painted wall with shadow

Surfaces of Light

Every morning, as I do my exercises, my focus is invariably distracted – by the changing light in the room.

I know this room so well and yet every day the room takes on a different look. Even, at the same time of the day, it can appear very different.

At times, it can look quite magical.

Light, can transform an everyday room into something spectacular.

In that rare moment, as the light hits the surface of a wall in a certain way, I am caught up in it.

When light bounces onto and across the surface of the walls it does more than just illuminate space; it highlights its texture. So much so that an ordinary painted wall, a carpet, a cupboard door suddenly come alive.

In that moment, when the most subtle qualities of a surface is made visible, that wall is not just a nondescript wall. It has a presence in this space..

Light adds shade, depth and shape to enrich our everyday world.

It focuses our attention on the surfaces that surround us.

As they appear, rays, spots and beams of light create a visual surprise. It is not just how it makes patterns and shapes but how it shows the intrinsic materiality of the surface. And, something more intimate; the subtle texture of the paintbrush and roller strokes of the hand that treated that surface.

In the time that I do my exercises the light moves silently across the room.

As it moves it seeks out and shines across different surfaces: the walls, furniture and floor.

Even a bare-painted wall adds a subtle texture to the room: warmth and cold, shine, gloss and patina. It has the silkiness of sheen, depth of grain and grit. I see it, I feel it, and I absorb it.

Light on a surface reveals its truths; its age, wear and tear – and whether it is new, or renewed.

I can appreciate the precise, fresh, crisp, clean surfaces that show a mastery of craft in form and space ( John Pawson ) But, I am also drawn to bumpy, aged, rough surfaces of older buildings ( David Chipperfield.) These surfaces, were built to last but to be experienced they have to be maintained.

All matter exists in the continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction.

Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes Of The Skin

My home is just over 20 years old. As a building it is by no means a masterclass in construction, or design. I maintain it, and so it it is likely to outlive me. But it was not built with materials that were designed to last.

I know I am very lucky to live where the walls and surfaces can just be a neutral face in the space. In high density dwellings all the walls may covered by storage units and crammed full of stuff. There may be nowhere else for it to go. Here, these surfaces give me breathing space. And, become a place for the play of light.

Look, But Don’t Touch

When I see the purity of a sculptural form like many others I just want to reach out and touch it. I want to feel it.

To make sense of what I see I have to get up close to it through actual bodily contact: using fingertips, hands, cheeks.

To make sense of her world a child touches everything. She understands materiality – temperature, resistance, grain and sound – because she scratched it, rubbed it, played with it and learned from it.

As adults we tend to rely on sight to sense the quality of materiality, rather than touch. But, we still draw on the deeper memory of our childhood experiences. We still carry with us our own deeper, visceral sense of materiality, and what that mean to us.

In the adult world, touching surfaces is somewhat less socially acceptable.

We don’t want to mark the walls. Or scratch the floor, or leave a greasy stain. Propriety rules how we behave in a space.

The eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection. The eye surveys, controls and investigates, whereas touch approaches and caresses.

Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of The Skin

And so, interiors have become less about what they ‘feel like’ and more about what they ‘look like’.

It is only when we are actively engaged in painting, cleaning, making or re-making surfaces that we connect intimately again with the materiality of that space.

A room may be somewhere we take for granted, until we decide to change it. When we change it we reconsider its possibilities and potential. What more can we do to this room – what more can it do for us?

In 2016 for the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, the artist, Robert Irwin created Dawn To Dusk. This is ‘interiors’ as sculpture, as art.

As they move through the space the viewer connects to the changing light of the desert. From blinding sun through to the rich, warm evening hues, this environment is about the simplicity of interior space – and light, expressed in the simple sculptural qualities of architectural interiors. In this setting, we stop, we look, we notice it.

In large gallery spaces artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, play with sculptural forms and the light. Conrad Shawcross’s Slow Arc Inside A Cube explores light and pattern within the confines of a room.

James Turrell is an artist who creates light installations. His art features the purity of shapes on surfaces, best viewed within an internal space. These are awe-inspiring experiences that can only be truly experienced first-hand. To fully capture the impact and immensity of scale you have to be there.

There is that moment… when light hits the shiny surface of a watch, or a glass, and bounces around the room. Is it merely a playful distraction… a creative pause.. or both?

These images taken in my home mean something to me.

They record a simple moment of joy, that could spark an idea, or a new way of looking.

One of the very first projects I do with interior design students is to get them to look, and to see, the effect of light in space.

Once they see the magic of what light can do they can easily manipulate it to create a desired effect – or something quite unexpected. A very simple exercise, but one that connects people to the joy of looking and playing with ideas.

It is something we can all do.

It is something we should never stop doing.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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