How to Use Lighting as an Interior Design Element

You don’t have to know everything about lighting or spend tons of money to make rooms look light and lively. You do need to know the basics of functional and decorative lighting and how to get help for planning and buying lighting. Lighting design is broken down into three kinds of illumination: general lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting. Mix all three types to achieve decorative lighting.

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Decorative lighting creates mood (an overall feeling of serenity or playfulness) and meaning (communication; sometimes this includes signage, such as Exit). Flat, functional lighting (such as the kind in your office) puts people on the alert. Decorative lighting, on the other hand, brings out the shape of objects, the “feel” of texture, and important keynotes.

A decorative lighting scheme has variation in light levels and sources that indicate what rooms are for (dim lights in rooms for sleeping, bright lights in playrooms) or what a room’s focal point is.

Create focal points with chandeliers and pendants. In a dining room, for example, a chandelier placed over a table draws attention with its soft upward-cast light. (Chandeliers are Traditional.) A pendant light used over a table, however, casts a more concentrated light downward and out. (Pendants are Contemporary.)

To create a plan, consider what, where, and when activities take place. Lighting needs to vary its intensity to accommodate multiple activities that occur in a single room. For example, your kitchen may be your favorite place to cook, read, do your hobbies, watch TV, and entertain. Would you want the same level of light for a party that you want for mopping the floor?

Lighting stores and home remodeling centers have trained personnel who can steer you toward your best possible lighting choices. Bring your floor plans and other decorating notes with you when you consult a lighting expert.

General lighting

General, or ambient, lighting illuminates an entire space for visibility and safety. Light bounces off walls and ceilings to cover as much area as possible. General lighting can come from up-lights or down-lights:

  • Up-lights point illumination toward the ceiling. Up-light fixtures include torchiers and wall sconces.

  • Down-lights cast light down from the ceiling or wall. Popular down-lights include recessed lights (cans) and track lights.

  • Some lights, such as table and floor lamps, are both up- and down-lights because they cast light toward both the ceiling and the floor.

Task lighting

Task, or work, lighting illuminates smaller areas where more intense light is needed. Task light should be three times as bright as general lighting. Overly bright work lamps won’t make up for a dimly lit room (instead, you may develop eyestrain). Using higher light per watt (LPW) bulbs in other fixtures or increasing the number of fixtures to boost general lighting fixes this problem.

Good task lighting fixture choices are well-positioned recessed lights, track lighting, pendants, table or floor lamps, and under-cabinet lighting strips.

Accent lighting

Accent lighting adds brilliant shimmer to make your precious objects, paintings, sculptures, and outstanding architectural features stand out. Use a bulb that’s no more than three times as bright as the surrounding general light. Position the fixture so that the light doesn’t block your line of sight so that no glaring reflections bounce back.

If you’re using track lighting for wall washing (lighting a nontextured wall) or wall grazing (lighting a textured wall), aim the beam of light at a 30-degree angle from the vertical to prevent glare and hot spots.

Halogen makes the best accent light because of its intensity and brilliance.

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