Inspired by light – Touring the John Cullen Studio, London - Westbury Windows and Joinery

Inspired by light – Touring the John Cullen Studio, London

“Light manipulates volume” explains Sally Storey, Creative Director at John Cullen Lighting and Author of Inspired by Light. Exactly how this magic is achieved can be witnessed, first-hand, at any John Cullen Studio around the world. So of course, we had to pay them a visit...

It was a typical winter evening in London, dull, dreary and a little damp. Car headlights lit our path in a succession of harsh flashes as we walked along Kings Road. Until we reached our destination for the evening and were immediately captivated by the golden glow of the John Cullen studio, spilling out onto the street.

As we entered the buidling, we were greeted by a team of lighting designers prepped and ready to perform their wizardry throughout the evening. For a moment we were afforded time to simply relax into the space. Enjoy a glass of wine, canapes, and the welcoming room set-ups.

Upon reflection, this moment was the first demonstration of the power of carefully curated lighting, as we all instantly forgot about the busy streets of London that we just walked and felt peaceful.

Lighting The Garden

We began our tour of the studio in the basement garden. Led by Ray Paulson who began to explain the different light fittings and how they achieve different effects.

The space was dimly lit, with an incredible variety of lighting options from floor to ceiling. The room went silent as we were all in awe of our surroundings. Ray brought our attention to a wall covered in faux foliage. We were able to see every leaf shape, size, and colour. Every texture was amplified, and each cluster of flowers pronounced.

With a few taps on his tablet, Ray began switching lights off. The garden became flat and underwhelming. Lifeless. In an instant, we were able to see the impact of John Cullen’s carefully considered garden lighting.

Ray began individually demonstrating the various light fittings and explaining their contribution to the scene we had just experienced. ‘The Hampton 25 spike lights lift the front hedge; Miniature Spike lights draw attention to the tree trunks to give visual interest. Already we begin to see new layers immerging in the garden.’

‘It’s something we talk about a lot at John Cullen, the layers. We can achieve visual interest by building these layers.’

After a couple more taps on his tablet, we see the space transform again. This next scene demonstrates further fittings illuminating the vegetation of the wall. Bringing life and movement to the scene. Ray explains ‘the Hamptons are a great wall washer; they are fantastic for a green wall to create a 3-Dimensional effect of the vegetation and lift it. Combined with a Carella, which is a decorative fitting. It just adds another layer of interest. People consider them to be ‘fairy-light-esque’ in that they’re not especially functional, but highly decorative.’ 

But finding the right concoction of the various light fittings and placements can be tricky. So many beautiful options can quickly lead to Blackpool illuminations in your backyard, so there needs to be a selection process and an understanding of the atmosphere you’re seeking to create. That’s where the experts at John Cullen really shine. ‘There’s a careful consideration when it comes to the balance of directing light up, throwing it down, and the decorative, to avoid anything clashing.’

‘We will work with your landscape architect or gardener to discuss what they’re planning on doing. Or equally, we assess what is existing. For example, if you have a large tree, we’re going to maybe use our Kew 40 Spikes, to really bring it to life. Picking out key elements to highlight the textures.’

Lighting your home and/or outdoor dining areas

Lighting your organic surroundings is important outdoors, but so too is lighting your home and any outdoor entertaining spaces. ‘If you ignore lighting the textured surfaces it’s a missed opportunity.’ Explains Ray, whilst directing us towards the textured slate wall and timber decking that sits on the opposite side of the room, where we imagine it as the ideal spot for alfresco dining on a summer evening. The Portobello fittings are strategically positioned to throw light down on every slate edge and surface undulation. ‘Lighting correctly will give you warmth, earthiness, and the texture from creating light and shadows.’ 

Summarising the area, Ray highlights each of the layers that make up lighting the entire space. This scene is not only functionally lit but there’s an enchanting ambience created. It’s all down to the layering and reflective light. ‘The reflected light is so much more important than the downlight just sort of punching down at the floor. We’re getting that lovely, reflected light off the walls.’

Joinery and concealed architectural lighting

The tour continued back into the room in which we were first greeted. A quick top-up of our wine glasses and we were straight into a room set consisting of a small circular coffee table topped with a vase of tulips and a spectacularly large bookcase radiating light within the room.

