Richard Kelly - a pioneer in architectural lighting design

Richard Kelly, 1910-1977, was an American lighting designer and considered one of the pioneers in architectural lighting design. The feature image above is of Glass House, one of his most notable projects.

"Lighting is both an art and a science. To play with light is to play with magic."

Kelly wrote those words back in 1952 and they still resonate to this day. Indeed, for Xavio one of our tenets is to 'Design like an artist', and our lighting designers do just that, applying all of their artistic talent and experience to luxury projects all over the world.

For Kelly, to 'play with light' requires:

  • a trained eye to recognise real and relative values
  • experience and knowledge of cultural and psychological effects of light on people
  • experience and knowledge of physical techniques

His terminology is still consistently used to describe the conceptual background for numerous lighting solutions, in particular his concept of three distinct types of lighting:


Focal Glow | Ambient Luminescence | Play of Brilliants

Focal Glow

"Focal glow is the follow spot on the modern stage. It is the pool of light at your favorite reading chair. It is the shaft of sunshine that warms the end of the valley. It is candlelight on the face, and a flashlight on a stair... Focal glow draws attention, pulls together diverse parts, sells merchandise, separates the important from the unimportant, helps people see.”

Richard Kelly 

If we take Kelly's example of focal glow, in the sense - a shaft of sunshine that warms the end of the valley - then the next image is an ideal representation of that.

Our eyes are naturally and instinctively drawn to the brightest point. The sunbeams lead our gaze around the corner of the valley, thus creating intrigue and focus.

Without focal glow, a lighting scheme is meaningless, ambiguous, uniform and lacking focus.

All too often, lighting is applied in rows and installers are overly preoccupied with achieving consistent lux levels, but the truth is none of that matters in a residential space – and even in hospitality environments there is opportunity to draw focus through clever design and circuiting.

Ambient Luminescence

"Ambient luminescence is the uninterrupted light of a snowy morning in the open country. It is foglight at sea in a small boat, it is twilight haze on a wide river where shore and water and sky are indistinguishable. It is in any art gallery with strip-lighted walls, translucent ceiling, and white floor. (...) Ambient light produces shadowless illumination. It minimizes form and bulk.”

Richard Kelly

Looking at Ambient Luminescence gives us an opportunity to appreciate light in more subtle ways.

Interpreting twilight haze on a wide river, the picture below seemlessly blends the hues of sky and sea.

Pure ambient luminescence, therefore, lacks all focus and shape. It is flat and all-encompassing.

In design terms, for large public spaces this can be a valuable method of lighting, allowing visitors to explore all areas of the space.

In a residential or hospitality environment however it can be disorientating, and more focused pools of light and layers can be much more effective.

Play of Brilliants

"Play of brilliants is Times Square at night. It is the eighteenth century ballroom of crystal chandeliers and many candle flames. It is sunlight on a fountain or a rippling brook. It is a cache of diamonds in an opened cave. It is the rose window of Chartres... Play of brilliants excites the optic nerves, and in turn stimulates the body and spirit, quickens the appetite, awakens curiosity, sharpens the wit...."

Richard Kelly

When Kelly talks about exciting the optic nerves, we can see how Times Square at night does just that.

This image illustrates the vibrancy and energy that different colours of light can show, certainly providing wow-factor feature lighting. 'Play of brilliants' in lighting design is added sparkle and excitement, too much and it is overwhelming, but used wisely it is interesting and adds value.

Kelly goes on to say that ‘visual beauty is perceived by an interplay of all three kinds of light,’ with one element typically playing a more prominent role in the overall composition.

Art and Science in Perfect Harmony

For Xavio, when Kelly talks about the art and science of lighting, it truly resonates. Light is art, and we paint the canvas with light so to speak. Our lighting design schemes are focused on creating stunning and exquisite results, the likes of which can only be achieved with artistic talent.

However, it is also incredibly important to check the science behind the art to ensure what is being proposed is technically possible to achieve. Extensive expert knowledge and a deep understanding of electrical requirements, dimming systems and the latest technology and software that relates to lighting installations is an integral part of that science.

Art is described as -

...the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

So many considerations are in mind when designing a lighting scheme, and when creative (art) and technical (science) are in perfect harmony, the difference between good and excellence is palpable.

In the world of luxury lighting design, it is only then that the artist's vision is realised and the ordinary transcends to priceless masterpiece.

Up next

Xavio Joins The Luxury Property Forum

Click or scroll to discover