Daniel Blaker

February 22, 2024

Daniel Blaker, Creative Director at Nulty, discusses the lighting details to be considered when designing a lobby, and how it can be used to establish the tone of the space.

Entering a lobby should feel like a warm embrace. A beautifully curated welcome that creates a strong first impression and immediately gives you a sense of the occupant’s character and personality. Light has an important role to play here because it has the power to change the tempo and set the tone, so the way that we weave a lighting scheme together needs to be carefully balanced and emotionally driven. While a designer’s approach varies according to whether it’s a commercial space where typically brighter finishes are required, or a hotel where warmer tones are the order of the day, our design intent is simple – a lobby environment should make an impact and feel like the pinnacle of the experience set to unfold. 

Before we consider the specifics of incorporating a decorative luminaire or a feature installation, it’s important to step back and unpick the design narrative and purpose of that scheme. What are we trying to say with that space? Who is the scheme intended for and how will it be used? Is it simply a transition space that’s sole purpose is to guide its occupants through to a particular spot. Or should it encompass the welcoming spirit of a concierge and be a space of emotion and connection. It’s likely to be the latter because lobby environments are evolving to become social landscapes that serve multiple purposes, so co-working spaces and casual meeting areas are being embedded into the design. Designing for diversity of purpose is a skill that the lighting designer is becoming increasingly adept at. Often it means pulling a rabbit out of a hat by weaving different lighting techniques together in one single scheme. The trick is how we master the hierarchy of the space; the magic takes place when we design in layers.

First things first, we need to think about how light can be used to influence the way that people move around the space. As the eye is drawn to the brightest point, we can aid wayfinding and improve permeability by using light where it’s needed most to create a dwell point or pause moment such as a reception area or concierge desk, or to guide users to the next stage of their journey by accenting a lift lobby or staircase.

Next, we need to think about what materials are being illuminated and how they receive light. Most of the lit environment is perceived through how effectively the vertical surfaces are illuminated (as opposed to the floor), so when a person enters a space from the outside world, they shouldn’t feel like they are walking into a cave. If we have taken the time to properly illuminate the elevations, the transition should feel seamless.

Finally, we need to make the space sing, come alive and feel unique – this is where a focal point such as a bespoke chandelier or a theatrical lighting installation comes into play. When decorative lighting is thoughtfully curated, it can elicit an emotional response by imprinting a hotel experience in a person’s mind, reinforcing a company’s visual identity in a workplace, or giving pause for reflection in a residential setting. If we get it right, it’s a stylistic intervention that becomes an expression of the wider interior design narrative.

Too often a decorative lighting piece in a lobby is an off-the-shelf response, which is a missed opportunity because creation isn’t just specification, it’s about how form, materials, finishes, and light come together to create something special. Commissioning a piece for a lobby is a chance to have a little bit of fun by adding a creative stroke to that scheme, or weaving in something unexpected that gives it an extra punch of personality.  All of this brings us back to our original design mantra – make an impression! This should be the raison d’etre of a decorative luminaire or lighting piece in a lobby space, but it’s important to remember that these standalone lighting elements can’t be expected to enhance an interior space on their own. They need a sprinkle of magic in the form of delicately balanced layers of light that prevent them from becoming featureless and formless.

The key to activating the characteristics of a decorative lighting piece depends entirely on the composition, scale, materiality, sense of movement, and ambience that you are looking to create. In some cases, the feature itself is the light source, and whilst this does inherently provide its own expression, it typically delivers a modest performance that is at best functional light. Considered use of architectural lighting can make all the difference. If we want to add a strong dose of sparkle, we need to balance multiple light sources around a fitting to increase the level of refractions and reflections. And, if we are looking to make a feature soar, incorporating imperceivable up lighting will help it ascend.

A harmonious dialogue between architectural and decorative lighting will, without fail, result in a more resonant environment. Staging an experience is fundamental to the success of a lobby environment, and while decorative elements are typically not wall flowers, they need a little bit of help to be teased out of the shadows.