Lighting is one of the most important yet most frequently overlooked aspects of interior design. It can completely transform how a space both appears and feels, and provides the opportunity to effectively create two main looks (and moods): daylight and artificial light. And of course, most people these days are perfectly well aware how vital lighting is in creating that upmarket “look and feel” to any home – after all, we are all constantly exposed to glossy magazines and television programmes that showcase designer home decor.
So how do you go about getting the same look in your own home?
Lighting is one of the most important yet most frequently overlooked aspects of interior design. It can completely transform how a space both appears and feels, and provides the opportunity to effectively create two main looks (and moods): daylight and artificial light.
And of course, most people these days are perfectly well aware how vital lighting is in creating that upmarket “look and feel” to any home – after all, we are all constantly exposed to glossy magazines and television programmes that showcase designer home decor.
So how do you go about getting the same look in your own home? - The answer, interestingly, is that you don’t and for two very good reasons.
- First, what you see on screen and in print is a carefully crafted confection that in most cases uses extra stage lighting that you never see (not unlike how photographic models are made to look “perfect” – makeup, lighting, touch-up).
- Second, what these professional designers are usually doing is “dressing a set” – deliberately picking out and accenting interesting features. No question that it’s gorgeous to look at but could you really read a book or even sit to watch TV comfortably in there?
So then, nobody is suggesting you turn your home into some kind of stage set, but nevertheless consider how set designers are able to create myriad effects and really bring a scene to life using little more than lighting. When only the utility lighting is on most stage sets are in reality quite drab and unappealing, and that is just how a poorly lit home will seem also.
The key to creating stunning home lighting that you can also actually live with is to understand the main elements of lighting and how to combine them to produce effects that not only look good but are also effective in terms of your own real world day to day use of the space. Simply trying to copy what you see in magazines and on TV won’t actually work.
The Basic Concepts of Home Lighting
So what are the main elements of home lighting?- There are 4 basic types – decorative, accent, and task and ambient – which can also be grouped into categories such as style vs. function or contrast vs. diffuse. So let’s look at what this all means.
Decorative lighting is lighting for its own sake; it deliberately draws attention to itself. Tiffany lamps are a good example.
- Ambient lighting is at the other end of the spectrum; it provides overall light that doesn’t appear to come from anywhere specific. Wall wash lights and many main ceiling fixtures fit this description – the light just generally fills the room and you don’t generally notice the source.
- Accent lighting is similar to decorative lighting except that it is the thing being lit rather than the light source itself that is the focus of attention. Any type of light that picks out features in the room counts as accent lighting.
- Task lighting is what it sounds like – usually quite bright and focused light that allows you to carry out particular tasks such as reading or preparing food.
- Decorative and accent lighting naturally pair up into the “style” category while ambient and task lighting are clearly more related to “function” – essentially the difference between looking cute and being useful. Contrast lighting encompasses task and accent light both of which aim to bring specific items into sharp focus, albeit for different reasons, and diffuse lighting covers both ambient and decorative lighting that is much softer and visually relaxing.
Thinking back to the interior decor “life style” magazine shots we mentioned at the beginning of this article. These are invariably heavily unbalanced in favour of “style” – decorative and particularly accent lights – but to work well in a normal domestic setting, lighting needs to be a balance of the various forms.
Clearly an area such as the kitchen is likely to be weighted most towards task lighting with little to none in the way of decorative lights. By contrast the lounge will look and feel best if the accent (excuse the pun) is on accent and decorative lighting.
Putting It All Together
So how do you combine all these elements to produce a successful home lighting design? - With a bit of common sense really. Put main ambient lights on their own circuit, preferably controlled by a dimmer switch. Task lighting should go where the task is likely to be performed, so under cabinet strip lights that shine onto the worktops make sense in the kitchen, and a reading lamp behind where you might want to sit to read for example. It should also be separately switchable so you can eliminate it when not required.
Accent lighting involves identifying any architectural features or items in the room that cry out to be noticed and picking them out – for example illuminating an artwork or tracing the lines of a coving. And decorative lighting is all about positioning lamps and shades that appeal as items of interest in their own right.
In all cases it is important not to overlook ambient light – this is the backdrop to everything else and it is crucial to get it right. Too much ambient light and it will wash out your effect lighting, too little and the other lights will struggle to provide a level of illumination they were never intended for.
The plain truth is that creating effective and pleasing home lighting is not rocket science. It is in many respects simply a form of normal home decoration. Anyone can do it because all that is really required is to actually just stop and think about it for a moment first, try an idea out and if it appeals to you then you’re done, otherwise rinse and repeat. That said, there are a few simple guidelines to help you along if you’re apprehensive (or completely clueless) about the subject of home lighting design.
