The most perfect plan, the most vibrant colors and the most interesting textures can be all but lost without the perfect lighting to accentuate it all. With so many wonderful lighting resources readily available to the mass market these days, it can be an exciting and overwhelming task for many to know where to begin and how to properly light a room. Many professionals find it is easiest to approach lighting spaces with a ‘layered effect’. This will help you address both the aesthetics of the space as well as ensuring adequate lighting for the daily tasks that take place there. This can also help add shadows for interesting contrast as well as create the appropriate ambiance in the space.
An ambient layer of lighting is what most would consider the ‘general’ or overall lighting source. This is often recessed cans or a flush mount ceiling fixture. While this layer can be decorative, it is not typically used as a focal point in the room’s design and is more for the functional use of basic, everyday tasks in the space. Controlling the level of the ambient lighting layer can dramatically impact a room’s overall ambiance. Having an ambient layer that is as bright or brighter than the task lighting in the space will give you a bright, light effect (like often found in a kitchen), whereas having an ambient layer that is not as bright as task or decorative lighting will give you a softer overall ambiance (similar to what most associated with a dining room).
Task lighting is exactly what the name suggests, lighting used to illuminate specific tasks or work areas of your home. This can be under counter lighting or even hanging pendants used to brighten kitchen work surfaces for chopping, slicing, and baking. Vanity lighting is used on, over, or beside mirrors in bathrooms to illuminate the space for users to apply make-up, brush teeth and comb hair each day. Desk lamps are often used to illuminate office work surfaces and table lamps placed by the sofa or on a bedside table provide adequate light for reading.
Accent, or focal, lighting is used to draw attention to or accent specific features in a room and, in my opinion, is the most under-utilized layer in most homes. Accent lighting is rarely seen. Most of the time, you merely appreciate the effects of good accent lighting as it is used to create additional contrast and drama within a space. Wall sconces or picture lighting would be one exception as they are often decorative choices used to show off a spectacular art collection. More common examples would include recessed rope lighting to accentuate special collections or photo frames on shelving or in a display cabinet. With outdoor landscaping, spot lights may be used to cast a dramatic glow on stonework and step lighting and even added to steps for both visual drama and increased safety.
Although the decorative layer will provide some light, it’s primary intention is merely to add interest and decorative effect to the space, which can often be a very exciting and dramatic focal point in the room. You should not depend on the decorative fixtures in a space to supply adequate task lighting, although some cases, it can be the sole supply of overall, ambient lighting as well. Such is often the case in a dining room where statement chandeliers are often used for dramatic effect and typically provide enough ambient lighting for the entire space. This is also true for some decorative pendant fixtures used in kitchens, although in many kitchen applications you will want to add recessed down lights for ambient purposes.
Keep it flexible! Work closely with an electrician to ensure you can control the multiple layers of lighting with multiple switches and dimming accessories. You want to be able to have a nice, bright work surface as you work feverishly in the kitchen, and then a softer, dimmer glow as you enjoy the meal with family and friends.
Keep it simple! Remember that sometimes one fixture can serve multiple ‘layering functions’ in your space! As mentioned above, sometimes one fabulous, dramatic crystal chandelier in the dining room can be ambient, task and decorative lighting all rolled into one! While layering is a great guide, don’t let it overwhelm you.
Keep it creative! Be creative with the selection of bulbs used in decorative fixtures. While the wattage and bulb type are dictated by the manufacturer, there are many, many options available now – frosted or clear glass, varied glass shapes (round, Edison, candelabra, etc), you can also vary the effect a light has on a room’s color scheme based on the selection of warm or cool light bulbs. Have some fun and add some additional interest with this little detail in your lighting plan.
By nature, we are drawn to light, so creating areas that are lighter and brighter and contrasting them with softer-lit areas will ‘draw’ people through and to spaces in your home. Use this contrast to add visual drama and interest. Many homeowners tend to stop short of a well-developed lighting plan with only ambient or task lighting in their spaces. Adding the additional layers will create both depth and interest, adding to the warmth, personality, and functionality to your home.