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.

melanie-freundlich-office
Photo by Jody Rogac

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.

Can you point to a couple?
There are two bulbs I would use at home to replace a common 60-watt bulb, but only in fixtures that hide the bulb: Philips EnergySaver Twister Warm White 13W ($5, lightbulbsurplus.com) and a newfangled LED, Philips AmbientLED 25W A19 ($14, homedepot.com). LED bulbs cost more but last about twice as long as CFLs.

What about lights in the bathroom, for makeup?
A perfect scenario is lights on both sides of the mirror and above it, so light lands on your face from three directions, which will help fill in shadows.

What’s the most common mistake you see in kitchens?
Many times when people renovate, they put a grid of recessed lights in the ceiling in the middle of the room. That doesn’t light the space—it only lights the floor. You don’t need lights in the middle of the kitchen. You need directed light on counters, on islands, and on the fronts of cabinets. And I think halogen lights under cabinets are a mistake. They’re too hot. I would use a linear fluorescent or LED lights instead.

Any easy pro tricks?
Light vertical surfaces, like art or even the wall itself. It makes a room feel bright. (Envision an art gallery: The walls are always bright.) For drama, try placing an uplight on the floor behind a piece of furniture.

Tips for outdoor lighting?
You need task lighting for the grill, step lights for stairs, and some ambient lighting, like wall sconces. But don’t overdo it—you don’t want to kill the feeling of being outside at night. Then there’s lighting for nearby plants or trees. You might want to uplight a few trees farther out, too. In some settings, it can be spooky when it feels like there’s this great dark beyond.

Do you use solar lights?
They don’t seem to work very well, so I don’t use them.

What inspires you most?
Natural lighting events, like sunrises, sunsets, light on water.

What’s the cheapest, quickest fix with the most impact?
Changing all your switches to dimmers.

Describe the least flattering lighting you can imagine.
A bright overhead downlight without any other light sources in the room. That gives you a long shadow under your nose and deep shadows under your eyes. Then again, a single light shining up at your face isn’t great either. It’s like a horror movie. But if you want to tell a scary story, that’s the way to go.