The lighting technology exists to vividly express ourselves on the walls of our homes and workspaces. Then why aren’t more people doing it?
The walls of the spaces in our lives are opportunities that too often get neglected. Despite all of the choices that we have to make a wall not look boring, blanks walls are what we expect. Everyone, at some moment, has walked into a space and noticed that the walls were missing something. It could be a lack of colour, patterns, photos, or artwork, but even those choices can seem limiting. A mural is a way to go even further than those selections, but even that only goes so far. The lighting technology exists to make photos, artwork, and murals feel more real, more colourful, and more emotive with backlit imagery systems.
“In Europe, the use of backlit walls is more widespread than it is in North America,” according to Sperry Bilyea, Founder of Wallumination, a Canadian company that sells custom backlit imagery systems bound within recycled aluminium frames. Wallumination sells to interior designers, architects, and consumers, while their manufacturer sells directly to the commercial sector.
The idea of backlit imagery has been around for several decades, but was mainly used for adverts in the public realm. As the cost to make these systems became more affordable, the increased use of LED lighting led to their installation in private commercial settings. Now they can be found in large retailers, offices, banks, airports, hospitals, museums, and in many other public places. The cost is not low enough for these systems to be ubiquitous, but there are enough of them to add vibrancy to a space.
One of the biggest products that Wallumination has sold so far is 60 by 47-inch unit that was displayed at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York in May of 2019. After the event, it was sent to Puerto Rico for interior designer, Fernando Rodriguez. Then there is a 65 by 82-inch unit for the hallway of a penthouse in New York, and finally an L-shaped interchangeable art box unit that is over 15 feet long for a Toronto real estate development office. Where Wallumination has not seen products like theirs widely adopted is the residential sector.
“I have them in my house and I love them,” says Bilyea. Of course she would. “People do not print photos anymore, but maybe this gives them a reason to do so.” Backlit photographs of a late family member, children’s graduations, a wedding present to a couple, or a retirement gift, are just some of the ways that people could be using these systems. “We have set products and set sizes for people to submit any photo that they want,” she says, “but it is too out there. People are not thinking like this for their homes yet, although it is coming.”
If people are not ready to embrace these systems at home, Bilyea can envision them being applying in other personal settings. “I see it customizing what a cubicle could look like. Sound acoustic products are a whole industry in itself, and it is a whole new area for us,” she says. Wallumination has partnered with sound experts to see how imagery can be backlit, while still being acoustic. With their manufacturer, they built a sound room just outside of Toronto to test out new products.
“Everything for sound seems to use felt and tiles,” describes Bilyea. “A lot of times you cannot print on acoustic fabric, but we will be able to print on ours.” The backlit fabric is placed in front of the acoustic fabric, then both are illuminated from the front for an elegant look to a space where many spend most of their days. “If you have a boring grey cubicle, with a system that allows you to take that fabric out, you could put in your favourite piece of art printed on recycled fabric,” proposes Bilyea. “Then when you change jobs in five years, somebody else can come and put something else there.”
Putting artwork in these systems has proven complicated for two reasons: mass production and concerns by artists. “What we are finding is that the Amazons, the Houzzs, and the Wayfairs of the internet do not want do-it-yourself products,” explains Bilyea. “They want us to pick certain photos that we think are going to do well, and then market them as products.” To meet this challenge, Wallumination partners with artists who are willing to create work that can be mass produced. Bilyea’s mother who is an artist, has partnered with the company on a series of backlit imagery systems for children’s rooms.
Finding artists who are as willing as her mother has been another challenge, but one that Bilyea has managed to slowly work through. “Artists are very skittish about letting their work be used in this way unless they are already doing digital prints,” she explains. “If they are only doing originals, they do not want to devalue their art. I think that if they thought about their work being backlit, and did exclusive versions, it would add to the value.”
Some artists and photographers have considered creating backlit work, but do not have the expertise nor resources to do it. Recently, American photographer Jeff Becker partnered with Wallumination to help him promote his work.
“With the photographers and artists, it is their art, I do not own it.” says Bilyea. “You are buying a print from an artist using my box as a frame.”