Last updated July 19, 2021
Be it ever so humble, great lighting design can make your home look great.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but an “ugly” room almost always turns out to be poorly lit.
What you want is a range of lighting options to fill a room with light without dark corners. The overall effect will be welcoming, comfortable, interesting and beautiful.
Most of us, for lack of a better experience, under-light our homes with too few light sources, or worse…
“Over-lighting” with a few light sources at very high wattage is an unpleasant effect. It’s weird too, veering from blinding bright light to a dim view with shadows. A high wattage bulb without a shade has the same unfortunate effect.
To get you started on re-thinking (if need be) your current arrangement here are a few basic definitions and guidelines.
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, torchieres or screens.
- 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 and can also be used to create 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 the soft, low, all over glow of ambient light as a base line. 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.
By the way, nobody looks good under strong ceiling light. It causes too many shadows on your face.
For this reason, you are best served to keep the overhead lights to a minimum, just enough fixtures to do the intended job. When possible, convert the overheads to recessed, track and chandelier if possible.
Track lighting not only provides background lighting but also is multi-purpose and can work with any décor. It was originally designed as museum lighting, so it’s perfect for focusing on a piece of art, a flower arrangement, or an interesting table arrangement. It can also be focused on a workspace as task lighting. Just be mindful of where the shadows fall, or you’ll be working in the dark, again.
If you already have track lighting, replace those bulky old cans, with tiny MR16 halogens. This lighting solution is best served as unobtrusive because of multiple sockets on the track. They are more energy efficient too.
How clever can you be here?
For different uses on the same track, point according. If you don’t have a particular item to highlight, turn the cans towards the wall and lower the light with a dimmer to create soft ambient light.
By and large, the only kind of overhead lighting that actually looks good as a fixture is a chandelier. It also doubles as a specific visual statement and effortlessly contributes to the overall Wow Factor of any room .
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. Under the cabinets in a kitchen is a good example.
Put all of your light sources on dimmers, so you can control the mood and lighting per situation. They’re cheap and easy to install. Remember, a warm glow overall is a lovely welcoming effect. Neither a strong harsh light nor no light at all in the corners of your rooms is ever going to read like “home”
What about all those cords? Tape a single cord to the back or underside of a piece of furniture against a wall. Snake the cords under area rugs where possible. Plastic cord covers are available that can be painted the wall color. If you have a mess of spaghetti-like cords, use cord-control kits because they are never a good look.
For extra credit, use spot lighting to accentuate special features, such as art, flower arrangements or particularly interesting vignettes. Try using small canister lights in hidden places. They’re cheap and can even be hung on the wall. Put one on the floor, 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
A well considered lighting scheme not only aids efficiency but you will also be so much more comfortable, no matter what you are doing. Great lighting can be more effective than any other single factor for increasing a sense of overall satisfaction in your home. A sophisticated, well-designed lighting scheme looks as if an artist has painted with light. The peaks and valleys of light and shadow give the illusion of movement which defines a real “living space”.
Just by adding to and varying your light sources, it’s easier than you think to light your rooms beautifully…and well worth the effort.
Originally published February 26, 2017.
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These articles are written as guides with general advice to help you, help yourself find the best design solutions for your home. Please understand however, that it isn’t possible to give specific answers to your design and/or paint questions.
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