An illustration of a night sky and a small campfire

The Nature of Light: Starry Night

The Starry Night Theory

I’m not a historian, so I have no idea how long humans existed with the sun, moon, and stars as our only sources of light before someone figured out how to keep a flame.   I do know that it was a long time, and we got used to living our lives during the day and sleeping at night.   A starry night is quite beautiful, and even rare for most of us.

Our mastery of fire transformed our living, allowing us to cook our food, scare away the wolves, heat our huts, and have light even at night time.  That was a big advancement for prehistoric lighting designers!

I like campfires (especially if there are marshmallows), and crackling fires in the fireplace on a cold winter’s day.  I also like the small flames that come from candles or oil lamps.  Fire is no longer necessary for cooking and heating and light- we use electricity or, in the case of natural gas furnaces, we at least hide the flames away in a box in the basement.

Campfires under starry skies, like a Sunny Day, make light that helps us feel good.   Unlike a Sunny Day, however, stars and campfires are generally relaxing and calming, the opposite of active and energetic.  When we want to calm down, soft light from a crackling hearth is the surest way to get there.

The Starry Night Theory is composed of several elements: Starry Skies, Warm Light, Low Light, & Dancing Flames.    Taken together and translated into electric light, these elements can make every room of your home more inviting, without the smoke and ash.

Element One: Starry Skies

Have you ever wondered why a thousand tiny twinkle lights wrapped in pine garland on a stair banister is so beautiful?  Or why the distant night skyline of a city reflected in water is so attractive?  We like tiny lights- thousands of them- and it might just be that we learned this from starry skies.

If you are outside on a dark night and a bright, strong light turns on above you, it is most likely a UFO or police helicopter.  The feeling is not a good one, yet it is precisely the type of light most of us have in our homes.  Imagine breaking the light into a thousand smaller lights and spreading them around your room- the amount of light is the same, but the space is transformed.  This is light that makes us feel good- and looks beautiful.

Element Two: Warm Light

Electric Starry Skies alone will not give us adequate light for doing, knowing, or changing, but fire-inspired light can fill in the blanks.  Wood-burning fires and candle flames, arguably the most common household flames we might use for beauty, are typically yellow, orange, or soft amber in color.  This stands in direct opposition to daylight, which is often much more “white” sunshine against a blue sky.  The amber light of a fire changes how everything looks in a room, from food to faces, softening the edges and relaxing our bodies.  In the old days of incandescent light, this was easily achieved by dimming a light bulb- incandescent bulbs naturally shift towards amber as they dim.

Consider the widespread use of “Edison Style” filament light bulbs.  They’re horribly inefficient, an anomaly in the age of LEDs, but are wildly popular due in no small part to their soft, warm, fire-like glow.   While a good crisp white might be useful as we prepare a meal, a soft diffuse amber light is vastly preferable when we sit down to consume it.

Element Three: Low Light

Sunshine comes from the sky, or up high, for most of the day.   Only for a few minutes at sunrise and sunset does it come from low on the horizon, and coincidentally it most resembles a fire in the hearth in those waxing and waning moments.   Fires in fireplaces, however, are almost always close to the ground, at most a foot or two off the floor.  The Starry Night Theory requires that light come from places other than the ceiling- wall sconces, table lamps, floor lamps, pendants, candles, and fireplaces.   Bringing the light down into our field of vision affords us the comfort of seeing the source of light without craning our necks, and helps us feel relaxed.

Element Four: Dancing Flames

Natural flame from a candle or crackling fire is significantly more dynamic than the steady glow of an electric light bulb.  We hated the flicker of early fluorescent lights- why then do we intentionally put a flickering candle on our dinner table?

The movement of flame is comforting to us, rather than irritating, because it is slower and smoother than the flicker of a dying fluorescent bulb.  While I do not advocate hiring someone to stand by your dimmers to slowly raise and lower your lights all evening long, I do think there is something to be gained by scattering light in small doses throughout your spaces.   Think about the tiny white lights of a Christmas Tree- they dance without moving. Drawing on the idea of dancing flames and Starry Skies- multiple, sparkling lights throughout a space- allows us to keep a bit of the magic all year long.

The Starry Night Theory’s elements of Starry Skies, Warm Light, Low Light, and Dancing Flames provide light for doing, for knowing, for feeling, and for changing.  These layers of light are also present in the Sunny Day Theory, but the story of each is quite different. A Sunny Day tells a story of energy, activity, and alertness, while the story told by a Starry Night is one of warm, inviting, relaxation.  Which one is right for your space?   That depends on your story.

Light Can Help You