Lighting — which brightens rooms and our mood — shouldn't be an afterthought.
Any experienced designer will tell you that lighting is an essential ingredient when you’re decorating a room — not the afterthought that many of us consider it.
If you’re tempted to spend more of your time picking out furnishings or puzzling over layouts, remember that lighting can completely transform a space — not just by brightening dark corners, but by affecting your emotions.
“Light is a powerful thing,” said Theo Richardson, the director of development at Rich Brilliant Willing, a New York-based design studio known for its striking LED fixtures, which he founded with Charles Brill and Alexander Williams. “The right light lifts the mood, inspires productivity and motivates us. At home, light enlivens the little things — our morning routines, or the moments we spend with friends.”
Here are some guidelines for creating a well-lighted space.
Most designers agree that rooms need more than one source of light. Think layered illumination: Every room should have a mix of lighting, including overhead, accent and task lights.
In the living room you might begin by hanging a decorative ceiling fixture near the center of the room, said Nathan Orsman, a lighting designer based in New York City and Southampton.
“Then we look toward the outer walls for downlighting that can gently wash the walls, curtains and art with warm, functional brightness,” he said.
This can be achieved with soffit or valance lighting, or even plug-in torchier floor lamps that bounce light off the ceiling.
The goal is to create contrast between the light at the center of the room and around the perimeter, and the darker spaces in between.
One place where bright light is more important than ambience is the kitchen.
Orsman suggested flooding the space by installing high-hats or recessed lights along the edge of the ceiling. If you have a kitchen island, consider hanging pendants overhead, he said, which will light the space without taking up room you might need to eat or prepare food. Also, you’ll be able “to see your guests without having to look around a hanging light.”
And don’t forget undercabinet light: Running LED light strips on the bottom of your upper cabinets is the easiest way to create an evenly lighted counter space for food prep and cooking.
“The worst option is a recessed fixture over the [bathroom] sink, as it casts shadows that are not flattering,” said Donna Mondi, an interior designer in Chicago. Instead, she suggested wall-mounted sconces with 75-watt bulbs installed about 66 inches off the floor, which will help cast even illumination across your face.
Another “great feature to add is motion-lighting at the cabinet base,” she said, which creates “a very subtle glow.”
Light the corners
“When you have an empty and awkward corner, one trick of the trade is to transform that space with an oversized floor lamp,” said Caitlin Murray, the founder and chief executive of Black Lacquer Design in Los Angeles. “Look for a lamp that is complementary in finish and material to the surrounding space, and an otherwise lost corner instantly becomes an intentional, polished part of the overall room design.”
To brighten up the space next to a desk in a bachelor’s living room, Murray chose the Detrick Floor Lamp, from Arteriors, in an earthy finish with a gray-green shade.
It did the double duties of providing added light to his workspace while also being a statement accent piece.
Easy on overheads
“Over the years, we’ve found that one of the biggest mistakes is made with overhead lighting,” said Robert Highsmith, a principal at the Brooklyn design firm Workstead. “Often it can be excessive, generating spots and unwanted shadows.”
Workstead advises residential clients not to use recessed overhead lighting. Highsmith recommended a large pendant fixture or a chandelier in common areas. In the kitchen, he suggested using globe fixtures, “for even lighting” that leaves counter surfaces free.
For living rooms, he said, try subtle lighting sources like wall sconces and floor lamps, and in dining rooms, “a sculptural centerpiece above a table provides depth, while accent lighting amplifies warmth.”
Play with ambience
Put dimmers on all of your lights: “Workstead prefers a more analog approach that allows you to manually adjust lighting to respond to changes in natural light, seasons and so forth,” Highsmith said, noting that the easiest way to adjust the light in a room is by putting a dimmer on each fixture, rather than replacing a wall switch with a dimmer that adjusts all the lights at once.