Written by Barbara Winfield
If you're considering a decorating project, you've probably given a lot of thought to furniture style, colors and materials. But what about lighting? This important part of your decorating scheme can enhance colors, spark drama and create a mood. But good lighting is about more than pretty fixtures. Here's what you need to know to create beautifully lit spaces.
Quality of Light
Interior light falls into three categories: ambient, task and accent. For the most effective lighting scheme, you need a combination of all three types—the pros call it "layering."
The first layer, ambient light, provides evenly distributed, general illumination and is most often supplied by a ceiling fixture, such as a chandelier in the dining room. Task lighting focuses on a specific area in a room, such as a pendant over a kitchen counter or a reading lamp near a chair or desk. Accent lighting is used to draw attention to a particular area or to add depth and drama—think of candlelight and picture lights. Keep in mind that it isn't necessarily the fixture that determines the type of light, but the way it is used. For example, sconces mounted on swing arms with shades that cast light downward provide task light for reading when placed beside a bed, but when mounted flush to the wall with shades that direct light upward, they give accent light on either side of a mirror over a console.
When choosing lighting, consider the mood you want to create and the tasks performed in the room. Then choose the appropriate fixtures in a style that complements your decor. Most rooms are used for multiple activities, and the right fixture can help you define zones. In a family room for example, a reading lamp with an opaque shade placed next to a chair targets light for someone reading, while keeping the rest of the room darker for those watching TV.
Recessed lighting set flush with the ceiling can provide general or more focused task or accent illumination. The problem with this type of fixture as a source of ambient illumination is that it can cast harsh shadows on faces. However, some recessed fixtures are adjustable and let you control the direction of the light beam. If you choose this type of fixture, consider aiming it at a wall to highlight art or other displayed elements. Surface-mounted ceiling fixtures are often simple domes that provide diffuse ambient light, but can be elaborate chandeliers that act as a decorative focal point in addition to providing general light. Chandeliers can also be equipped with shades that direct light up or down.
Pendant lights hang from the ceiling. Equipped with globes to reduce glare, they can be used for general lighting; fitted with shades that direct light downward, they provide task light over tables and work areas such as kitchen islands. As a general rule, chandeliers and pendant lights should hang about 30 inches above the table to keep harsh light from diners' eyes.
Sconces are mounted on the wall, and can direct light up or down depending on the design. Floor lamps, with shades that direct light up or down, can provide ambient or task light and are often placed in the corners of a room. Torchères shoot light toward the ceiling to provide indirect ambient light and drama, while standing lights or lamps with adjustable arms cast light down to provide reading light or a soft accent glow. Table lamps come in a vast range of styles and shapes that can add a decorative touch as well as helping to light a room.
Lamp shades can help you control light. The shape, material and opacity of the shade will all affect the direction and the diffusion of the light by sending it up or down and reducing glare. Putting lights on dimmers gives you even more control over brightness and mood. While you can put individual fixtures on dimmers, integrated dimming systems are available that let you control the lighting in an entire room with one switch. Some allow you to preset different lighting "scenes" for different times of day or activities. Dimmers also help you to conserve energy and extend the life of your bulbs. The Skylark EcoDim dimmer from Lutron, for example, is programmed to limit light levels to 85 percent of full capacity at all times. The decrease in light level is imperceptible to the eye, but can reduce energy usage by 15 percent—more than doubling the life of an incandescent bulb.
A "lamp" is the term used in the lighting industry to describe what is most commonly called a lightbulb. The key to energy savings lies in your choice of lamps. Although energy-efficient lightbulbs are now widely available, some compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) emit a subtly flickering light that appears duller and cooler than standard incandescent light. There is also the issue of aesthetics—some people find those glass coils to be unattractive. Fortunately, the lighting industry has been working hard to redesign CFLs so they look more like the traditional bulbs we are accustomed to, and also cast a warmer, brighter light. This has made it easier to use these new lamps with a wide variety of fixtures.
According to lighting pro Clifford Starr, of the Lighting by Gregory showroom, many manufacturers are designing fixtures to accept either the traditional screw base or the plug-in type CFLs. Starr explains that the design of the fixture you choose and the color of light you require determine which kind of lamp you'll need to use. "Traditional lamps, known for warmth and brightness, include incandescents as well as halogen, xenon and krypton bulbs (named for the gases each contain). The last three are more efficient than standard lamps, but not as cost-effective as CFLs," he says. "If you want a CFL with a color temperature closer to an incandescent, look for a 27K or 30K designation on the package. The type of light is determined by the color temperature on the Kelvin scale. The higher the number, the bluer the light, resulting in a cooler, fresher look. Some designers avoid using 27K because they find the light too yellow; they prefer 30K or 35K."
Starr has a few suggestions for choosing the right bulb for the job. For ambient floor and table lamps, choose a warm white compact fluorescent. Chandeliers require a lamp with a smaller socket than a standard fixture. In this case halogen, krypton or xenon are good choices. Each of these lamps will save energy and emit a warm light. For reading or task light, look for a 23-watt CFL bulb (similar to a warm white or daylight 100-watt incandescent bulb). "The shape of the bulb only becomes an issue if it's visible— usually they are hidden," says Starr. "A quality lighting store should be able to match up the proper lamps with your fixture and help you to convert to CFLs when possible."
Pick Your bulb
Check out the options:
- Incandescent: The most common bulb in homes, these lamps provide a warm, consistent and diffuse light. Though inexpensive, they're not the most energy-efficient option. Sylvania's Soft White bulbs are perfect for ambient light. About $3 for four.
- Compact fluorescent: CFLs use about a third the electricity of incandescents yet last up to 20 times longer. Plus, they now provide a warm light more like incandescent. Philips' 3-way Twister is an energy-smart alternative to traditional three-way bulbs. About $10.
- Tungsten Halogen: These energy-efficient bulbs last twice as long as standard incandescents and cast a bright, white light. Philips Halogená puts halogen light into a traditional-shape bulb. About $10 for two.
- LED: Light-emitting diode bulbs cast a bright, clear light and last up to 30 times longer than incandescents. Some predict they'll replace all other bulbs. C. Crane's Vivid Plus 1.84-watt LED bulb is great for accent light. About $30 each.