Friday, April 2, 2010

Interior Lighting Design

 Just as lighting can be one of the most significant factors in looking your best, the lighting in your home can either show your house to its best advantage or be uninteresting and unflattering.
Light can be used to banish the darkness from cold and unfriendly corners or to highlight objects of beauty.  Used effectively, creative and proper use of lighting is an integral part of interior design, providing great atmosphere and interest to any room.


Generally speaking, the types of interior lighting can be grouped into the following three categories:  General, task and accent.

General Lighting
General lighting is typically characterized by ceiling fixtures.  This lighting is designed to provide overall illumination to an entire room, literally allowing you to move around without bumping into things.  Examples of general lighting would be chandeliers, pendant lights, flush-mounted fixtures, recessed lighting, and electric wall sconces.

Of course, just because general lighting is functional doesn't mean it can't be beautiful and allow you to put your own stamp on it.  If your style is elegant and romantic, feature a crystal chandelier.  If your home is more rustic or “country” in style, wrought iron is a wonderful choice.  Do bear in mind, however, that while general lighting is obviously functional and the fixtures themselves can be quite distinctive, such lighting can be “flat” and cast harsh shadows.  Ever notice how unwelcoming and glaring the light from a ceiling fixture can be and wonder why so much wattage still doesn't seem to be enough to really provide the light you need?  This is because in addition to the basic necessity of general lighting, your room needs additional lighting that is specifically designed to enable specific activities or “tasks”.  This is where task lighting comes in.
Task Lighting
Task lighting, as the term suggests, is designed to allow you to do close work that requires more focused illumination than can be provided by general lighting.  Examples of task lighting would be table lamps, floor lamps, swing-arm lamps and buffet lamps.  Such lighting is ideal for reading, sewing, needlework, doing crossword puzzles, etc.  “Spot lights” that are often found in kitchens and over kitchen islands are good task lights for illuminating food preparation.

Fixtures for both task and general lighting can be works of art in themselves and a focal point within your room.  For accent lighting, on the other hand, the focus is all about what's being highlighted and not the light fixture itself.

Accent Lighting
Accent lighting highlights the beauty of the objects in your home, including accessories, architectural features, even potted plants.  As such, it's one of the most fun aspects of decorating and can take a room from unremarkable to unforgettable.  Unfortunately, accent lighting is also probably the most underutilized by homeowners.  Anywhere in your home with an object to be spotlighted or a dark corner to be brightened is an opportunity for accent lighting.

One example of accent lighting is “uplights”, which are portable spotlights that typically sit on the floor and send a wash of light upward, allowing the space above to be highlighted.  Uplights are often used with potted plants, but they're also nice when tucked in a dark corner on the floor behind a chair or when they are placed to highlight the fabric of your window treatments (especially nice when you have silk draperies, for instance).  Just note that uplights can get quite hot, so be sure to keep some space between the light fixture and the objects around it to allow for sufficient air circulation.

Lighting Artwork
Another great use for accent lighting is an “art light” or an “eyeball” ceiling spot light that is used to highlight artwork.  Art lights attach right to the frame of your artwork or to the wall above; they are also available in a freestanding form that sits below the painting and highlights upward.   Art lights are not only desirable but also downright necessary if you have a dark oil painting, allowing you to see the rich detail of the painting without having to turn up the wattage (and glare) on your general lighting.  In fact, at night it's quite beautiful to see a piece of artwork that is highlighted with an art light while the rest of the room is in darkness.

One of the nice things about art lights is their portability, especially if you elect not to “hard-wire” the fixture and just run the cord behind the artwork and plug it into a nearby outlet.  Just be sure that the style of the fixture itself is consistent with the style of painting (contemporary versus traditional, for example).  Also, be sure that the art light is an appropriate size for the framed painting and that its finish blends in with the frame, as you don't want the fixture to overshadow the painting.  There are many styles and finishes of art lights available.  They can run from twenty or thirty dollars to several hundred dollars.  (See the “Resource Guide” at the end of this post for information about art light distributors and manufacturers.)

A different option for highlighting artwork is with what is called an “eyeball” spotlight that is recessed and mounted in the ceiling (see picture highlighted by an eyeball spotlight in the photo to the left).  These fixtures are called “eyeball” because while they are otherwise recessed in the ceiling, the bulb itself protrudes and can be moved in different directions, giving some additional flexibility.  This is a good option for a hallway, for example, because the light fixture itself will not intrude into the visual or actual physical space of the hallway.

Do bear in mind when choosing an accent light fixture for showcasing artwork that your ultimate choice might be influenced in part by the finish of the painting (e.g., whether it's a matte or shiny surface) and whether it is covered with glass or not.  Paintings today are sometimes protected with glass that has a non-glare surface, but the overall impact of the surface can be to “dull-down” the painting itself, an effect that can be made worse by placing a light directly on the glass.  In contrast, sometimes an older painting won't have the non-glare surface on the glass, but the glare from any light shining on the picture directly makes it very tricky to light such artwork effectively.  If this is the challenge you are facing and you definitely want to use a spotlight or art light, then consider removing the glass entirely.  I've done this in the past and it was absolutely the correct solution.  When making your choice for illuminating your artwork, bear in mind the investment you have already made in the artwork itself and decide accordingly.

