The Basics of Amazing Light Design

by Rachel Lyon, Editorial Director for Direct from the Designers™

Lighting your home is more than sticking lamps in dark corners; you want to place the best kind of light in each room to give it the right atmosphere and make it comfortable to work or rest there. In addition to the benefit of illuminating spaces, you can also choose different types of fixtures to further develop the ambiance you’re going for. Here are the basics you need to know to help you build a functional light design in your home, focusing on the three major layers you should consider individually and balance together to optimize your interior.

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Background Ambient Lighting

Ambient light is the most basic layer, and it’s already installed in every home. The lights that turn on when you flip a switch, whether recessed in the ceiling or hanging in a pendant fixture, usually provide ambient lighting, and they direct it downward to fill a room or a general area. Its main purpose is to uniformly illuminate—there shouldn’t be a gradient effect across a room. Evenly spaced bulbs should do it, but sometimes designers get creative with vaulted ceilings and other architectural elements to achieve the same goal. Light might actually be directed at the walls so it bounces back to fill the room.

Think of ambient light like the sun around midday. You shouldn’t need to know exactly where it is to get what you need from it. Whoever designed your house probably took this into account, and the electrician who wired it would have noticed an issue before you moved in, so there’s nothing big you have to do to improve this layer of lighting. What you can do is invest in good light bulbs, and fill every socket in each room with the same kind. You want evenness, first and foremost.

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Focused Task Lighting

When you need to see something particularly clearly, the light that helps you do it is task lighting. It can be under-cabinet lights in the kitchen to help brighten countertops, or any type of lamp that places light over a desk or your shoulder so you can read effectively. This lighting layer is something you’ll plan for yourself in your home, and because it’s mostly made up of independent lamps and not fixtures, you can move it around until you get it right.

With task lighting, you have the opportunity to do more than illuminate. You should choose lamps that add something to your interior design. Everything from the simplest floor lamps to ornate pieces that just as well might function as art when not being used can enhance space even when natural light from windows is all that you need. Any opportunity to combine practicality with style should be taken, to give your home a great design with fewer elements and less effort—and you’ll really look like you know what you’re doing as a result.

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Decorative Accent Lighting

Finally, when your home is otherwise well-lit for your purposes, you might notice that there are still some gaps in your light design. There could be shadows in corners or along walls, or perhaps the shapes in your architecture are creating dead zones. Employ accent lighting to highlight areas that are unnecessarily dark and specific points of interest. Brightening a shadowy corner will help you to see all of your space and expand your visual square footage, and placing a light to shine over displayed artwork will help you and any guests to appreciate it more. Why would you settle for showing any part of your home in a bad light, after all?

Accent lighting can take many forms for many needs. It can come as track lighting that you can move and dim as needed, or wall sconces to brighten where ambient light doesn’t quite reach, or as highly focused lamps that sit over individual picture frames. Anything that addresses a darkness issue like this can be your solution for accent lighting.

We say there are three lighting layers, but don’t think that you need to consider your light design as having three distinct checkboxes to fill. You might not need accent lighting at all, if your space is well-lit, or you could have fixtures that cover multiple categories. Consider track lighting, which you can position to shine in any direction; it can function as any of these layers depending on how you set it up. Just know the basics, know your needs, and you can come up with a great light design that makes your home comfortable and beautiful.

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