Let there be light
January 17, 2007
Lighting is almost as essential to our daily lives as shelter, food and water. Yet most of us are relatively unaware of lighting and how it affects the spaces in which we live and work. Whether building a new house or remodeling, lighting is a key factor in creating a wonderful living space, and while the following tips definitely won’t earn anyone a degree in the subject, the new knowledge will “illuminate” the decision-making process, whether you are simply working with your electrician or have hired a lighting designer.
No single light fixture can give you everything you need to illuminate a room properly. The trick is to use a variety of light sources to create an inviting and functional space.
Light performs four basic functions: Decorative, Task, Accent, and Ambient.
Decorative refers to fixtures such as chandeliers, candlestick-style wall sconces and exterior lanterns that add visual sparkle to a room. Decorative lighting fixtures are the “supermodels’ of lighting. Their main purpose is to be pretty and not too bright.
Task is work-related lighting, such as lighting under the cabinets in the kitchen, or a light for reading next to a chair or working at a desk.
Accent is light used to highlight objects in a room to create depth and dimension.
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Recessed adjustable fixtures, track lights and up-lights fall in this category.
Ambient is the gentle light that softens shadows on people’s faces and fills the space with a warm glow, creating the feeling of a glowing fire. Ambient light comes from illumination from such fixtures as opaque wall sconces that is “bounced” off the ceiling. Very often, however, ambient lighting is overlooked. But to quote Carson Kressley, from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”: “Trust me … lighting is everything, and cheaper than Botox.”
Indeed, an effective lighting design layers these four functions together to create a cohesive result.
One does not see light until it hits a surface. For that reason, lighting is an important component of interior design, and should work well with such elements as pattern, colors, furnishings, fabrics, floor and wall coverings, in order to create a great end-result.
Because in order to be efficient and beautiful lighting should relate to the way each room is going to be used, you should always finalize your furniture layout before attempting to create a lighting system. This is especially important if you are in the process of building your home. Take, for instance, the dining room. If you are only going to furnish it with a table and chairs, the spot for the chandelier will be in the middle of the room. Place a buffet in that room, and since the table now has to shift, the chandelier is no longer centered over the table.
Don’t underestimate exterior lighting, as it keeps windows from becoming black mirrors at night. Exterior lighting also visually expands your interior living space.
This is a good trick to remember if your house is on the small side. It also increases your sense of security.
Another good security tip is to install a switch for your outside lights in the master bedroom. It is not fun at all to run to your front door in the middle of the night to flip on the outside lights.
While putting interior lighting on dimmers is the easiest way to allow an unlimited number of light levels for all the inhabitants of the house, it is not recommended to put exterior lighting on dimmers. Incandescent light, when dimmed, turns amber in color, and makes plants look sickly under that yellowish light.
When building a new home, be sure to check all the doors’ direction of swing, and make sure no switches end up behind any of the doors.
There has been a lot of talk about fluorescent bulbs and fixtures, with the revised Title 24 lighting code in California. Admit it. Like most people, you have a fear of fluorescent lights: the moment your electrician, architect or contractor mentions using fluorescent, your eyes glaze over and you slowly start backing away with your arms crossed over your face. Fluorescents have had a bad reputation for a long time. I remember, when growing up, fluorescent bulbs came in two colors: warm white (which gave off a murky pinkish-orange light) and cool white (which made people look greenish-gray). But you should know that over the past six years, huge improvements have been made in fluorescent technology.
Now, many new fluorescent products have the ability to present people and living spaces in a much more flattering light. There are a huge number of new colors from which to choose, and many are highly complimentary to skin tones. And they are easily dimmable.
Even professionals are warming up to them.
On a recent hotel stay, I had to peak under a lampshade in my room to discover, much to my surprise, a compact fluorescent bulb. The color and wattage were so good, I totally expected to see an incandescent bulb.
Great lighting has a sizeable impact on living and working spaces, by adding drama, or function and enhancing the way we live, or work, in any given space.
What is the most common mistake when it comes to kitchen lighting?
The most common mistake is trying to light the entire kitchen with a single fixture, centered in the ceiling. It ends up being what I call a “glare bomb,” visually overpowering everything in the space. The best type of lighting involves a blend of task, ambient, accent and decorative lighting in any given space.
Because, unfortunately, lighting is often the last thing considered in a design ” and the first thing cut from the budget ” even if you don’t have the money right now, say, for pendants over the center island, at least install the junction boxes and purchase fixtures when additional funds become available. Also, why not put them on a holiday wish list?
Please e-mail your decorating questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and mention “Sierra Sun Column” in the subject line. Françoise will answer them in her column.
Françoise Evans, an award-winning interior decorator and founder of Alpilles Interiors, a full service interior decorating and staging firm, recently joined the Mark Tanner Construction, Inc. team of building professionals, specializing in classic mountain homes. Contact their office at 587-4000 or check out http://www.marktannerconstruction.com.
Nancy Helms remains at Alpilles Interiors and can be contacted directly at 913-8897 for all your decorating or staging needs.