorations and see if they have potential to build off on

IV: Refined Model

Out of the two alternative models, I decided to build upon MODEL 2 because I felt like the chandelier idea had more potential:

  • I enjoyed the form and “spread apart-ness” of a chandelier
  • I associated the chandelier form with a setting that is wider and accommodating to more people
  • I thought I could continue to explore the way structure is created by a thicker paper like matboard

Continuing the research process, I looked up the following search terms for inspiration: “chandelier,” “simple chandelier,” “nordic style chandelier,” “paper chandelier.” This opened me up to more ways to manipulate paper to create interesting chandelier forms.

I also revisited the idea of bounce lighting because a peer commented that the undersides of the rings were interesting because of how the light reflected off it. I decided that I wanted to intentionally incorporate this into my next chandelier forms.

Lights prioritizing the use of bounce light → simple chandelier forms → combining bounce light and chandelier form

Because of the negative associations people made with alternative model 2, I decided to incorporate more angular elements in my next model as opposed to primarily-curved forms.

I also decided to experiment with an odd-number of “petals” to see if it translates more like a light and/or is more comfortable visually. Choosing three petals made me reconsider the structure holding the lightbulb — it resembles a triangle rather than a square.

To “idealize” or maintain consistency of all three petals, I scored the matboard twice to create a right angle. This angle would be held up by a strip attached to the end of the petal and the structure surrounding the lightbulb. To make this more visually interesting, I threaded the strip through a slit I made in the matboard.

L: Sketch for this model. I did not end up making the inner two strips because I couldn’t find a way to execute it given the odd number of “blades”. R: Sketch of a very angular chandelier. Made the “rings” more systematic by separating them and folding at right angles. I didn’t end up executing this idea because I preferred more curved forms.
L: I realized later that light can only pass through a small triangle at the bottom of the lighting engine. R: Using tracing paper to cover up the lightbulb.

I am satisfied with the form of my chandelier, but by focusing on the form and how I can use different types of paper to support it, it counteracted against the chandelier’s ability to deliver light to a wide area.

The result is these slew of problems I must address in my next iteration:

  • the right angle formed by the three “petals” surrounding the lightbulb covers most of the lightbulb, creating very distinct slits and a triangle shape at the bottom. This is a far too focused and small area where light can pass through
  • the conservation board is a good temperature and supports the desired form of the chandelier, but it allows no light to pass through. this communicates the lighting engine as more of a sculptural object rather than something that facilitates the distribution of light
  • the lightbulb is not addressed enough. In efforts to make people not see the actual lightbulb, I hastily wrapped some tracing paper around it.
A peer flipped over the light to create this alternative form. I think it garnered more positive reactions because the lighting engine doesn’t obscure a lot of the light. This gave me the idea to potentially make the structure on top wider so the papers that hang from it are less likely to obscure the light.

In general, with the intention to improve the form and create less real-life associations from my last model, I neglected the true purpose of the lighting engine — to distribute light to support hanging out with friends.

Some of the solutions that I came up with to maintain the general form of the chandelier but also allow more light to pass through.

Moving forward, I intend to execute a few of my solutions while maintaining the general form of the chandelier that I am attached to.

V: Refined Model

In response to the overwhelming associations with “ceiling fan” with my previous iteration, I decided to go back to the more curvilinear shapes of the chandelier. I also wanted to experiment with ways to cover up the lightbulb more effectively and intentionally.

I ended up executing #3 from my list of “solutions” I created after my previous iteration. I thought that by removing the right angles surrounding the lightbulb, more of the light will be seen from the bottom, if it is held up effectively by the slit mechanism.

I experimented with 2-ply conservation board instead of 4-ply to see if more light can pass through the chandelier form, but it ended up being very flimsy. I ended up using matboard for this iteration, but I will probably use conservation board for the final model because it is just as sturdy as the matboard, but it is a warmer color, which matches the lightbulb better.

I intended to use the slot in the matboard to lift the “blades” more so more light can get through, but my scoring technique got in the way and made the “blades” bend more (and still sag down) instead of lifting.
L: Covering the lightbulb by layering vellum. R: Using hot glue as a “quick fix” for the (still) uneven petals.