‘John Cullen is all about discreet architectural lighting’ Ray explains to our group as we gather around this beautiful bookcase. ‘Ideally, we try and make our fittings disappear. So primarily what we’re looking at here is our concealed linear lighting, a hidden detail that’s throwing light back into these joinery units.’

The joinery of the bookcase is white with a textured natural backing. In the centre pocket, is a tv mounted to the wall, and a couple of shelves down are stacks of timber logs. These are the only spaces within the bookcase that aren’t lit. The remaining 7 pockets are all demonstrating various lighting methods and house a selection of objects.

As he turns the architectural lights off (leaving only the traditional downlights above us on) the bookcase appears to shrink in scale, almost flatten against the wall. The beautifully bound books, delicate vases, and John Cullen’s International Design and Architecture Award plaque vanish before us.

Ray quickly brings the hidden lighting back, one by one. The discreet Footlights shine through the glass vases, like sunlight refracting through precious gemstones. Painting patterns across the canvas of the bookcase. Switching between settings to the tiny downlights, known as Minims which are no larger than a 5pence piece, the scene changes again. This time creating curvaceous shadows against the shelving.

‘So you have the backlighting which will almost silhouette the objects, or in this instance with glass objects, it’s coming through the glass quite nicely. But if you have a book and you want to draw attention to it then you may choose to have it front-lit, so it’s rebated and firing diagonally back.’ Ray explains to us, demonstrating to us the impact between backlit and front-lit shelving.

Our attention is then drawn to the book covers which now come into full colour being lit from frontal liner lighting, and the metallic ornaments soften into the room as they reflect each ray from the up-lighting. ‘These are conscious decisions we’re making as lighting designers. We’re working with you and what you’re trying to do. Depending on what item you’re trying to draw attention to and how we’re going to light it.’

In the Pod

The next stop on our studio tour is the Pod. A white cube space with a single ceramic bottle set within the wall, and an organically formed sculpture set atop a plinth to the end of the room. Flanking the sculpture on either side are two recessed walls, finished in a textured tile, not too dissimilar to the garden we visited earlier.

Ray starts by highlighting the grid of downlights on the coffered ceiling above, at this point they are the only source of light within the spaceNothing anywhere near as spectacular as the previous spaces we’ve experienced so far, but undoubtedly functional. ’[This is] how you’d expect to find a grid of downlights if someone is doing their own kitchen, you see it all the time. It’s kind of one-dimensional, it’s not really considered lighting design. Yes, it provides light, but actually, all the walls are dark, we can’t see the light on our faces too well, or any of the colour rendering.’

It was true, the room lacked the magic we had become accustomed to and our vision felt a little compromised, tinted a weird greyish-ochre. Switching to his next light setting, the lights darkened above, and the new sources of light were downlights placed just 2 feet from the walls and angled to bounce directly off the wall. Creating a scalloped pattern of light across the length of the room. Making the space feel wider and the ceiling taller. Everything and everyone in the space became clearer as though we were switching from old 90s television to 8K UHD. ‘Switching to that [new light setting], it’s a similar amount of output in terms of wattage. But, by throwing light onto the wall, we’re losing that kind of darkness on the walls and we can now see each other’s faces, and it’s a far nicer space.’

‘It’s the first thing people think about, I need downlights [equally spaced across the ceiling] to give light to the space, but actually, we can place the downlights a distance from the wall and angle them back to bring light to walls. It’s about the reflected and refracted light, the room suddenly feels a lot nicer.’

The take away

During our visit, we were flawed by the power that your light choices have over not only the objects they are illuminating but the scale and ambience of a room. We asked, is it practical and easy to have so many lighting options in a real home? ‘It’s just a bit of scene-setting, we have a control panel where you can set the light levels. They can be changed as often as you want. You may even be able to reprogram yourself, or traditionally our technician can come around and work with you to adjust the light settings. They can program 6 settings, for example, to achieve different moods.’

If you’re interested in incorporating some of the expertise from John Cullen in your home, you can purchase the Inspired by Light book here. Alternatively, we highly recommend a visit to the John Cullen studio in Chelsea to get those creative juices flowing.