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In stories about houses, track lighting is typically part of the “before” scenario—a dated feature to be stripped away for something warmer or more sophisticated. But lately, designers have been revisiting these workhorse fixtures, which offer flexible, directional light from their ceiling-mounted track.
“I think it’s done its time in trend jail and is ready to be back out in the world,” says designer Peter Staples, whose own lighting line Blue Green Works and new Chinatown showroom put a decorative twist on industrial aesthetics. “People lost the script—it stopped being used in an elegant or intentional way. But I think it [represents] a kind of utilitarian minimalism. It’s controlled but suggests a spontaneity or adaptability.”
A mountain compound in Washington State by Olson Kundig Architects features track lighting throughout.
A descendant of early theater lighting, track lighting found its way into factory floors, offices, and galleries first. In the ’70s and ’80s, designers embraced the fixture for its utilitarian cool. Recall Calvin Klein’s 1970s New York apartment, designed by Joe D’Urso, in which industrial track lighting was installed above a racetrack-shaped table. Or the 1960s and 70s interiors by Ward Bennett, where barely-there tracks blended into the ceilings.
Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin captured the zeitgeist in their 1978 book High-Tech, which crystalized elements of the aesthetic: “Although people considered a row of frankly commercial, exposed spotlights an anachronism in living rooms, attitudes changed when the cost of recessed lighting rose in direct relationship with the wages of plasterers, carpenters, and electricians.” Hmm, sound familiar?
Art collectors Jason and Michelle Rubell's Miami home.
Whether or not you want to blame it on inflation and rising labor costs, track lighting has been reasserting itself in both commercial and residential interiors. Petrus Palmér, founder of Swedish furniture company Hem, has installed it throughout his Stockholm rowhouse. AD100 firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero recently used it to illuminate the surrealistic interior of accessories brand MZ Wallace’s new Manhattan flagship. And major art collectors such as Jason and Michelle Rubell have used it to elegantly illuminate their gallery-like home in Miami.
Perhaps the most memorable recent example is the East Village apartment of AD100 firm Ash’s Will Cooper, where tech-y, almost space-age-looking tubes on tracks illuminate the place. The lighting acts as an industrial contrast to more fanciful details like draped curtaining along the walls and a quilt-covered bed.
“It can adapt to so many different spaces, periods, and styles,” says Cooper, who also used them to theatrical effect in The Dean Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. “The versatility of track is its biggest selling point,” says Cooper. “You can control where the light goes, the color, the beam spread. But I like to really pronounce that they are there. No shame in hiding beautiful heads that are truly functional.”
Track lighting in the living room at Ash designer Will Cooper's East Village apartment.
The fixtures continue in the designer's bedroom.
If you’d rather be more discreet about it, advances in these systems make that pretty easy, too. The tracks themselves can be concealed if needed—Olivia Song, of New York interior design firm GOD, plastered them into the ceiling in her own Manhattan place. And the fixture heads on the market offer way less conspicuous options. Song likes to pair fixtures from Litelab or Flos with her go-to MR16 bulbs, which, she explains, “don't have that bulky transformer attachment that ruins the sleek look”. (For heat reduction and energy efficiency, she uses an LED version by SORAA.)
“Track lighting can blend into a room’s architecture and fade into the background,” Song explains. “When applied well, you actually have less ceiling noise than you would with a constellation of recessed high hats.” In her opinion, track fixtures are an easy alternative to recessed options, and it should never replace a grand, decorative fixture, or be used in a situation where you need all-over light. “In residential design, other than decorative lighting, I like to stick to strategic directional lighting for art, work surfaces in the kitchen, or stair treads,” she explains.
Olivia Song employed suspended track lighting in retail project Dr. Smood.
MZ Wallace's new Manhattan flagship, designed by AD100 firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero.
For many designers, track lighting carries a certain nostalgic cool, harking back to the heyday of New York’s downtown industrial lofts. In his latest project in SoHo, interior designer Darren Jett is using them in every room, looking at films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Eyes of Laura Mars, and Ghost for inspo. His tip for keeping them cool, not corny: In rooms with high ceilings, use a system with a suspended drop. (He likes the ones by Lumenture.) Also, be intentional when it comes to lines and grids. “With something so graphic, the layout is important. In long spans of ceiling plane—like in between beams or in a long room, like a hallway or dining area—track lighting is wonderful.”
As other industrial relics of the High-Tech style—stainless steel kitchens, for instance—undergo a resurgence, it begs the question: In a moment of lengthy lead times and expensive labor costs, where a mediocre contractor can have a years-long wait list, do these semi-off-the-shelf staples offer a quick fix?
Jett muses: “Perhaps we are tired of the midcentury look, or perhaps it’s the economic inflation and uncertainty with the markets after Covid, but there is something about them that—while utilitarian and commercial in their history—gives an element of the unexpected; a drama from a different era. You don't forget a home with good track lighting.”
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By Alia How Are You
By Alia How Are You