By now, plenty of us have read the NY Times' lengthy examination of the future of Light Emitting Diodes as low-consumption replacements for incandescent and fluorescent lighting. The article from last Monday's paper cites a number of indicators, from the famed New Year's Eve Ball in Times Square (pictured) to more pedestrian applications like factory and home lighting.
US fast food chain Chipotle has announced that it's currently installing all LED lighting in its new Minneapolis store, and a spokesman "expects LEDs to be in the overwhelming majority of new restaurants next year." In Detroit, a local bar uses LEDs and claims to light the entire place with the equivalent consumption of two incandescent bulbs (which they quote at "130kW" -- my physics is a little rusty, but I think "130W" might be more correct).
LEDs are enormously appealing to designers for lots of reasons: the aforementioned efficiency, of course, but also their amazing flexibility and longevity.
Fuseproject famously took advantage of the color control LEDs can offer in their Leaf Lamp for Herman Miller, allowing the user to adjust not only brightness but also the warmth of the light, to great effect. The minute points of light LEDs create also offer endless opportunities for clustering, distributing and shaping illumination, a fact that designers like Ingo Maurer have seized upon and run with.
The catch, of course, is price. Philips Lighting plans to introduce its first LED lightbulb replacements for home use this September in the Netherlands, at 69 Euros (US$107) a pop, while Sharp is making a similar move in Japan, with lighting systems ranging from US$420 to US$1856. This makes LEDs, at present, good for two things: high-demand applications where durability and low operating cost makes the investment worthwhile, and consumer lighting for those with deep, deep pockets.
There's a dilemma here for lighting designers: focus on an emerging, low-impact, low-consumption technology that offers candy-store-like creative opportunities, or focus on the technology that most of the world's consumers can actually afford? It's not often that "sustainable design" and "design for the other 90%" are so clearly in opposition, but this would appear to be the case, at least for the time being.