From far away, I realized that the original form of the lightbulb was still very apparent, since the layering vellum resembled the shape of the lightbulb and are in close proximity to the actual lightbulb. This made the three petals that made up the chandelier form more apparently a decorative element rather than something that supported the distribution of light.

I also attempted to cover the base of the lightbulb using the same Yupo paper. I like that it is low-profile and goes with the existing chandelier curve. I think this method is good in theory but was executed poorly.

PROS:

  • The curved petals look unique and interesting visually
  • The way I covered the lightbulb is also cool visually and is somewhat cohesive with the curves of the petals
  • The way I covered the base of the lightbulb is good in theory

CONS:

  • Associations from scored petals: metal, mechanical. This was an unexpected association and made me reconsider scoring the paper altogether. If it reminds people of metal, does it really belong in a paper light?
  • Layered vellum isn’t enough to fully cover and diffuse the light
  • Petals still cover the lightbulb in some way

I realized I need to disregard how a chandelier works functionally since chandeliers work because of the fact that they have multiple sources of light. Instead, I should take inspiration off the form of the chandelier, and truly focus on how light can be distributed to a wider space.

Steve suggested I look at the following pictures:

L: Artichoke light: uses curved paper-like material to spread light outwards. The way the pieces are angled creates a nice light gradient. R: Fresnel Lighthouse light: this demonstrates the concept of magnifying a small source of light.

These lights are all vaguely “chandelier” like but still utilize only one bulb (which is a better point of inspiration than a traditional chandelier). My general takeaways from this are that I need to redirect my focus to the lightbulb and I should be manipulating paper in different ways to address the light and its distribution.

Some things I wanted to experiment with before I created my final model:

  • different number of “blades” (more than 3, odd/even number)
  • using Yupo paper in different ways to diffuse the lightbulb (different folds/cut-outs)
  • not relying on the slit mechanism to hold up the chandelier

I decided that to have a happy medium between balancing the diffusion of the light from the lightbulb and the “chandelier” form I was attracted to, I would maintain the symmetry and structured “blades” aspect on the top of the chandelier, but expand on the diffusion and light “magnification” aspect for the majority of the light.

VI: Prep for Final Model

Over the weekend, I intended to make a lot of the models I sketched out in order to fulfill the criteria I determined after creating my last model. I only ended up creating one model because I was pretty satisfied with the form and spent a good amount of time exploring nuanced options for that particular form.

Sketching out ways to incorporate the slit mechanism, chandelier-inspired form, and radial symmetry into a lighting engine that sufficiently diffuses the lightbulb’s light.
Using the petals to support/act for structure rather than from.
Using six types of paper to see how light passes through it.

Increasing the number of petals/blades allows me to implement the strip idea to more effectively cover the lightbulb and diffuse the light it emits. I still played up the curves I intended to make with the strips by making the ends of the blades curved. This made it so that I had to cut small slits in the strips so that when glued, they would match up with the curved edge of the blade.

I experimented with the following types of paper + their relationship with the lightbulb with the 8 blades:

  • Construction Paper: texture is distracting
  • Railroad Paper: thick, texture is distracting
  • Canson Mi-Tientes: nice warm tone, may obscure light too much?
  • Clearprint Vellum: nice texture, but way too thin (lets too much light through)
  • Translucent Yupo (Vellum): nice diffusion/texture, may be too thin when applied to all 8 blades
  • White Yupo (Vellum): nice texture, may obscure too much light
Solution to covering up the lightbulb.

I was just playing around with attaching the strip to the opposite side of the lightbulb, but as I kept adding more, I realized it created an interesting wrapping effect around the lightbulb. I think this is a viable solution to the problem I had with covering/diffusing the light from the lightbulb. The execution of this technique is still not very developed — the strips don’t cover up the lightbulb completely in some areas — this is due to an inconsistent system of attaching the strips I will address later.

