Lighting Design #1: Guide For The Well Lit Home

Most of us, for lack of a better experience, under-light our homes with too few light sources, or worse.

The well lit room uses a variety of light sources as well as ambient light.
The well lit room uses a variety of light sources as well as ambient light.

“Over-lighting” with a few light sources at very high wattage is an unpleasant effect.

It’s odd too, veering from blinding bright, to dim with shadows. A high wattage bulb without a shade has the same unfortunate effect.

What you want is a range of lighting options to fill a room with light without dark corners, so the overall effect is welcoming, comfortable, interesting and beautiful.

There are three types of lighting. Using all three in some combination will give the most successful results.

  • Ambient lighting is general or background lighting. It could come from overhead lights, standing floor lamps, table lamps, wall lights or indirectly from behind a valance, or screen. Torchieres are in this category too because the light is directed upwards.
  • Task lighting is what it sounds like. Some examples are the lamp you use on your desk when you work, counter lighting in the kitchen, or spotlights above work surfaces. It should provide sufficient lighting for the job at hand, as well as interesting pools of light and shadow elsewhere in the room.
  • Accent or decorative lighting calls attention to possessions or vignettes. It adds a touch of drama too. This category includes spotlights, wall washers, up-lights, down-lights, picture lights, candlelight and even firelight.

Start with creating ambient light, which is a soft, low, all over glow. Low wattage ceiling lights, or any fixture that hangs or is near the ceiling, are best. Background lighting should be strong enough so there isn’t excessive brightness contrast between it and bright task lighting. Be mindful that nobody looks good under strong ceiling light; it creates too many shadows on the face. I’d rather keep the overhead lights to a minimum, just enough fixtures to do the intended job. By and large, the only kind of overhead lighting that actually looks good as a fixture is a chandelier, which also doubles as a specific visual statement. For this reason, your overhead lighting should be converted to recessed, track or chandelier if possible.

Add task lighting wherever you are likely to be doing something that depends on good vision. Kitchens and bathrooms are a given, but don’t forget that your favorite reading chair needs a lamp beside it to avoid eyestrain. If you don’t have a lot of space on a work surface, consider where you can add strip lighting, as in a kitchen, under the cabinets. Lighting your activities appropriately greatly enhances your comfort.

For extra credit, use spot lighting to accentuate special features, such as art, flower arrangements or particularly interesting vignettes. I like using small canister lights in hidden places. They’re cheap and can even be hung on the wall. Put one very low, behind a big indoor tree. The play of shadows on the wall is wonderful and interesting. You can use these close to drapery too, as long as they don’t have halogen bulbs. The halogens throw off a tremendous amount of heat and can be a fire hazard.

Related Post

Lighting Design #2: Tips and Green Options

Decor Aid: Where Do I Start?

Get Your Own Designer Look #1: Vision Quest

Get Your Own Designer Look #2: Balancing Act

Photo – Jack Lindholm – Decoding Decor Portfolio

This is one of several articles I wrote for publication on It’s presented here as a foundation for further topic discussion, updates and commentaries…

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