Outdoor Lighting Ideas To Turn Your Yard Into A Luxury Resort
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Outdoor Lighting Ideas To Turn Your Yard Into A Luxury Resort

The best way to make your outdoor space elegantly enjoyable after dark.

By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans
Mon, Apr 26, 2021 2:46pmGrey Clock 6 min

Last summer, those of us charmed enough to have a backyard to call our own tended our gardens and zhushed our patios with new furniture, maybe even springing for an outdoor rug. When it came to exterior lighting, however, most people aimed no higher than a swag of Edison-bulb string lights and a feebly flickering hurricane candle.

“Outdoor spaces sometimes get overlooked after the sun goes down,” said Memphis interior designer Sean Anderson, alluding to such lame attempts at illumination. This spring, however, as we prepare to host en plein air again, why not tackle outdoor lighting—especially if you’ve upgraded everything else? Beyond a wish to enjoy their private plot at night, homeowners light landscapes “so that when you’re inside the house you can see the garden and not just a black hole,” said Ive Haugeland, founding principal of Shades of Green, a landscape architecture firm in Sausalito, Calif.

The best way to banish murky shadows is to borrow the sort of layered lighting scheme found in professionally designed living rooms. In simplest terms, you want three tiers. Start with the highest level, via lofty lanterns or up-lighting that draws eyes skyward or even chandeliers (yes, weatherproof versions exist; see “Worth Wiring”). Next fill in the midrange with sconces, illuminated plants or sculptures and tabletop portable lanterns. And don’t forget low-level illumination—that is path, understep and underseat lighting.

The cumulative effect should be subtle, not stark, “that feeling of fireflies on a summer night, that sense of discovery,” as San Francisco designer Ken Fulk put it. “The default has previously been an overly lit space.”

At a residence in San Francisco, Ms. Haugeland recently hung two outdoor-rated glass chandeliers beneath a minimalist pergola. To provide eye-level glow, she uplit the knotty trunks of century-old olive trees, then set low LED lighting into step risers for safer sauntering after dark. The chandeliers are “a little over the top, so they’re very fun and playful and what you don’t expect to see outside,” said Ms. Haugeland.

Solar-powered outdoor fixtures are still too dim to rely on, said the landscape architects we polled. A reasonably sized fixture can’t house enough photovoltaic cells to produce anything but a sickly glow. Meanwhile, the latest low-voltage LEDs not only last a long time, they can be easily and cheaply wired. “[In the] 1980s and into the ’90s, landscape lighting was run using high-voltage electricity,” said Washington, D.C., landscape architect Joseph Richardson, who recently uplit the river birch trees surrounding his own Arlington, Va., home. “It meant fixtures were very large and very bulky, and the cost was extreme. You had to run buried conduit plastic pipes through the yard, and if someone were to hit that with a shovel they could be electrocuted.”

Today’s LED fixtures suck as little as 3 watts as opposed to the 35 watts that incandescents fed on, Mr. Richardson said. That means “you can use low-voltage wiring—a small wire that lays on top of soil under mulch,” said Megumi Aihara, founding partner and principal of San Francisco’s Spiegel Aihara Workshop. “You can install [that] after a garden is built, and it would not hurt you if you touched those wires.” (Note: The designers we interviewed recommended hiring a professional electrician or landscape firm to at least install your main transformer, which converts your home’s 120-volt juice to 12-volt power.)

To light her North Carolina yard (pictured on D1) designer Gray Walker turned to low-voltage specialists Outdoor Lighting Perspectives (OLP) of Charlotte. A brick walkway behind her house leads to a small eight-sided gazebo. “You’ve got your path lights to illuminate the ground and then I like to lift the eye up,” said Ms. Walker. Uplit oak trees and Japanese magnolias create a “wonderland” of branches. The path passes a trio of gurgling columnar fountains that are highlighted to provide midlevel illumination, while other lights shine on shrubs, casting shadows on the brick exterior of her Georgian-style home. “This adds a bit of texture and dimension to the wall,” said Mari Zaragoza, production coordinator at OLP. “It was important to not keep everything in the same level, to create as much depth and texture as possible.”

Ms. Walker’s gazebo quietly commands attention at night. Two upturned accent lights shine thin lines of light through its slatted roof for a “glowing effect,” said Ms. Zaragoza. “We really thought this created a natural focal point without it being too overdone.”

