Designer 101: The Right Lighting

Designer 101: The Right Lighting

Designer Kenneth Wingard gives you the tricks for choosing the right lighting.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

I would argue that lighting is the most important element in a room. I’d rather spend an evening in a room with bad furnishings and good lighting than the other way around. Good lighting adds charm, warmth and ambience to a space. It makes performing tasks easier, and perhaps best of all, it makes everyone look five years younger.

Okay, now who doesn’t need good lighting?

When discussing lighting, you must first understand the types of light, then the different sources for light and finally how to combine them.

Types of Light

Ambient: This is an overall diffused light that casts an even glow on the room. It doesn’t create many shadows and is meant to roughly replicate daylight. A flush mounted ceiling fixture or chandelier creates ambient light. Although efficient, it can create a dull effect, casting everything in the same light and can cause what is known as eye fatigue if not paired with other light sources.

Accent: This type of light is geared toward highlighting certain objects (such as art or sculpture), features in a room (like a fireplace or niche) or parts of a room (a wall or column). This light needs to be roughly three times as bright as other lighting in the room to have the proper effect and needs to stay limited and focused on the object it’s accentuating.

Task: Lighting that is used for performing a specific task. Desk lamps, under cabinet lights and reading lamps are all task lighting. This lighting is very important in kitchens and bathrooms where it may indeed be the only type of lighting used.


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Natural : Good old-fashioned daylight. You can’t beat it for making rooms look large and fresh at very reasonable usage rates. Unfortunately, it isn’t available 24 hours a day.

Type s of Light Fixtures

Flush and Semi-flush Ceiling Lights: These are mounted to the ceiling and are operated by a wall switch or pull cord. They often have a glass cover, but may be found with other shades such as a drum.

Semi-flush models are still attached to the ceiling but may have a solid base that protrudes 8-12 inches down from the ceiling at which point the shade is attached. Semi-flush fixtures are useful in a room where the ceiling is too low for a chandelier, but a pendant look is desired. These fixtures produce ambient light and are a good general source of lighting, but they should only be used alone in purely functional places such as a laundry room.

Pendant: Any lamp that hangs from the ceiling using a rod, chain or chord. This includes chandeliers, lights hanging over a kitchen counter or a bare bulb from a cord. A source of general ambient light if hung in the middle of a room or accent lighting if hung low over a counter or pool table, these should rarely be used alone with the exception of a dining room where it can be augmented with candlelight.

Wall Sconces: Fixtures that are attached to wall, most often at or slightly above eye level. These are usually hardwired into the wall, but models are available that hang on the wall and plug into baseboard outlets with attractive covers for the cord. When paired with a shade these can cast light up, down or both. They are often found flanking a fireplace (ambient lighting), used to highlight artwork (accent lighting) or on either side of a bed with swivel arms for reading (task lighting).

Lamps: This is a large category that encompasses all moveable light fixtures: floor lamps, table lamps, torchieres and desk lamps. They usually provide accent and task lighting since they are rarely bright enough to light an entire room evenly.

Greatly altered by the shade with which they are paired, a translucent linen shade will cast a warm glow whereas an opaque shade will only cast light up or down.

Remember that the size of the lamp does not determine how much light it casts, the bulb does. So choose your fixtures to work with the style of your room. (A little designer side note: larger scale lamps are all the rage now.)

It’s also important to find the balance between useful placement and aesthetic placement. Two lamps on either side of the bed: useful and aesthetic — large reading lamps next to every chair in the living room: useful, not aesthetic.

Remember you can always use 3-way bulbs so you have the option of keeping the room brighter when it’s homework time and moodier when you’re entertaining.

Recessed and Track: Recessed fixtures are literally recessed into the ceiling. Used extensively (some would argue too much so) in newer homes, especially kitchens, they can be located over counters and sinks as the ultimate in task lighting.

When installed along a wall with covers that can be pivoted and directed, they become accent lighting. Track lighting is similar and, as the name implies, are lights that are attached to a track.

Unlike recessed lights, track lighting can be easily installed in any room that has an existing ceiling electrical box, let’s say from a previous chandelier. These fixtures are very adaptable in that you have many options that can clip onto the track once it’s installed allowing you to have task, accent or ambient lighting.

How to Put Them To Work

Except for rooms that are purely task-oriented such as the laundry room or perhaps a craft room or garage, ambient, task and accent lighting work best when used together.

A general rule is to make sure that every room has at least three different sources of light. In a bedroom: a floor lamp, two wall sconces over the bed and a lamp on the dresser. In a dining room: a chandelier, two lamps on the buffet and a spotlight on a painting over the mantel. By doing this you will create multiple levels of light, creating highs and lows.

If you’re planning the lighting for your living room, start with ambient light — say a ceiling fixture set very low. I will actually cut out ambient light altogether when I’m entertaining to play up the drama in a room but it’s usually necessary for every day.

Next, augment it by layering in accent lighting. If you have recessed or track lighting check your bulbs. You’ll often find that they come with wide floods, which give you the most light, but the least effect.

Switch them out for medium and narrow floods and some spotlights. A narrow or medium flood looks great washing down a wall or over a fireplace and can also be used to give areas of a room a little more light, like a chair grouping in the corner. You can then take a spotlight on the same track and shine it directly onto a collection of objects on your coffee table or highlight a framed print. This creates mood and a little drama.

To soften the space between these two add a table lamp next to the sofa. If you already have ambient light in the room try an opaque shade so the light will shine down on the table more than out into the room.

Then add a task light or two, say a floor reading lamp over a side chair or a writing lamp on a secretary or a sidewall.

With so many recent changes in what’s available in light bulbs and the disappearance of our good ol’ friend the incandescent bulb, here’s a quick cheat sheet for what’s currently available:

Halogen: Use these for your accent spotlights on artwork, etc.

LED: Best reserved for certain task lighting, like under the kitchen cabinets

Compact Fluorescent: For table and floor lamps, be sure to check the kelvin rating on the box — the higher the rating, the whiter/brighter the light. For a warm home, choose between 2500 and 3500.

Oh, and add dimmers. No room should be without them, but I’m sure you already knew that.

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to think about how to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Get to know Kenneth here.

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