Lighting Design Tips From an Industry Insider

Melanie Freundlich creates custom light schemes for luxurious residences, galleries, and libraries. Here, she shares bright (and affordable) ideas to expertly illuminate any home.

  • Christine Egan

How did you get started in this field?
I was a stage manager and lighting designer for dance companies; my degree was in theater design. I became interested in architecture, so I took a few courses, then went back to school for an M.F.A. in architectural lighting design, which focuses on aesthetics, technical application, and environmental factors, among other things. After I graduated, I worked for an international architectural-lighting-design firm in New York City for 10 years, then started my own business.

When you walk into a home, do you critique the lighting?
Only in my mind.

What makes you cringe?
Glare. Think of a dining-room pendant hung too high, so that from a seated viewer’s sight line, the bare bulb isn’t shielded by a shade or a globe.

Why is it so hard to pick the right fixture?
Because people tend to focus too much on the fixture itself. What you should really think about most is what you’re lighting—how light lands on a surface, what it does to the space.

What’s the secret to a beautifully lit living room?
Variety. The key is to have a range of lighting heights and locations. You don’t want to have only table lamps or only floor lamps with light all on one level. Instead, have a mix that includes a light on top of a shelf and something low, like a glowing cube on the floor—which also adds a nice, contemplative touch.

Anything else to think about?
Bring more light to certain spots and favorite objects. It’s important that different parts of the room are at different brightness levels to prevent lighting fatigue.

What is “lighting fatigue”?
Imagine the feeling of being in a conference room where everything is at the same light level and there are no shadows—that’s lighting fatigue.

Speaking of bad lighting, what’s your take on CFLs?
People are really afraid of CFLs because many of them are harsh and make everything around them look bad. It’s hard to identify the good ones without an understanding of color correction. Labels like “daylight” are meaningless—kind of like “all natural” on food packages. But some CFLs give off nice light.