In general, the main idea to keep in mind is that light sources should (with specific exceptions) rarely be allowed to attract attention to themselves – it’s the area or objects being lit that should get the focus. With that thought uppermost, here are a handful of further basic tips…
Simple Home Lighting Guidelines
- First, start with daylight. That’s right – no lights at all. Get the arrangement of a room sorted (furniture, TV, designated zones etc) before you even start to think about lighting. The room has to work properly during the day and it’s not so simple to “fix” daylight. When you’re happy with the layout, then start to think about whether you would want to utilize the space differently during the evening and where you might prefer to have light (a bright lamp right next to a TV for example is distracting at best but you see it done countless times).
- Second, bright is not necessarily best. Bright light hurts our eyes – that’s why so many sunglasses get sold. If you have a need for bright light to read or work by (kitchens are a good example) then you should try to diffuse it (which is easily done by bouncing direct light off a wall or ceiling which then reflects bright but indirect light) or contain it to just the area needed (spotlights and under-cabinet lighting come to mind).
- Third, most successful lighting design employs a “layered” approach – no one light or type of light can hope to meet the competing lighting needs throughout your home, or even in a single room. It’s the way in which multiple light sources are combined that gives the best effects. Some of the best design examples are to be found in kitchen lighting ideas that clearly mirror the multifunctional nature of modern kitchens.
- Also, it’s often important to be able to vary light levels and (as already mentioned) putting groups of lights on dimmer switches is a very easy and effective way to achieve this goal. In fact, if you do nothing other than put your main ambient lighting on one dimmer circuit and your accent lighting on another you will find you have sufficient control over these two fundamental elements to be able to create a whole variety of moods and looks at will.
- Fourth, not all light bulbs are equal. Not only do they come with different power ratings (i.e. varying levels of luminosity) but there are many different types. Obviously some light bulbs are designed to shine light in all directions while others focus light to a narrow beam. Another distinction is what is called white light colour which measures how “cool” or “warm” a light source appears. Warm light produces a relaxing glow but is not so easy to read or work by, whereas cool light gives pin sharp clarity but tends to feel harsh in a domestic setting.
Different Types Of Light Bulbs – Incandescents, CFLs & LEDs
Lastly we get to the technological differences between light bulbs. These days the distinction is often characterized as being between low energy (or energy saving) and incandescent light bulbs, but in terms of underlying technology there are 3 basic types:
- Incandescent light bulbs work by literally burning a metal filament in a vacuum – they’re actually small heaters and little different in principle to say a bonfire where most of the energy is converted to heat but some visible light (about 10%) is also given off.
- Fluorescent lamps pass an electrical charge through a gas filled tube which excites the atoms in the gas and causes them to give off ultraviolet photons – these photons aren’t actually visible to us but collide with a phosphor coating on the inside of the tube which converts some of that collision energy into heat but crucially creates secondary photons in the visible white light spectrum. CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) are what they sound (and look) like, small fluorescent tubes and most are about 4 times more efficient than equivalent brightness incandescent bulbs.
- LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) are in fact a pair of semi-conductors bonded together where an electrical charge causes electrons to flow from one of the semi-conductor layers to the other and in the process drop to a lower energy state and release photons. The wavelength of the photons can be controlled by varying the thickness of the conduction band and thus produce light in any part of the spectrum (infra red, visible white, visible green, etc). Modern LEDs are typically 10 times more efficient than their incandescent counterparts.
These 3 types each in fact overlap in the energy saving lighting spectrum – HEI (High Efficiency Incandescent) bulbs count as low energy, where some fluorescents don’t – but as a general rule of thumb, incandescent lighting is inefficient, fluorescent and CFLs are fairly low energy, and LEDs are way out in front for energy efficiency.
That’s All Very Interesting But What Does It Have To Do With Home Lighting?
From your point of view, as you design your home lighting, it’s worth understanding the basic characteristics of these technologies so you can weigh up their various benefits and drawbacks. Certainly, from a financial perspective the more efficient a light bulb is the more money it will save you (and the savings can be pretty jaw dropping when you actually add up all those light bulbs and the hours they spend lit over the course of a year). But there is more to good lighting than just saving money – you do after all have to look at it for a surprisingly large part of your life.
