Expert Interior Lighting Tips
Looking to create a flattering glow yet still have enough wattage to see what you’re doing? This speedy lesson in lamps, fixtures, and bulbs (plus some room-by-room tips) will illuminate the way.
What Kind of Lighting Does Each Room Need?
There are two rules of thumb: You should have a mix of light sources at different levels to create a flattering ambience, and you need appropriate task lighting for whatever you do in that space (reading, sautéing, getting dressed). Here are tips for five key spots.
Light three of the four corners, focusing one of those lights on an object (art, a plant, a striking chair). Use a combination of table lamps and floor lamps, some with a downward glow and some that shine upward. Allow for reading in as many seats as possible with down-glowing lamps on three-way switches. If you have an overhead fixture, put it on a dimmer (see What’s the Deal With Dimmers?).
To draw people in, make the table the brightest spot in the room. Use a chandelier or a pendant above the table, limiting the total wattage to 100. Elsewhere in the room, indirect lighting is best—it’s relaxing and flattering. Give the space a subtle glow with a pair of small table lamps on a sideboard or matching sconces on the wall above. Battery-powered votives inside a glass-front china cabinet can be a nice touch.
Focus on overhead lighting (on a dimmer that you can crank up when cooking), and add lower sources to illuminate work surfaces. Use pendants, under-cabinet lights, or a sturdy table lamp (kept away from the sink).
Aim for a cozy, insular atmosphere: Place reading lamps or sconces by the bed—but not pointed directly at it. If you have recessed or track fixtures, angle them away from the bed, toward the dressing area. On a low table, include a small, intimate lamp with a tinted low-wattage bulb to mimic candlelight.
The best choice for applying makeup is sidelights, such as a pair of sconces flanking the mirror. An overhead light helps fill in any shadows on your face and also fully illuminates the room (important when cleaning). In a large space, you might also want a light directly over the shower.
Overheard Option #1
Fixtures like these hug the ceiling. In a bathroom or a kitchen, their bright, whole-room illumination is useful; elsewhere they can be harsh. Calm one down by swapping in low-wattage bulbs, aiming for a total wattage of about 60.
Overheard Option #2
These lights hang down a foot or so from the ceiling. Generally more charming than standard flush-mounts, they have a bit of the glamour of pendants but are short enough for head clearance in most spaces.
Overheard Option #3
The term applies to any fixture suspended from a chain or a cord, including chandeliers. Best over tables and counters or in rooms with ceilings nine feet tall or higher. Tip: Add up the length and width of the room in feet and use the same number in inches for your fixture’s diameter.
Overheard Option #4
Embedded in the ceiling, recessed lights (a.k.a. high hats or can lights) are sleek, inconspicuous, and ideal for low ceilings. When it comes to size, smaller (about three inches in diameter) is chicer. Directional recessed lights can be set to beam toward a certain spot.
Overheard Option #5
These are adjustable two ways: You can slide each fixture to where you want it, then angle it to hit a specific area (great for accenting art or objects). Opt for small units in a finish that matches other metals in the room.
Size and Placement
When you hunker down in bed to read, you want the bottom of the shade to be a little below your line of sight, or about 16 to 18 inches from the top of the mattress. A table lamp that’s 26 to 28 inches tall (base and shade together) usually works well.
Size and Placement
They should clear the head of the tallest family member and not obstruct views—figure 36 to 48 inches from the top of the counter. Start the row of lights 12 to 15 inches from either end of the island or table, and space them evenly within that span.
Size and Placement
Go for a fixture one-half to three-quarters the width of the table; anything larger will cast shadows on faces. Hang the light 36 to 48 inches above the table. Choose the lower number for more intimacy, the higher one if you want to stand when toasting.
Size and Placement
Mount sconces on either side of the mirror (36 to 40 inches apart is ideal) to cast even illumination across the face. Position the fixtures so the bottom edges of the shades are a little below eye level, or approximately 60 to 65 inches from the floor.
Wattage Best For...
Use a 40- to 60-watt bulb. To prevent shadows, the lamp should be between your head and the page. A lamp with an opaque shade, like a metal reading lamp, cuts glare.
Staring at a Computer
To prevent eye fatigue, keep the light in the room no brighter than the screen. Sixty watts in a desk lamp, supplemented by soft, ambient light (from outside or overhead) will do the trick.
Putting on Makeup
You’ll need 60 to 80 watts of light. So a 40-watt bulb in each of a pair of sconces or three to four 25-watt bulbs above the vanity work well. Add the overhead if you need more.
Which Bulbs Should I Use?
1: Silver Bowl
A metallic finish on the top half of the bulb softens the light. A great solution for overheads with exposed bulbs, especially if there isn’t a dimmer. (Halco clear silver-bowl globe, $3, 1000bulbs.com.)
2: Soft Pink
Emits a gorgeous, rosy glow. Perfect for mood lighting in the living room, the dining room, or a bedroom. Once you switch, you’ll never go back. (Sylvania soft pink bulbs, $5.50 for two, hardwarestore.com.)
3: Round Candelabra
Try these in a modern chandelier. Or, for a surprise, swap them in for the flame-shaped bulbs in a traditional chandelier. (GE crystal-clear globe lightbulbs, $3, amazon.com.)
Inspired by Thomas Edison’s original design, it has a visible filament and a rustic glow. Pricey and low-wattage, it’s worthwhile only in lamps where the bulb is exposed. (Triple-loop bulb, $25, rejuvenation.com.)
What’s the Deal With Dimmers?
They’re your best friend when it comes to illumination, because they let you effortlessly adjust the feel of a room for mood or activity. Changing from switches to dimmers is a quickie job for an electrician, and it’s fairly easy to do yourself. For a demo, go to video.about.com. A tip: Dimmers are not just for overheads. You can put a lamp on a dimmer or even opt to have the whole room’s “lightscape”—ceiling, table, and floor lamps—all on a single dimmer switch. Dimmers also save energy and extend the lives of bulbs.
Where Should I Shop for Lamps and Fixtures?
Upscale but not over-the-top, this site features a well-edited selection of classic fixtures from designers such as Thomas O’Brien, Alexis Hampton, Barbara Barry, and Ralph Lauren.
A great place to score affordable traditional-style one-off lamps (you might even find a matching pair).
Very inexpensive, mostly modern lighting that looks far pricier than it is.
You’ll find an extensive, well-priced selection of lamps and mounted fixtures in every style. A bit of a time commitment to browse through, but worth it.
Best known for its retro handblown glass pendants. If you’re looking for a showstopper for your entryway, this is the place. Also sells vintage bulbs.