John Bullock Lighting Design
John Bullock Lighting Design
Lighting Product DesignLighting Product Design
Heritage Lighting ProjectsHeritage Lighting Projects
Home Lighting ProjectsHome Lighting Projects
Exhibitions Lighting ProjectsExhibitions Lighting Projects
Leisure Lighting ProjectsLeisure Lighting Projects
Exterior Lighting ProjectsExterior Lighting Projects
Commercial Lighting ProjectsCommercial Lighting Projects

The end of the light bulb?


I was talking to an industry insider the other day about the future of the light bulb - and I’m using the vernacular deliberately to describe a lamp because I think it hits home harder. Lighting professionals talk about ‘lamps’ in that crisp, dispassionate, kind of way that we have, whereas your old granny knows a light bulb when she sees one.

The received wisdom is that the light bulb – the GLS lamp and its derivatives in particular – can never die; perhaps it’s too big to fail? My friend pointed out that much the same can be said of the gas mantle, the wick and the rushlight, versions of which can still be purchased, but usually from the fan-zone of websites dedicated to lighting that we don’t use any more.

And after a sleepless couple of nights I’m beginning to see where his argument is coming from.

We assume constancy in our everyday purchases because we’ve always bought them. It’s not that we can’t imagine life without them, it’s just that we don’t think about them at all – we just buy them and use them. Maybe we think that light bulbs grow in hedgerows and get picked at dusk by cheery peasants on their way to the witch-burning; a part of nature and we assume that nature will continue to provide.

Reality check: light bulbs are manufactured by companies eager to turn a profit at everything that they do and it’s here that the warning signs are flashing.

For the past century and more, tungsten filament lamps formed the mainstay of the lighting world. They were cheap to make and cheap to buy. Designers of the classic fixtures of the 20th century owe their fame and fortune to the light bulb. But that hegemony of form can only continue to be celebrated for as long as the light source is available, and the future of the light bulb is under threat. The LED (inevitably) is to blame.

Or, that is to say, manufacturing processes are to blame. A metal wire in a glass envelope was very low tech (and the commensurate high running cost destroyed it as a consequence). A curly discharge tube is rather more higher tech and offers better energy consumption. It’s also a technology that calls for substantial capital investment to produce the millions of lamps in use around the world. But what happens if the global companies responsible for making these lamps have the commercial carpet pulled from underneath them by a bunch of new guys eager to show off the latest electronica? And what happens when those new guys eventually turn on each another to see who can be cheapest on the high street?That the new LED offerings are replacing the CFL is not seen as a problem -  few people ever really liked the CFL anyway. But the companies behind the LED lamps do not have the history or the structure to control the marketplace, hence we’re witnessing the current race to the bottom to see who can produce the cheapest lamp.

If this carries on then there won’t be any money to be made from making light bulbs. They will go the way of the gas mantle and the wick.But if this does happen it raises another, altogether too-exciting-for-words, question.

If we finally have to take all of our light fixtures to the recycling centre, including all those Scandinavian, Italian, and British design classics, what replaces them? Where will our new generation of classic designs come from.

Look! Is that a lighting designer sitting in that café over there drinking her skinny latte? Perhaps she’ll be the next great fixture designer of our time.


I, for one, look forward to that because I’m starting to see real examples of where the LED is finally flexing it’s style muscles and wholly new form factors are appearing.

This is very exciting because it demonstrates that the current infatuation with controls and the whole Internet of Things malarkey isn’t completely turning us away from what light fixtures look like and how they perform.

When everyone’s bored to the back teeth with talk about how lighting will be controlled by sensors built into your underpants that will decide when its time to turn the lights on we will still be talking about what the lighting actually does and what kind of luminaires we want to share our environment with.

Lighting design will triumph in the end because we’re arguing with people who only make switches – and that’s not really a fair fight.



Thanks to Mario Nanni and Viabizzuno for the LED fixture images. All gloriously wonderful, as I'm sure you agree.


RIBA CPD in 2015

Here are the links to my event calendars



John Bullock Lighting Design
4 Miller Way

Website designed by Alacrify