One of the most important elements of interior design can't be touched, but it can certainly be felt. Lighting can transform the feel of...

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One of the most important elements of interior design can’t be touched, but it can certainly be felt.

Lighting can transform the feel of a home, but it’s an element that’s often an afterthought to amateur decorators. They labor over furniture, paint and woodwork, then forget the one thing that frames them all.

“Lighting is crucial,” said Christine D’Alessio of D’Alessio Interiors in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The lighting makes the home.”

The design industry publication “Implications” recently focused on the importance of lighting in retail spaces. Retail chains have seen changes in customer behavior and increases in sales related to lighting design.

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If lighting improves your mood when you step into a store, there’s little doubt the lighting in your home affects you, too. Here’s a handy guide to putting your home in the best light. It comes down to four steps:

Define the space to be lit

Ask yourself five questions before you start buying lighting for any room:

1. How is the room going to be used?

2. What mood do you want to create in the room?

3. Who will be using the room?

4. How much money do you want to spend?

5. What’s the overall feel (traditional? contemporary?)?

Your answers to these questions should help guide your purchases. Lighting needs change significantly from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom. Only you know if that family room is an exciting place to cheer on your favorite sports team or a quiet place to curl up with a book.

Decide the purpose of the light

Designers and lighting experts subscribe to the idea that every room should be bathed in three layers of light: general lighting, task lighting and accent lighting.

D’Alessio suggests shooting for three to five sources of light in each room, with the lights in overlapping diagonals or triangles to eliminate dark corners.

General, or ambient, lighting is the basic overhead lighting that keeps us from bumping into the sofa at night. It is usually an overhead fixture or ceiling fan, recessed lighting, track lighting or a chandelier.

Task lighting, as the name implies, is designed to suit the tasks you accomplish in that room. Some examples are a table lamp on your desk, a floor lamp next to your favorite reading spot or lights tucked under the kitchen cabinets.

Accent lighting is the most whimsical of the three and the most often neglected. It allows you to frame the room and to direct the eye to certain views. Some examples are a light on a painting, cove lighting that shows off architectural features of a ceiling or a tiny light to highlight a collection of crystal.

Choose a fixture

Fixtures should satisfy a combination of form and function — they should look great while delivering the light you need.

Different fixtures are better for accomplishing different purposes. For general lighting, you probably want overhead, recessed, track, chandeliers or even a ceiling fan. For task lighting, lamps or fixtures on long downrods (to focus the light) are usually best. For accents, you may want to try tiny halogen lamps on a track, recessed light or uplights.

Choose a bulb

There are four categories of light bulbs and four criteria to think about when choosing the right bulb for you, according to Chris Terry, president of Peak Lighting Products in Colorado Springs.

The four ways you can judge a light bulb are:

Wattage, which tells you the efficiency of a bulb. The lower the wattage, the less electricity it uses.

Color temperature. You must determine your personal preference. Some people like the warm, yellow glow of a traditional incandescent, while others prefer clean, white light. Halogen is the whitest light.

Color rendering index (CRI), which measures the quality of the light, or how clearly it renders colors. The index is 1 to 100, with 100 being the best. You want something above 90.

Lumens, or brightness. You may perceive certain shades of light as brighter (blue, for instance), but the lumens — not the color or the watts — will tell you how much light you’re really getting from that bulb.

Wattage will always be listed on packages, but you may have to research catalogs or Web sites (or visit a lighting store) to determine lumens and CRI.

OK, now that you’re armed with some knowledge, let’s see how different bulbs measure up. The basic categories are incandescent, halogen, fluorescent and the new xenon.

Incandescent is the old standby. These are the light bulbs Thomas Edison invented more than a century ago. They are the least energy-efficient, but many people like the yellowish glow they throw off. And incandescents do well on the CRI, giving high-quality light.

Even within this category there is innovation, as new incandescent bulbs like the GE Reveal mimic sunlight with cleaner, purer light, thanks to a neodymium coating.

Halogen is the whitest, purest light. As far as light quality, Terry said, halogen can’t be beat. The downside is, those fancy halogens could cost you more than $10 a bulb, offset by a longer life and more energy efficiency than an incandescent. Terry suggests buying these top-of-the-line bulbs for the spots in your house — a piece of furniture or artwork — you want to highlight.

Fluorescent lights have passionate fans and equally passionate detractors. Fluorescent is the energy-efficient choice, four times more efficient than an incandescent. “The big push has been to replace incandescents with fluorescents for the energy efficiency,” Terry said. “Fluorescents are huge, simply for energy.”

Old fluorescents are the yucky tubes that many offices install to save money, and they commonly have a CRI as low as 62, which is abysmal. New fluorescents, however, can push their CRI score above 90 with “full-spectrum color-adjusted lights” and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Some designers despise the light they throw off, and Terry explains that fluorescent light is more artificial than incandescent or halogen (because it’s not produced by heating an object and using its natural glow).

Nevertheless, fluorescents are the obvious choice for floodlights kept on all night, storage spaces and garages. If you are serious about energy conservation, then fluorescents are for you.

Xenon bulbs are the latest and greatest technology, Terry said. Fueled by xenon gas, these bulbs leave even fluorescents behind on energy efficiency and can last 20 years. You can see them in headlights (the bluish ones), on headlamps or in landscape lights. Because they are so efficient, they can suck in solar power during the day and light all night. Xenon bulbs aren’t used in many interior applications — yet.

“They have yet to become mainstream. I think that will be the biggest change in the future. It’s the cutting edge,” Terry said.