Even though the realizations I made in this penultimate model were significant, there are still many things I must resolve and fix for my final model. Things to work on for the final iteration:

  • Revert to using conservation board
  • Determine exactly what paper to use
  • Craft: cutting strips and “blades” cleanly
  • Consistency in loops and measurements b/w folds + slits
  • Using a stronger adhesive: the strips kept falling down from this model
  • Develop way to make strips “wrapping” around lightbulb look more intentional
  • Consider using 1 or 2 pieces to create “blades” rather than 8.
  • Covering up the upper portion/base of the lightbulb

VII: Final Model

Going into creating the final model, I intended to make something very similar to my second to last model in terms of general form and distribution of light. I had a pretty straightforward checklist of the things I need to change/figure out in this iteration, and I accomplished all of them in this model.

Construction paper stencil → 2 “+” sign” blades → align so that they are evenly spaced → glue together

Because of the size limit on Conservation board, I wasn’t able to create the top structure out of one piece. I ended up making two “+” signs and hot-gluing them together. This was an improvement over eight individual blades because there was less variation in the heights of the blades (because they are stacked on top of each other.)

In regards to the type of paper I would use for the final model, I seriously considered the following options:

  • Canson Mi-Tientes: texture may not be as nice as Yupo
  • Translucent Yupo: might allow too much light through
  • White Yupo: might allow too little light through
  • Alternating Translucent + White Yupo: may look weird/stripey/distracting

I ended up choosing Translucent Yupo to start with, and I would add/use white Yupo if the effect ended up being too bright. As I covered the lightbulb, I realized the Translucent Yupo did the job well, so I stuck with it.

I first used masking tape to secure the strips as I was testing if the Translucent Yupo would look good when applied to all eight blades instead of just one.

To make covering the lightbulb look more refined and intentional:

Folding the end of the strip at an angle + using a construction paper template to make sure all the strips are the same.
  • I folded the end of each of the strips at an angle. This makes it so that there is less clashing between all the strips. The bottom angle will look more systematic and idealized.
  • I glued each of the strips so that they aligned perfectly with the one before it. This made it so that there were no gaps between the strips and none of the lightbulb would show.
  • I made sure to glue the strips equidistant to the lightbulb so the overall form wouldn’t look distorted at certain angles.

To improve consistency between all the strips, I made a base template out of construction paper, where I marked where exactly to fold the ends of the strips to attach to the conservation board, where to cut the slit, and the precise tapered quality of the strip. I also made sure to adjust all the loops (created by the strip threading through the slit) so that they were all the same size.

Adhesive-wise, I ended up using a conservative amount of hot glue. I figured hot-glue is a fast and strong glue that works with vellum, and as long as I don’t use too much, it won’t be obvious and take away from craft.

Some rough printer paper prototypes of ways to cover the top of the lightbulb. I made a few sketches to visualize them in context of the entire lighting engine.

Another challenge was covering the top/base of the lightbulb. Considering how high the light would be hung up, I realized that this didn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to serve as a reasonable transition between the light and the cord. I ended up settling on a truncated square pyramid shape. This maintained the radial symmetry, and plays up the less curvy forms of the lighting engine.

FINAL MODEL:

REFLECTION:

I found this project very challenging because of the freedom we were given in terms of material choice, adhesive, and the sheer number of ways one can manipulate paper. I realized that it was very difficult to narrow down and focus on a particular form I liked because so many of my explorations were viable. There is no concrete answer to what extent the form of the light supports the prompt. It’s hard to tell especially if I didn’t fully execute a model to demonstrate the idea.

I also found that my attachment to form is very strong, and it made me neglect the true purpose of the lighting engine for a long time (see all refined models). I realized that I need to actively work on solving the problems I have identified given the research and explorations I already made instead of trying to come up with new ideas that complicate the process further.

Despite the challenges, I am still pretty satisfied with my final result. It is visually interesting in both the on and off states — incorporating curved forms, a slit mechanism, and systematic wrapping of the lightbulb. The material choice of conservation board and translucent vellum paper contributes to a pleasant distribution of light and supports the structure of the light form. Above all, these elements plus the size and pleasant curvilinear form belongs in the context of hanging out with friends in a living room.

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