Lighting Basics

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Often overlooked, lighting can make or break a room. It sets the mood: sultry and sophisticated, bright and cheery, dark and mysterious, or downright depressing. It’s a tricky operation that sets a challenge for the most seasoned designers. This article will shed some light on, well, light. You’ll learn about:

The Four Types of Lighting

For many people, lighting has a single use: to allow one to see. But lighting can be a powerful tool for the home decorator. It can set the mood, highlight architectural features, hide flaws, enhance a wall color, make a room seem bigger or smaller, and accentuate artwork, among other uses. There are four main types of light.

1. General or Ambient Lighting
Ambient lighting provides overall illumination. It is generally accomplished with an overhead fixture, recessed or track lights, or a chandelier. Sunlight also is considered ambient light. Ambient light is necessary, but by itself, fairly dull. It can be enhanced with other lighting types.

2. Accent or Feature Lighting
This is the fun stuff. Accent lights draw attention to artwork and other possessions, highlight certain aspects of a room, and create mood. They can be installed along floorboards, above paintings, and in other unexpected places.

3. Task Lighting
Task lighting can change your life—especially if you rely on ambient lighting as your main light source, as so many of us do. Task lighting helps you avoid eyestrain and better perform certain tasks: homework, cooking, reading, woodwork, and other activities. Under-cabinet lighting in the kitchen is one example of task lighting.

4. Decorative Lighting
Decorative lighting can include chandeliers, wall sconces, and table and floor lamps. It adds a decorative element to the room, while, in many cases, also serving as an essential light source.

Lighting Tips and Tricks

Step into the light with our tips and tricks on how to cast the perfect glow.

Have Purpose
The first step when assessing your lighting is to think about your room’s purpose. What is the room used for? What activities will take place there? How do you want to feel when you’re in the room? You’ll likely want a playroom to feel warm and cheery. You may want your dining room to feel romantic. If you plan to work or read in the room, you will want to employ task lighting to avoid eyestrain.

Mix it Up
Variety is the key to lighting. Design experts call this “layering” the light. Lay a foundation with ambient light; add task lights to work areas. Make sure the light hits the room at different levels and varies in brightness (don’t use all 60-watt bulbs, for example). Mix table lamps and floor lamps and upward and downward lights. Highlight prized possessions or your favorite part of the room with an accent light. One cautionary note, however: Don’t incorporate so many lights with shades that the room resembles a lamp store!

Go Dim
Experts will say: A dimmer is the easiest and most affordable way to achieve instant results with your lighting. They are fairly simple to install, and most dimmers cost between $10–30. They allow you to use a room for multiple purposes—perhaps as a workroom by day and an elegant living room by night. Additionally, dimmers are better for the environment. A dimmed light uses less energy and makes light bulbs last longer.

Be Sure to Balance
Balance is an important element of lighting. Firstly, your lighting should match the scale of your furniture. If you have an extremely large dining room table, for example, you’ll want an over-sized chandelier. You’ll also want to avoid “tipping the scales.” If you have a wall sconce on the left side of your mantel, you’ll want one on the right. That said, the lights don’t have to be the same on both sides. For an eclectic look, consider using two different table lamps (just be sure they are similar in scale)—one on each side of a bed or sofa.

Make a Statement
With two kids and a large dog, a flashy red velvet sofa may seem a bit impractical. But you can still make a statement—just look up! Lighting is often considered an art form. There are myriad styles to choose from: from modern to classic and simple to ornate. A neutral room with sturdy, upholstered furniture can go from drab to fab with a stunning chandelier. Plus, you get the added benefit of the light source.

Unexpected Places to Cast Light

Accent lights are often the trickiest to master. Where do you throw the light? How do you position it just so? What arrangement will achieve your desired result? Here are 10 unexpected places to cast light.

1. Under a claw-foot bathtub.
Add some lavender essential oil, pop on a soothing soundtrack, and you’re back at the spa.

2. Behind a bed.
Create romance in a master bedroom by backlighting the bed. This can also serve as a nightlight so no one stubs a toe on the way to bed!

3. Directly on a wall.
Want to brighten up a room? Place a spotlight next to the wall and aim it up. This will have a similar effect to that of an art gallery.

4. In the bookshelf.
Run LED tape lights (inconspicuous strips of light) along the shelves, adhere puck lights, or install lighting within a built-in.

5. Behind the TV.
Create a movie theater effect by softly backlighting your television. This adds depth to your viewing and also reduces eyestrain when watching television in a dark room.

6. Along the floorboards.
It’s not intuitive to put lights down low, but running lights along your floorboards adds variety to your light sources.

7. Up to the Ceiling.
If your ceiling seems too low, install upward sconces on the wall, or point spotlights up from the floor. Upward-facing accent lights will help “stretch” the room.

8. Staircases.
Run accent lights along a staircase to create a soft, subtle glow. This also creates a gallery effect, which makes the staircase an ideal place to highlight your favorite artwork.

9. In a recessed ceiling.
Tucking accent lights in a recessed ceiling warms the room and adds a touch of elegance.

10. Behind furniture.
Back to backlighting: Place a spotlight behind a piece of furniture (or a potted plant or sculpture) to add drama to a room.