A Well-lit Room: The Ultimate Lighting Guide

Looking for that special touch? Try these bright ideas.

The Ultimate Lighting Guide
Photo: Van Chaplin

A good lighting plan plays a more important role in the overall feel of a room than most people think.

This space is a dream to work with because it's new and has different types of lights, multiple dimmers, and a high ceiling. But what do you do in an older home with 8-foot ceilings, no overhead lighting, and small windows? Follow the same rules, but do it with lamps, picture lights, and candles. The placement shown above forms a lighting triangle around the room.

1. Notice how Gaye, Heather, and Sarah anchored this seating arrangement with lamps and added a lamp in the bookcase to brighten a dark corner. To balance the light, they kept each lamp at about the same height and the brightness of each at about the same intensity.

2. An inexpensive picture light attached directly to the artwork could easily replace the recessed picture lights in the ceiling. Don't make it complicated, just have fun and experiment with different looks.

3. One lamp rests on a mirrored table between two side chairs and another sits on a low table to the left of the sofa, which is balanced with one in the bookcase to the right of the sofa.

4. As a final touch, candles along the mantel add a soft glow to draw attention to the painting above.

More Lighting Tips

  • Clear bulbs produce more glare, while ones with a soft frost cast a glow.
  • Use 60-watt bulbs or higher in lamps that surround reading areas.
  • If you don't want to put a dimmer on a chandelier, consider using dark shades to buffer the light.
  • Experiment with different wattage bulbs in your fixtures and lamps to see how the look changes.
  • Never use a higher wattage than the fixture recommends, but do experiment with lower wattage bulbs to see if you like them.
  • Remember to add up the number of arms on a chandelier to calculate total wattage for that fixture. For example, eight arms at 25 watts equals 200 watts of light.
  • Try different shades on lamps and fixtures.

Where To Start?
Options are endless and can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you're building a new house. But if you stick to the basics, good lighting can be easy and affordable. To show us how best to light a room, we turned to Gaye Mitchum Interiors in Charlotte. Gaye, along with her design team of Heather Quinn and Sarah Fritz, pride themselves on creating warm, rich rooms not just with furniture, fabric, and accessories, but also with good lighting. As Heather puts it, "The number one problem with lighting today is that many people throw in a switch and a 60-watt bulb and expect a room to be beautiful. They just aren't educated about what lighting can do."

Any good professional will tell you that creating atmosphere is a key to well-designed rooms. Lighting, more than anything else, can enhance that.

Layering Light
If you layer your artificial lights correctly, you can define different parts of your room. In one room, recessed cans in the ceiling are the upper layer of light. Two recessed fixtures at the fireplace are adjustable; they illuminate the painting above the fireplace, creating a second layer. Two small recessed fixtures in the top of the bookcases add a third layer, while the chandelier and wall sconces are a fourth. Lamps make the fifth layer. Candles along the mantel and around the room provide a sixth and final layer of light.

Balancing a Room
The trick is getting all these layers to work together. The best tools for balancing light are dimmers, bulbs, and shades. "Dim everything," says Heather. "Dimmers allow you to create different scenes and moods in a room." They work best on ceiling and wall fixtures; use three-way bulbs or switches for lamps. An electrician can retrofit any standard wall switch with a dimmer fairly affordably.

Why go to all the trouble? Because having more control over the brightness of light goes a long way toward balancing a room. The only complicated part is deciding when you have enough of one type or not enough of the other. Sounds tricky, but it really isn't if you follow these simple rules.

First, unattractive fixtures, such as recessed cans, should never be noticeable. They should only be bright enough to complement prettier light. Turn up your accent lights, such as picture or bookcase lights, to highlight art. Finally, play with the level of lamplight to create the best feel.

Interior and lighting design by Gaye Mitchum Interiors/Illuminares On South, Charlotte, (704) 334-9488; furniture and some accessories available from Gaye Mitchum Interiors/Illuminares On South; some accessories by TOZAI, www.twoscompany.com; leather and white armchairs from Oly Studio, www.olystudio.com.

This article is from the February 2005 issue of Southern Living.

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