You’re not imaging it — Northwest homes can be gloomy in the fall and winter.

As the seasons change, the days grow shorter and shorter, and our relentlessly overcast skies compound the loss of daylight. Add in the region’s main architectural styles — including the deep overhangs of Craftsman homes and small windows of midcentury abodes — and you have a recipe for a dreary interior.

Living rooms and office spaces are often most in need of help overcoming the darker days, according to John and Sherri Monte, owners of the Seattle interior design and organizing firm Elegant Simplicity. Bathrooms and laundry rooms can also be particularly challenging.

But too much light isn’t ideal either — even in the winter. The duo works to filter incoming light and create the perfect balance.

Creating more light is often about perception. “It’s like magic, to create optical illusions by defining intentional focal points,” Sherri Monte says. “In good design, we’re able to highlight and draw attention to the things we want to see, and deflect our attention away from anything that we perceive as flaws, such as a lack of natural light.”

While no amount of design magic can turn a gray day into a sunny one, there are ways to brighten your home’s bleak interiors. Local professionals suggest focusing on these four areas.

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Walls

The biggest “light value” we perceive with the eye is along vertical surfaces — on walls, cabinets, windows and furniture, says Nathanael Washam, a Seattle-based interior lighting designer at Luminous NW.

“When you look around a room, as long as the walls feel bright, the room feels bright,” he says. “For your brain, the walls are what determines the feeling of brightness.”

Washam says you’ll get some of the biggest bang for your buck by painting your walls a lighter color.

To select wall colors, flip over a paint chip to find the light reflectance value (LRV), which ranges from 0 (white) to 100 (black). “From soft grays to subtle taupes, there are a ton of colors to choose from,” Sherri Monte says. “But if we’re going for a warm and cozy vibe that doesn’t feel dreary, our sweet spot tends to fall at around 62 LRV.”

She also suggests an eggshell finish, which provides a faint shimmer on interior walls. For millwork, paint the trim white using a semigloss finish to make the room feel brighter.

If your budget allows, consider taking down walls altogether, says Seattle interior designer Rebecca West, of Seriously Happy Homes. One of her clients is removing a wall to allow light from a dining room window to reach into a dark hallway.

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Shiny decorative objects and mirrors hung opposite windows can reflect light around a dark room. (iStock)
Shiny decorative objects and mirrors hung opposite windows can reflect light around a dark room. (iStock)

Windows

Your peripheral vision can pick up light and positively impact a room’s mood, Washam says. Even without a light directly overhead, he says, a room can seem brighter if you can see a light source, such as a window or a lamp.

Minimizing window dressing can maximize winter light: Hang rods so that your curtains, when open, are entirely to the side of the window. 

Cellular and roller shades are also popular picks, according to West. Cellular shades can open from the top or bottom. Keeping the bottom closed while opening the top allows in natural light while preserving privacy.

If you’re remodeling and can make more significant changes, increase an existing window’s size by dropping its bottom edge down, suggests Michan Kabbani Rhodes, of West Seattle Window and Door. Replacing a solid door with a full-glass door can also give a room extra light.

Clerestory windows — a row of windows set well above eye level — can be installed over the front door or higher up in stairwells to add light. If you’re reroofing, skylights can be added. However, they tend to attract leaves and mildew and can be challenging to clean.

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West has seen some homeowners install Solatubes, a light-funneling tube that extends from the roof into a room’s ceiling through a dome. “The difference is phenomenal,” she says. 

Local lighting designer Nathanael Washam recommends using “the right kind of light” for tasks, such as this ceiling fixture hung directly above a kitchen island. (Luminous NW)
Local lighting designer Nathanael Washam recommends using “the right kind of light” for tasks, such as this ceiling fixture hung directly above a kitchen island. (Luminous NW)

Lights

If you can’t add additional natural light to your home, look to artificial enhancements in the form of more light fixtures.

When considering new fixtures, brighter is not always better, Washam says. “It’s more that you have the right kind of light, which makes a huge difference for the space.”

Consider tasks and spaces — a kitchen needs well-lit countertops due to the proximity between knives and fingers, for example. Overhead lighting or recessed cans put direct light where it’s needed most.

In the living room, activities such as gathering with family or settling in with a good book require task lighting nearby. Table and floor lamps can be helpful for illuminating such activities. Light fixtures set next to walls will increase the perceived brightness of a room.

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To get the most from your home’s artificial lighting, consider the bulb. You can add a fixture that uses multiple bulbs, or go with a brighter LED lamp. Try different lightbulb color temperatures, expressed as Kelvin, which can impact human melatonin production and resulting circadian (wake/sleep) cycles. 

Bulbs with higher Kelvin ratings offer bluer tones, which replicate the daytime sky’s stimulating effects. However, avoid blue-light use in the evening, which can increase the risk of insomnia. A better choice is a warmer, low-Kelvin lightbulb, which mimics the sleepy glow of a fire or candlelight. 

Smart lightbulbs allow you to control the bulb’s white color with an app to match your circadian rhythms.

Bathrooms can be particularly dark spaces in a home. You can add brightness with polished chrome fixtures and plenty of overhead lighting. (iStock)
Bathrooms can be particularly dark spaces in a home. You can add brightness with polished chrome fixtures and plenty of overhead lighting. (iStock)

Furniture and more

Many design pros recommend placing mirrors opposite windows to reflect light and make a room seem bigger and brighter. But furniture can expand or contract a room’s brightness too. 

Select and arrange furniture to maximize how light moves through a room, West says. Leggy, tailored furnishings are airier compared with anchored, heavier pieces. “You have to think about what overall effect you’re trying to create,” West says.

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Seek out lighter-colored pieces, although reclaimed-wood tones are also rewarding to the eye, John Monte says. And try to avoid cooler grays — we get enough of that in Seattle’s winter already.

“You’re mimicking what we see outside, which feels natural until you bring it into your home and realize you can’t escape it,” he says.

If you have a home with darker floors, cover them in lighter-colored rugs.

Shiny, decorative objects and mirrors add flashes of light around a room. Polished chrome faucets and fixtures boost brightness “without going over the top or adding too much glitz,” Sherri Monte says. 

Framed landscape art can offer a bit of scenery where you can’t install a window.

4 more pro tips for adding light 

Declutter: On the most practical level, clutter casts shadows, Sherri Monte says. “There’s a psychological impact too. The more stuff we have, the more closed-in and cavelike a space will feel.”

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Clean windows: Homes set along a busy road can suffer from grimy windows. Clean them well, inside and out.

Trim trees: If shrubbery or trees block windows, cut back the greenery to reclaim light — even if it’s at the expense of a little privacy.

Burn candles: Influenced by a trip to Scandinavia, West added more candles in her home. “It’s like lighting a fire without all the work,” she says.