november 2009 | Lighting Design
Vesa Honkonen paints with light
A few years ago Vesa Honkonen began his lectures by turning off the ceiling lights and using a wax candle that he had beside him as the only light source in the room. This is probably the most effective way of putting across the lighting designer’s message. Working with lighting is just as much about darkness as light.
“When working with lighting, the most important thing to understand is darkness. There is nearly always too much light. You should start with the darkness and then paint with light,” says Vesa Honkonen.
So darkness is the canvas that you paint upon?
“Exactly. For me, darkness is the basic state of being. There is no movement, no energy. Light comes and lives as long as there is energy,” he says and points out that all attention can be focused by just one lux, referring to the example of the wax candle.
“The contrast was manifest. The candle created a room solely around me. Meeting rooms are about contrast, only contrast. If there is already light you cannot create more light. You have to begin creating darkness. This is important to understand.
When night comes it is because the light is disappearing rather than darkness falling. We return to square one,” he explains, and uses the same logic when he dismisses the notion that Rembrandt was the master of light.
“No, Rembrandt was the master of darkness and dark shades. He only needed a little light to make something great and beautiful.”
Vesa Honkonen works within architecture, design, art and town planning. But it is through his work with lighting that he has become most renowned, thus giving him the reputation of only having worked within that field. In actual fact he would much rather work with entire room solutions. On several occasions a lighting assignment has culminated in him being given the task of designing the room in its entirety.
“Light is integrated into everything I do. It’s always present. It’s not possible to separate lighting from town planning or in designing a chair or a building. I have to use light and darkness as building materials. A good lighting installation is a meeting between material and light. It’s impossible to create good lighting if you can only affect the light. You also have to be able to affect the surface colours and how much they reflect. Light does not live until it strikes a surface. When travelling through the air, light is invisible because light is nothing in itself.
“Then you have to be aware of light temperature and colour rendition to help you choose the right light. There are many different light sources and a variety of qualitative things in light that you can master and utilise. You can, for example, choose between cold daylight or a warm, yellower light. If you want a romantic dinner you don’t choose daylight or a fluorescent light. It impacts our emotions.”
“For me, darkness is the basic state of being.”
Vesa Honkonen says that the most common mistake when designing the lighting for a meeting room is in giving it too much light.
“The light is not directed but shines everywhere, and darkness is forgotten. You have to let the darkness remain. You should not be afraid of darkness but dare to create contrasts. Then it depends on whether it is about indirect light or the creation of a lot of shadow. Direct light creates a lot of shadow making it difficult to separate details. It’s difficult to see the face of somebody talking with light coming down from above. If the light is indirect, the lack of shadow is tiring on the eyes.”
Vesa Honkonen considers most meeting rooms as being very poor with regard to lighting. He compares lighting in meeting rooms with that in restaurants: “There is no good restaurant lighting.”
“The greatest problem is flexibility, being able to move it around the room, but then the problem of fittings that require power arises.”
Vesa Honkonen likes the thought of a meeting room with a table in the middle that is illuminated from above with the rest of the room in darkness. He draws parallels with the Stone Age when we sat around a round campfire. The fire was both light source and safety, which created a special unity.
“Those instincts remain. We should utilise them.”
In the 1990s Vesa Honkonen worked together with the American architect Steven Holl. Honkonen was the project architect in the design and building phase of the Kiasma Museum for Contemporary Art in Helsinki. He worked in New York for three years before returning to Helsinki to supervise the building of the museum. He gladly calls himself a “genuine house elf” because he first studied to become a house architect before he began working with lighting.
“My background is making buildings. But during the work Steven Holl said that the most important building material was the light. We two think in much the same way. Architecture has to be experienced, not understood. And light is what gives shape.”
Vesa Honkonen likens the rise of Kiasma with “almost the third world war”. War veterans protested against the museum being built near an historical sculpture and the daredevil architecture got older architects to join the chorus of critics. Vesa Honkonen, who received a death threat for his participation, says that it taught him that architecture is life and politics. But he likes resistance.
“People do not like great changes. When somebody opposes me it means I’ve done something interesting. It’s not about provoking but doing something as honest as possible,” he says and names Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the US national anthem as a source of inspiration.
“He didn’t look to provoke but to play as beautifully as he could. It was beautiful to him but not to those in power. Honesty is significant in the art.”
One of Vesa Honkonen’s devices is that there must be a story in the architecture that holds together the building or work of art. He has, for example, been applauded for the new chairs and table that he designed for Kiasma.
During the process that led to the chair, Vesa Honkonen emanated from a serial strip that he had drawn himself, where a person conversing with the emptiness wanted a chair to sit on. Through the dialogue and that which happened in the serial, Vesa Honkonen found the shape of the chair. Four months into the process he noticed that the ideas did not work, the chair he designed would be too expensive and complicated to produce. In ten minutes he created a new design that was possible to manufacture.
“It happened so quickly because there was a strong story behind the chair.”
A journalist noticed the chair and wrote “the value of an ugly chair”, which pleased Vesa Honkonen no end.
“Not everybody likes having their things called ugly, but in a nice part of the article they wrote that for anyone working with minimalism this robust chair was a welcoming trend break. You couldn’t say that the chair was beautiful exactly, but you love it because it has a soul. The women who wrote the article felt that. That’s the important thing.”
During his travels Vesa Honkonen has noticed how light differs in different places in the world and the affect it has on people. He draws a diagram on a piece of paper to show how light near the equator differs from the light in the Nordics and how it affects our lives and way of being.
How can we use the rhythm of light to create an effective meeting?
“The illuminance, for instance. You can turn the light up if you want to increase the tempo and lower it for a calmer atmosphere. If you want to convince somebody or make a really good presentation then it is worth putting time and effort into the lighting. The best lighting is when nobody notices the fittings or sees that you have manipulated the light.”