Low-voltage lighting helped Ms. Aihara execute a multilevel scheme in a Los Angeles yard (pictured, above). Perforated metal tubes diffuse light throughout the canopy of deciduous trees, and cast modest pools on the deck and the greenery that surrounds it. Another one of Ms. Aihara’s tricks: Dek Dots from Dekor lighting. “They’re small, half-inch LED dots,” she said. “During the day, they disappear, and at night they twinkle on the ground.”

Don’t wish to deal with running any kind of electrical wiring? You can easily find options that plug into an outdoor socket but are far more aesthetically ambitious than string lights. Examples include articulating floor lamps and hanging lamps like Lightology’s Garota Plug-In Pendant (see “No-Pro Lamps”).

Even better: lights that you can cart around as freely as a flashlight. “We’re noticing an increased interest in rechargeable, free-standing lights that run on LED bulbs and batteries,” said Greenwich, Conn., landscape architect Janice Parker. Check out the cartoonish mushroom lamps from Hay at the MoMA Design Store as well as braided-rope lanterns by Talenti. Both double as tabletop and path lighting. Ms. Parker hangs portable LED lanterns from tree branches or decorative hangers. “You can easily move them around as needed, and guests can use them if they want to go for a stroll.”

Other landscape architects are eschewing visible fixtures altogether, hiding strips of LEDs under stair treads, for example. In the courtyard of a Berkeley, Calif., home, design firm Delaney + Chin tucked wet-location LED tape under a white stone bench as well as in the ground to shine a wash of light along the bottom of a corten steel wall. The goal, as Ms. Parker put it, is to achieve lighting “that you do not perceive as coming from fixtures but naturally from the moon.” Roderick Wyllie of Surfacedesign, a landscape architecture firm in San Francisco, recommends placing fixtures at least a foot away from the plant or architectural element they’re meant to highlight to avoid harsh, unflattering “hot spots.”

Such toned-down design lets us see and appreciate the nighttime sky, notes Mr. Wyllie. Many municipalities are embracing dark-skies policies intended to curb light pollution and lessen the impact on birds, the bugs they eat and other fauna, said Matthew Bromley, a landscape designer in Bedford, N.Y. “We can be impactful without being garish or feeling like we’re in Las Vegas.”

You may not need as many path lights as you think, for example. Mr. Richardson said one of the habitual mistakes homeowners make when they tackle lighting themselves is spacing path lights too closely. “It almost gives you a runway effect,” he said, adding that you can ensure navigability without committing overkill. “I try not to space [them] any closer than maybe 12 feet apart.”

Another interior technology that has moved outdoors: dimming. “There are times when you may want outdoor lights brighter or dimmer for whatever reason,” said Mr. Fulk. Perhaps you wish to bring the lights up slowly as the sun retires. He reports a growing demand for this flexibility. Similarly, multiple designers said their clients love that many LEDs can be tweaked—even transformed into a rainbow of hues—from their smartphones using programs from Lutron Homeworks and Savant.

As with LEDs inside your home, colour temperature, or Kelvin ratings, matter. A bulb on the high end of the Kelvin range, near 6500, will emit a cooler, bluer light. Lower kelvins translate to warmer, softer whites. For outdoor use, Dan Spiegel, who’s also a founding partner and principal at Spiegel Aihara Workshop, advises selecting lightbulbs with lower colour temperatures, around 2700 Kelvins.

Whether you hire professionals or do it yourself, Mr. Richardson recommends starting slowly. You can add extra light sources later. “Once you take the fixture out of the packaging and stick it in the ground it gets harder to return.” For her part, every time Ms. Walker pulls into her driveway at night, she appreciates the effort she’s put into her lighting, she said, from the gazebo to the glow-guided path. “It just makes me feel like I live in a little jewel box.”


Six rechargeable or plug-in lights you can layer into a three-tiered scheme yourself


From left: Hay PC Portable Lamp, approx. $122, store.moma.org; Talenti Tribal Lamp, approx. $1544, Cantoni, 972-934-9191


From left: Inda Copenhagen Table Lamp, approx. $1100, Burke Decor 888-338-8111; Pedrali Giravolta Floor Lamp, approx. $510, shopdecor.com


From left: Simple String Lights, approx. $577, westelm.com; Garota Plug-In Pendant, approx. $1300, lightology.com


Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 23, 2021.


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”