Now That Traditional Bulbs Are Being Phased Out, What's Next?

From smarter bulbs to dynamic fixtures, a lighting revolution is happening.

Designed by Diego Chilò, the Filux LED chandelier was inspired by a sea creature. (Photo courtesy of Leucos)

Feb 2, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

Ask interior designers what one of the most important components of a room’s design is, and they’ll likely answer, “Lighting.” Not only does lighting work as “the jewelry of the room,” as one designer told me, but the warm glow of an incandescent bulb creates a soft and welcoming pool of light. One designer even swore by using pink bulbs in the bedroom to make her clients look more radiant. I promptly bought several.

So when the “war on incandescent bulbs” started several years ago, many designers started stockpiling the precious—and now finite—objects. One famously told The New York Times, “Every time I go to Costco, I buy more wattage.” And some even took to their Facebook pages: “Another ridiculous law…. Have you ever tried reading a book by the light of a ‘snowcone’ light bulb?” A beautiful home is a serious (and billion-dollar) business, so there’s reason to feel threatened by change. Or is there? Sometimes it just takes time for a forward-looking idea to feel safe. (People once feared the imaginary “vapors” given off by electricity.)

Designer Eric Solè created the LED Mesmeri wall sconce to be “like a living object.” (Photo courtesy of Artemide)

As of January, the familiar 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs, the filament-stuffed glass globes we all grew up with—the offspring of the bulb Thomas Edison patented in 1880—are officially banned in the United States. Well, perhaps “banned” is too strong a word. It’s more the phasing out of an object that will be replaced with a more efficient version. But it does mean that bulbs as we knew them will no longer be produced or imported, and what’s on shelves now is all that remains. (Most major retailers estimate they have about a six-month supply left.) Funny thing is, most Americans don’t even know about the law, the Energy Independence and Security Act signed by President Bush on Dec. 18, 2007. (It’s worth noting that similar laws went into effect in Venezuela and Brazil two years earlier, and most countries have similar programs in the works.) In short, the law set new minimum-efficiency standards. Over the course of a few years, new bulbs that require fewer watts for a similar lumen output would replace the old ones. It began with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012, and we’ve now worked our way down to the 40-watt bulbs.

The law was met with alarming contempt, most notably from Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who introduced the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act in 2011. It, like her presidential bid, failed. But what I can’t quite come to terms with is the angst over better bulbs. They consume far less power—some are a whopping 85 percent more efficient than old-school bulbs. Yes, they cost more, but they also last 15 times longer. Don’t we want smarter products? Even manufacturers such as Cree and Philips got on board quickly. The initial public hesitation had to do with the creepy pale-blue light produced by CFLs and LEDs, but that’s really no longer such an issue. In a relatively short time, their quality and color has improved tremendously. So is it really an issue of freedom of choice and government intervention that’s got people so mad? Cue the “get off my lamp” jokes. This is good for the planet, folks.

The Elysée chandelier by Marina Toscano references historical hand-blown glass designs but features LED-illuminated arms. (Photo courtesy of Leucos)

What I have found a little frustrating about the newfangled bulbs is their terminology and the different sciences behind fluorescent, halogen, and light-emitting diodes, but as far as I’m concerned, they may as well be run by tiny elves. I don’t need to know how everything actually works. Especially when my options as a consumer are presented clearly, as on Home Depot’s website, which breaks down bulbs into three categories—LED, CFL, and Eco-Incandescent—and with a handy “how to choose” system based on shape, wattage equivalent, and color temperature. I can handle that.

Alessandro Zambelli’s Swiss pine and 3D-printed polyamide pendants just debuted at Maison et Object in Paris last week. The series is called Afillia, meaning leafless but not lifeless. (Photo courtesy Alessandro Zambelli)

What’s perhaps most exciting about the future of the bulb is the lighting designs that contain them, like the fixtures seen here. A whole new sculptural trend seems to be happening as designers come to better understand new kinds of light and how to maximize their effects. When electricity first came into homes in the late 19th century, most people retrofitted existing gas lamps with wiring. While the technology changed, the form remained the same. These days, they’re evolving together, meaning the modern system by which the light runs increases the efficiency of the bulb. Who doesn’t love a twofer? In the words of Thomas Edison, “Have faith and go forward.”