What happened to... Home Futures

The light switch

To mark the Home Futures exhibition, guest authors take stock of some of the changes that the contemporary domestic interior has endured in the last two decades. What happened to the TV, the telephone, the bed? Explore more of these essays in the official exhibition catalogue.

The inventor of the light switch, John Henry Holmes, was a Quaker, and thus a believer in the ability of each person to access ‘the light within’. The light switch, of course, enables each person to access the light without, and has been doing so, solidly, since 1884. That is, until the emergence of the voice- or presence-activated smart-home version – a brave solution to an unspecified problem. Holmes’s switch is a simple design that has lasted for over a century. Entering an old house, we brush our fingertips over the wall in the gloom, caressing plaster or brick or wood before brushing against an early plastic, or even Bakelite, panel. The switch itself still tends to be firm, the ever-so-slight sensation of rolling as it moves to form a circuit – one of the most pleasingly robust ‘actions’ that an industrial designer could imagine.

Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has declared that the door handle is the ‘handshake of the building’; is the light switch the equivalent for the room? Pallasmaa noted that touch is a key part of remembering and understanding, that ‘tactile sense connects us with time and tradition’. When you touch a light switch, you are sensing the presence of others. You are also touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker cables, like limbs, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply with our presence, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. We lose another element of our physicality. No sense of patina develops except in invisible lines of code, data points feeding imperceptible learning systems. As is often the case with smart systems, it is an individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.

And how dull rooms will become if they are always automatically bright upon entering. The cornerstone of most horror movies would vanish overnight.

We can only praise shadows if we understand them. The everyday light switch connects us to our daily infrastructure and the lives of others, with humble analogue intensity.

—Dan Hill

Related exhibition

Home Futures

Explore today’s home through the prism of yesterday’s imagination. Are we living in the way that pioneering architects and designers throughout the 20th century predicted, or has our idea of home proved resistant to real change?

Find out more

Home Futures

Alongside original essays by leading voices in the field, this richly illustrated book features more than 200 colour images, organised in six thematic sections exploring privacy, the smart home, compact living, self-sufficiency, nomadic lifestyles and the idea of the home as an idyllic landscape.