Poul Henningsen: Philosophy of Light Film

Cigarette in hand, with unblinking bespectacled eyes, the gloriously crotchety Poul Henningsen expounds on his philosophy of light. This short (mostly) black-and-white film provides a candid look into the mind of genius, all the while being surprisingly entertaining. It’s like listening to your wrinkled grandpa tell stories of a better time and place, when people didn’t make crap and actually gave a damn:

Do not think there is such a thing as cheap lighting. People who say that are selling substitutes. It’s like selling red wine made from apples and gooseberries. Think about how people in the past did enormously refined work – such as filigree work and watches by the light of a single flame. Obviously it’s an advertising trick to talk about cheap lighting. …

The technician has an old dream of turning night into day. I think that dream is wrong and lacks creativity. We need the rhythm of day and night. I wouldn’t want night to become day …

Why the hell have the blind who call themselves light technicians never actually looked at the colors of daylight? When that is really what gives light and life true richness? I am lucky to have started off as a painter when I was 16 in 1910. Back then I discovered the interaction between warm and cold colors. That is what the French painters have used for centuries. The fear of combining closely related colors originates in an era in which people would combine shitty brown and faded green and think it was distinguished.

While Henningsen doesn’t mince words, he is extremely eloquent and at times manages to be (unintentionally?) poetic and deep. It’s clear that living with the cold, dark winters of Denmark had a profound influence on Henningsen and his lighting:

Look into the garden on a snowy winter’s day, when the Lord has rolled out the white carpet. One is tempted to decorate like that with dark walls and light floors … Winter is nothing to write home about, but it is a wonderful time for an old lamp-creator who makes a living from the darkness. Daylight will never escape the tone of a sunset that we want in our room.

It is the glow of the bonfire, humanity’s first lamp. The bonfire has lit up our stupidity and our genius for a long time. It has given us protection, security, heat and light from sunset to sunrise. The light of a bonfire comes from below, just like light reflected by snow or by a white table cloth. The same kind of light is used at theaters to make people beautiful. That is why one should have light floors and low-hanging fixtures.

Henningsen goes on to explain his original PH lamp design and how he begrudgingly designed the Louis Poulsen PH5 Pendant to accommodate modern incandescent bulbs:

With the new PH5, I surrender to the light bulb manufacturers. It still contains the upper, middle and lower shades. But in addition, there is a top shade and some ridiculous inserted shades. This makes it irrelevant where the light bulb is placed. It can have any size as long as it fits inside the system. It sits in a housing, which is painted red inside to give the light color. And all the visor lines end in a fixed point on either side of the house. Because a modern light bulb also shines through its neck, the light will be limited to the exact width of the housing. The rest of the muffin will light up the shade.

Later after a switch to full color film and while sharing a bottle of port, a ruddy Poul sits down with his friend, artist Svend Johansen, to talk about the various colors of light. Henningsen asks Johansen questions, then ends up answering them himself. Apparently the editors got bored with the two old drunk guys and cut ahead to “the story of the incandescent light bulb.” In this segment, Poul breaks out the magic markers and explains light bulbs and the spectrum à la Bill Cosby picture pages.

Poul then explains why fluorescent lights suck so much:

The fluorescent tube is said to imitate daylight at high noon, but has been given a completely different curve out of spite. It exploits the eye’s sensitivity towards yellow and green light. The eye becomes less sensitive towards red and blue in each side. That is why the curve peaks in the middle. The tube also has the flaw that it has four chimneys, or spectra, which penetrate the coating from the mercury lamp inside. They are like four mistuned keys in the light.

And with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he brilliantly clarifies this using a piano … and then a psychedelic montage with the PH5, PH Artichoke, and others (hit play below):

Through all this, Henningsen always comes back to the quality of light and with his obsession to create flawless lighting. He finishes with a poem by Otto Gelsted, “Poem for a PH Lamp”:

Light, you who form all we see
No molding clay can equal thee
How crude becomes even the word music
In the face of the lamp’s enlightened logic?
Observe a PH lamp on a grey December day
You see the old pact between spirit and light in a new way

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thanks to Louis Poulsen for making this great film available.

PH5 with Verner Panton Chairs

Poul Henningsen: Philosophy of Light Film
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