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Beyond Design Basics:
Lit Whimsy

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

An old friend of mine once said about life “It needn’t be dull”.  So too, our lighting need not be the usual, the accepted norm or the expected solution.  Sometimes our environments just appear too serious.  Isn’t it fun when you visit a home that displays a sense of humor?  When was a good chuckle bad for us?  Experts say that laughter adds years to our lives.  It also provides us with momentary relief from the stress of everyday life. I often keep that in mind when working on a design.  Unexpected whimsy around a corner, at the end of a corridor or a garden path, part of a winter-scene through the window, above the kitchen sink, on the wall in a child’s room – isn’t there a place where we could use the unusual, the imaginative, or the fanciful?

While there are many ways to introduce a giggle to a garden or fantasy to a family room, may I suggest lit whimsy?  There are a myriad of inventive lighting collections available that not only provide light, but provide us with a light-hearted ambience.  In some cases, the light emitted from the fixture will be of utmost importance due to a light-dependent task, such as reading or eating a meal at a table.  In other cases, light can be minimally important – used only to see the way through a corridor or along a path.

If you keep your eyes wide open, you can find lit whimsy in a variety of places.  One place I found some fantastic examples was a couple of years ago at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show.  A baby elephant lantern was created using a wire frame, stretched with peach-colored (and accent painted) nylon fabric and then coated with clear resin to make it water-proof.  The light inside the lantern made it glow.  They also had small purple ‘tulips’ created from the same material.  It was definitely one of the wittiest and most inventive lighting ideas I’d seen in awhile.

Besides accidental discovery of whimsical lighting, the best thing to do is to visit a lighting showroom.  I recently visited the Lighting Design Center in downtown Portland and found a number of light fixtures that could suit many types of personalities or situations.  A glowing motorcycle and bicycle, a tall flower reading lamp, a ‘moon’ rock, and a Noah’s ark lamp are just some of examples of inventive ways to create illumination. (current note: the Lighting Design Center is no longer there.)

Another example of unusual lighting at the showroom was a crystal chandelier – but not the kind of which we normally imagine.  This one was a suspended polished stainless straight tube about 4’ in length.  Suspended lamps approximately 6” in length occurred about every 4 inches amongst a dazzling array of multi-form crystals. 

There is a time to avoid lighting that is art; that is when the light fixture would detract from the object it is lighting.  If the focal point is a piece of art, then don’t add an artful light fixture that competes with it.  Remember that something unusual – especially when it’s lit – will stand out as the focal point.  It will become the topic of conversation.  Of course, it’s always possible to light a piece of art that has a sense of humor with a traditional light.  That itself is a creative ploy.  But right now my dear spouse is getting nervous, because I’m looking around the garden for a spot to place a lantern as big as a dragon. 

Lit Whimsy-1A rock that glows in the dark.



Lit Whimsy-2An elephant lantern becomes a giant whimsical light source in a garden.




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Lit Whimsy-3A bicycle lamp for the ultimate bicyclist.