Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ship the light fantastic

Fun post alert:  no municipal mayhem or horticultural hot messes in this one - just good old fashioned shameless American consumerism.

Let me give you some context before I totally embarrass myself here.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I like to do home improvement projects in nerdy-female-scientist style.  I almost always achieve maximum bang for minimum buck, spending small amounts of money to achieve disproportionately large aesthetic effects.  I spent fifty bucks transforming my patio ceiling, and about seventy bucks revolutionizing a skylight.  Another fifty bucks updating my 14-year-old "SSSSAVE YOU MONEYYY!!" couch into something that passes for transitional.  And of course I saved many thousands of dollars by doing my own backyard landscaping instead of contracting it out. 

All this cost offset means that I get a pass in making at least one ridiculous purchase per year, doesn't it? 

Geez, I hope so, because this is it.

With context thusly addressed, next comes background.

I've been searching for a pendant light for our dining area on and off for three years now.  Meritage installed a standard builder-grade bowlish thing that looked like a flying saucer, and we ripped that out right away, but the trouble was, we couldn't find anything decent to replace it.  We ended up putting an ordinary generic fixture from a big-box hardware store in its place, but it really wasn't any better.  In fact, it was probably worse. 
Whether they say so explicitly on the box or not, most of these common fixtures can usually be mounted in either of two ways:
(1) With the lights pointing up, whereby they throw light on the ceiling and leave the dining table in darkness.
(2) With the lights pointing down as we did here, whereby they light the table, alright, but they incinerate your eyeballs in the process.  This problem has been made much worse by the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs.  Even the lowest-wattage compact fluorescents (CFLs) are going to be too bright in an application like this.  We even installed a dimmer switch and got dimmable low-wattage CFLs, but the effect was still awful. 

To say the same thing another way, the problem with this fixture and virtually every other fixture on the market is this:  IF you get one that throws light onto the table where you need it, you're going to have to be looking directly at naked light bulbs because of the angle you're at while seated.  Naked light bulbs, and at close range to boot.  This simply is not functional. 
We lived with that nasty apparatus for almost three years and I hated every minute of it.  The table felt like a surgical operating table rather than a dining table.  Each time I approached it, I wasn't sure if I was going to eat a meal, or have my f*cking appendix removed. 

Same fixture as seen from below, the view you'd get if you were about to go under the knife. 
But we lived with it for three years because, you know, something has to happen to elevate an aggravation such as this up the priority list before you get around to resolving it.  The straw that broke the camel's back for me was my teenager's decision to eat in the dark whenever she was eating alone.  This light was so awful that she got to the point of refusing to turn it on any longer. 

< Insert marathon internet shopping effort here. >  OMG, I have never seen such a widespread failure of imagination in any consumer sector in my entire life.  There is virtually nothing for sale out there that doesn't conform to this tired old template of feebly-modified chandelier.  The lights point up uselessly at the ceiling, or they point down and incinerate your eyeballs.  If you want light thrown directly onto the dining table, you have to live with naked bulbs in virtually every case.  I Pinterested this predicament until I was blue in the squinty face.  If you'd like to see my pathetic line-up of candidates, email me ( gmail) and I'll send you the link. 

I did find one fixture, however, that looked promising.  It's the Eurofase Lucida and it was used by Candice Olson in an HGTV episode where she specifically focused on lighting design
Screengrab from the manufacturer's website.  You can't see in this picture, but there's a hole in the bottom of the sphere.  Therefore, it distributes light diffusely through the slits, but it also throws a spotlight out the bottom - without the naked bulb being within a seated person's line of sight.
Here is a low-res screengrab from Candice's TV episode.  Now you can see the opening in the bottom.  It's the best of both worlds with this configuration - diffuse light AND a soft spotlight. 
I didn't find any independent reviews of this fixture prior to purchasing it on the internet.  Frankly I didn't look very hard, because if Candice Olson herself endorsed it, I figured it must be good.  My husband and I were actually shocked at how poor the quality turned out to be (in our opinions).  It's an extremely pricey fixture and it's not even made out of metal - it's plastic, and a very cheap plastic at that (in my opinion).  When it first arrived from Amazon, I wondered if perhaps I'd fallen victim to a knock-off sale because I didn't think such a cheap-feeling item could possibly be that expensive.  But I re-checked the manufacturer's website again, and it is described as having a "poly-resin" finish (I interpret this as being fancy words for "plastic").  So this is apparently the real deal.

But that just goes to show you how bad the overall selection of lighting fixtures is in the marketplace, if Candice Olson has to resort to using materials like that in her TV designs.  This is confirmation of my own Pinterested observations. 

Anyway, if I had seen the Eurofase Lucida straight up in a brick-and-mortar store, there's no way I would have forked out all that money for that level of quality.  But it arrived on a UPS courier truck and, for lack of better options, we went ahead and installed it to see what it would look like:

It's very difficult for me to properly expose a photo to show both the table and the light the way they appear in real life, but this is an approximation. Notice how the table top is illuminated to a greater degree than the immediate surroundings. In real life it's brighter than this, but if I make the photo brighter, I'll overexpose the fixture.

Because of the way we customized our build, we only have one eating area in this house, and so it has to look spiffy. Not formal, but spiffy. Furthermore, this eating area also sits within a great room that is a full 28 feet long (!). There has to be a strong focal point above the dining table, or else it's just going to get lost visually in that expanse of space.
Last night, for the first time in three years, I sat down and ate a meal without squinting.  And there was a soft spotlight in the center of the table so I had a perfect view of what I was eating as I was not squinting.  What this fixture lacks in robust construction, it makes up for in efficacy of design.  The lighting effect was exactly what I wanted, so I think I'm going to have to swallow my bang-for-buck pride just this one time, and simply keep it. 

So there's my latest adventure in consumerism, and in case you're interested, I'll leave you with Candice's tour of a Eurofase store (2-minute vid):

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