However, before you get to considering much of anything at all, the first thing likely to smack you in the face sooner rather than later is the fact that, as part of a global initiative to address global warming, all light bulbs that fail to match “low energy” criteria are being banned (well, withdrawn from sale, but the effect is the same). This of course covers traditional incandescent GLS (General Lighting Service) bulbs – already 100w bulbs are no longer available in most countries and 60w is already being culled as you read this.
Which presents something of a dilemma, since most of us have grown used to the light quality available from incandescent bulbs and have experience of how best to use them to create pleasing lighting designs. But since this is clearly not the future of home lighting we need to examine the alternatives.
At present the most widely available alternative to incandescents for domestic lighting is the CFL; but aside from the many (quite serious) problems with CFLs, from the vantage of someone trying to create appealing home lighting the real killer is that they look, well, horrid. Fluorescent lamps have a long and less than illustrious history where it comes to sickly light quality, flicker, poor start up times and ability to survive being repeatedly switched on and off.
Why LED Is the Future of Home Lighting
So if incandescent light bulbs are doomed and CFLs are unpleasant, what else is there? In a word LED. Now if you’re like most folk then your experience of LED lighting is probably limited to Christmas tree lights, battery operated torches and perhaps the occasional LED spotlight that doesn’t really cut it where brightness is concerned.
But let’s think about this a bit further… the underlying technology in LEDs is electronics, exactly the same in fact as computers, mobile phones, digital cameras, MP3 players and so on. Now recall how rapidly and completely these technological advances swept aside the well established and perfectly serviceable solutions that existed before.
There was (and still is) nothing fundamentally wrong with sending information by post, capturing images on photographic film, listening to music on vinyl, tape or CD – they all still work. The point is that they don’t come anywhere close to the range of possibilities, interoperability, speed of response, convenience or cost offered by electronic alternatives. So they died out and digital took over.
LED lighting was set to follow this pattern regardless, for the exact same set of reasons and simply because it is a way better technology for delivering light. But given that the playing field now has one player shortly to be sent off (incandescents) and the other (CFLs) flirting with the sin-bin for poor performance and foul play, things look absolutely wide open for LED lighting.
LED Lighting – What To Look For
But before you get down to using LED lights to create your lighting design bear in mind that cheap, first generation LED light bulbs are still out there, waiting to tempt you into disappointment. One of the principal differences between LED light bulbs and all other types is the economics of the situation; the cost of electrical lighting is almost all in the cost of electricity (running costs).
Traditional light bulbs (and to a large extent CFLs have followed the same model) have always had a low cost per unit which masks the fact that over time these cost a fortune in running and replacement costs. LED light bulbs reverse this equation – high quality LEDs cost significantly more than regular light bulbs but last many times longer and cost so little to run that in most cases the break-even point is little more than one year.
So the key is to be prepared to put money into your new lighting and treat it as an investment that will not only go on looking good but also save you a ton of money over the years. Also, read up about what to look for when buying low energy light bulbs and become familiar with this rapidly advancing technology.
Most LED lights are very bright and very directional. Though there are plenty that use the common “globe” shape to spread even light in all directions as illustrated by these warm white LED pendant lights above.
The best way to use light with these characteristics of being intensely bright and tightly focused is to bounce the light off something else and throw that reflected indirect light back into the room as these two photographs demonstrate. In this first case the designer has created a bright, well lit room that is paradoxically also subdued and comfortable to sit in by “washing” the white ceilings and walls with bright LED lights.
In this second example of LED wall washing, the room is infused with this distinctive terracotta colour simply by reflecting warm white LED spot lights off a red painted wall. It’s a technique that seems perfectly suited to LED since their inherently crisp nature (most LEDs emit light in only one part of the spectrum) results in equally crisp, vibrant reflections.
Another popular technique with LED lighting is to make it appear as if the light is coming from an actual object rather then being shone at the object. In this example we see an effect that would be difficult if not impossible to replicate using conventional lighting, not least because of heat issues and constant bulb replacement headaches. It’s very simple, LEDs have been fitted into a central stair pillar to illuminate each individual step and so enhance this already eye-catching architectural feature.
And of course, LEDs could almost have been made especially for kitchen and bathroom lighting with all those many textures and surfaces. This last example is reasonably typical, with cool to the touch LED lighting concealed both inside and below cabinets and the ubiquitous LED strip light used to pick out shapes as desired.
So in summary, the best home lighting designs blend each of the four main types of lighting in varying proportions (and preferably with the ability to independently switch or vary the brightness of each type) to suit both the functional purpose and desired aesthetics of each room. And the best home lighting designs – those that not only look great now but will also truly stand the test of time – are inevitably going to be those based on LED lighting.