LEDs Have Evolved to Be More Than Just Lighting

LEDs have a decorative function as well as a utilitarian one.

Nanoleaf lines' purple LED lighting turns a room purple
Nanoleaf lines.


A decade ago, I walked into a men's restroom at a fancy Toronto restaurant to find an LED screen mounted over the urinal. Ever since, I have been complaining about all the new ways designers are figuring out how to use LEDs, which are probably eating up more power than they save since we are wrapping buildings in them, cranking up the lighting levels, and using LEDs in ways nobody could have imagined.

In my most recent post on the topic, I finally admitted LEDs are so efficient that there probably is an overall saving, but that lighting is no longer just for illumination—"lighting has become so cheap that it has turned into a bauble, into decoration."

It was pointed out to me that lighting has always served a decorative function as well as a utilitarian one—that's why we got crystal chandeliers and mood lighting. Now we see that mood lighting has evolved with the technology. Dalvin Brown, a personal tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal, writes:

"Smart lights can do a lot more than dim and change colors. And they don’t have to look like ordinary bulbs anymore. As we’ve spent more time at home during the pandemic, many of us have sought out new lights to improve the background in our Zoom calls or project the right vibe for our family movie nights. Switching up your lighting is also one of the easiest ways to make your abode smarter and more personalized to your tastes."

Whether this lighting is actually smart, useful, or sustainable has long been a subject of debate on Treehugger and is for another post, but Brown points to a number of products in the Journal piece on mood lighting 101, starting with the latest from Nanoleaf. I find this particularly interesting because we can see how LEDs have evolved in a decade.

A closeup of a black Nanoleaf 1 bulb from a decade ago
My Nanoleaf 1 bulb is still shining after 10 years.

Lloyd Alter

Nanoleaf's first product was the Nanoleaf 1 lightbulb. I met the founders back in 2012 and their bulb, my first LED, is still shining away in our living room a decade later. It was made of flat panels with LEDs folded into a vaguely bulb-like shape to fit in a fixture.

Smart light panels on white wall.
The Nanoleaf smart light system sticks to just about any surface, making it an ideal way to add ambiance to any room.

Erin Kobayashi

It couldn't compete in the bulb market, but they basically unfolded it and turned it into a decorative element that you could mount on your walls. Treehugger's Christian Cotroneo has a set of Nanoleaf Light Panels and raved about them in 2018, calling them "exquisite—truly the best customizable, mountable smart lights on the planet." Note the light in the foreground, looking much like my bulb but larger.

Unimaginative types like me just see a panel sucking electricity, but Cotroneo, now Treehugger's social media editor, calls them "a party on your walls," as they respond and change to noises. Even his creaky old house joins the fun. He writes:

"When I climb those aged stairs to my attic office, the creaks become colors as nondescript panels suddenly illuminate. The colors spread along the panels in sync with every squeaky floorboard. The thumps of my feet, like percussion, cause the panels to pulse. They’re all so excited to see me!"
A living room with LED light bars on the ceiling
Nanoleaf Lines are smart backlit LED light bars.


The dancing lights now come in Lines. Nanoleaf says: "[It] syncs up with your favorite songs in real-time to create dynamic color visualizations as the dual zones on each bar dance along to beats and melodies... Completing your entertainment space, Lines also transforms movie and gaming nights with Nanoleaf’s Screen Mirror feature which syncs up on-screen colors and animations with your lighting setup." Brown writes, "You can transform the vibe from a tranquil candlelit dinner into a pulsing nightclub."

The humorless curmudgeon in me complains about the waste of electricity but the specifications show that I am really complaining about nothing: Each line takes all of 2 watts of energy. So in just a decade, we have seen the LED go from being a bulb to being a decoration to being entertainment. Perhaps I should stop complaining; we are no longer just talking about lighting.

The Magical LED Houseplant

A mockup of a room with LED houseplant lamps.
Fluora is an LED houseplant lamp.


One has to have an open mind. I mean, what's not to love about Fluora the $499 magical LED houseplant? (I do love the name, a portmanteau of the words fluorescent and flora.) Instead of complaining that it is another unsustainable waste of upfront and operating energy and materials, it is going beyond just being a lamp.

The company states: "With Fluora, light isn’t just a utility. It’s a scene-stealer, a destination, a magnum opus. With its realistic natural plant form and immersive, precision-tuned lighting system, Fluora will bring your space to life in more ways than one."

It's perfect for me. Brown writes, "Not everyone can keep houseplants alive. For those of you with brown thumbs, Flora presents an alternative, lifelike, whimsical LEDs in the form of high-tech plants."

Perhaps I do have to draw the line somewhere. My position since the start of the LED revolution was that we were going to see a lot of what I called "stupid LED tricks"—people designing silly things that are consuming materials and energy for dubious results. I suspect our plant-loving readers will have some qualms about this one.

But it is time for me to loosen up. All of these fixtures and fittings use a fraction of the energy that a single 100-watt bulb in the living room used a decade ago. If they dance and change and are excited to see Cotroneo, there is nothing wrong with that.

It will be interesting to see what the next decade delivers.