Other Options for Accent Lighting
As mentioned earlier, accent lighting is a great way to highlight architectural detail in your home.  If you have recessed wall niches, for instance, spotlights or low-voltage “strip” lighting will highlight the objects within.  Meanwhile, “cove lighting”, which is typically concealed within a ledge, cornice or crown molding at the upper part of the wall, is a terrific way to bring subtle light to a ceiling.  The effect is especially beautiful if you have an unusual or detailed ceiling and wish to draw attention to it.   Recessed lights can also be used to highlight the interior space of a bay window area or a window seat.

Other examples of accent lighting include lighting inside glass cabinets (see photo to the right).  I especially love to highlight beautiful dishes and stemware with “puck lights” (although if you're lucky, your china cabinet already comes wired for lighting).  Secretaries are another candidate for accent lighting (assuming the cabinet portion of the piece has glass doors, of course).  And don't forget about candles!  Candles are an easy, inexpensive way to add an atmospheric glow to any space.


To get the maximum potential out of your decorating, your home should include some combination of all three types of lighting (preferably in each room).  While the categories are fairly well-defined, they do in some cases overlap.

For instance, under-cabinet lighting in a kitchen can be both accent (especially if low wattage) and task lighting (helping with food preparation).  Table lamps, chandeliers and wall sconces that are typically task or general lighting sources become accent lighting (or “mood” lighting) with the combination of a dimmer switch and dark, romantic shades (as with the table lamp in the photo to the left).  In fact, I'm a firm believer in installing dimmer switches wherever possible for maximum flexibility in lighting your home.  It's an easy (and inexpensive) thing to do and the payoff is fabulous.

  • To be well-designed, a room should include some combination of general, task, and accent lighting.  Also, experiment with using uplights to give a room more visual interest.
  • Where possible, try to have the floor lamps, table lamps and any other task lighting within a room at the same approximate height off of the floor.  This will give a more even distribution of light throughout the room and will also appear less disjointed.
  • Wall-mounted swing-arm lamps are a great way to add light over a sofa or headboard without taking up floor space or table space, and they are often available with wall-mounted cord covers.
  • When lighting artwork, consider the investment you have made in the piece and make your choices accordingly.  Do ensure that the source of light is effective but not distracting or obtrusive.  Also, if your artwork is covered with glass, do consider removing it to enhance the picture and the effect of the lighting.
  • A small table lamp with a low-wattage bulb will add a warm and inviting glow to the hard surfaces and harsh lighting of a bathroom.  Try it sometime.
  • Use low-voltage strip lighting to add accent light to the dark spaces above a television or china cabinet or above a kitchen soffit.
  • Install dimmers for as many light fixtures as possible for maximum lighting options (including ceiling fixtures, table lamps, spotlights and sconces).
  • Do consider carefully what style and color of lamp shades to use and, where appropriate, whether to use them at all.  For instance, shades used on a crystal chandelier can be truly lovely (see the first photo above), but know that one effect of their use is that the crystals won't sparkle quite as much as they would without shades.  I'll include more about lamp shade options in a future post.
  • If you have a particularly large wall mirror (for instance, over a bathroom vanity), try mounting electric sconces directly onto the mirror for a sparkling and elegant look.   This will not only add additional illumination due to the reflection of the light in the mirror; it will also allow you to have a larger mirror while still having room for wall-mounted lights (which many find preferable for lighting above a vanity).
  • Do realize that all lighting has “cool” (meaning blue) or “warm” (meaning yellow) undertones and can have a significant impact on the appearance of the colors in your room.  For instance, traditional incandescent bulbs cast a more yellowish light, while GE “Reveal” light bulbs have a blue tint to counteract the yellow.  Likewise, halogen lights emit a clean, white light.   Whichever option you choose (I tend to prefer pure white light), try to use that option consistently throughout the room.


Good lighting is every bit as essential to interior design as is furniture placement and cohesive planning.  After all, the impact of carefully chosen fabrics, colors and accessories can be greatly diminished without proper consideration for how such details are lit.

Lighting your home effectively and creatively just takes a little thought and imagination.  I hope that this post has inspired you with ideas for your own home.   I hope you'll also take advantage of the information in the  Resource Guide below for some of my favorites sources for lighting and lighting accessories.


* = Available to the trade only (but it's relatively easy to purchase through an interior decorator).

*Decorative Crafts:  Chandeliers, lamps, sconces, lanterns.

Euro Style Lighting:  Contemporary lamps, sconces, chandeliers.

The Federalist:  18th century handmade reproduction lighting fixtures.  Very special, high-end chandeliers, sconces, table and floor lamps, lanterns, and ceiling fixtures.

Fine Art Lamps:  Chandeliers, sconces, pendants, lamps.

House of Troy:  Good source for art and picture lights; some floor and table lamps, as well as swing-arm lamps.

* John-Richard:  High-end chandeliers and lamps.

Light 'n Leisure:  Discount lighting.  Good selection.  They are able to special order a wide variety of brand name fixtures and will provide very competitive price quotes upon request.

Lighting Universe:  They have ALL kinds of lighting.

Nulco Lighting:  Chandeliers, sconces, ceiling fixtures.

Schonbek:  Stunning crystal chandeliers at a wide variety of price points, depending on quality of crystal (i.e., Swarovski, handcut, etc.).  Sconces and some table lamps.

Shades of Light:  Lamp shades, sconces, art lights, spotlights, chandeliers, floor and table lamps, swing-arm lamps, ceiling fixtures.
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton

No comments:

Post a Comment