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Lighting Basics: It’s the layers

by Steve McKee on May 8, 2005

Have you ever noticed how pleasing the lighting is in a nice restaurant? How rich the setting can seem with just the right features accented, with pools of light in all the right places. It’s because designers in such places are keenly aware of the importance of providing several different “layers” to the lighting.

This is something we can do in a home as well, though on a more junior scale. Using lighting to enrich an environment is an inexpensive way to create a feeling of tranquility and luxury. Some light fixtures may not seem cheap when you’re looking at their price tags at Home Expo or Lamps Plus, but they’re a bargain compared to the other ways of trying to add interest to a space by vaulting ceilings and the like. In other words, good lighting is a smart place to spend a little money.

Uniform lighting is not the goal, as if the room in question were a warehouse or factory floor. Yet we don’t want dark spots in the wrong places.

These different layers of lighting are usually switched separately and almost always controlled by dimmers. By the way, dimmer switches come in different forms these days. You need not resort to the round knob that was standard issue in the sixties and seventies. Toggle switches (up and down, just like a regular switch) are available and have a look that blends in better with the other non-dimmer switches.

These lighting layers can be achieved through use of several basic types of light fixtures:

Fill lighting
This layer adds general illumination to the room. A good source for this comes from fixtures recessed into the ceiling (commonly called “cans”) and sconces (wall mounted fixtures.)

Sconces come in thousands of varieties, from art deco glass and metal, to old world Spanish style made from clay, and everything inbetween. Many are the classic half-bowl of white glass with an open top. They’re good for sending light up a wall where it can bounce off a ceiling to help give a uniform glow to a room. When dimmed they become more like attractive accent pieces. They are very effective when placed on both sides of major architectural element like an arched opening (or a fireplace or a view window) and add a bit of symmetry that brackets and highlights these elements.

Recessed light fixtures are also good for providing uniform light. Be careful because it’s easy to get carried away and overdo it with these. See if you agree with me that the smaller fixtures (4” diameter compared to the 6”diameter ones) seem more elegant than the larger ones. Also notice how the depth of the bulb within the light fixture and whether it’s tucked up inside or sticking out (an “inny” or an “outy,” to use belly button lingo) can change the feel of these lights, and also influence whether the fixture creates a more defined pool of light or light that is cast far and wide. I personally like them more tucked up inside, so they don’t look so much like a bulb protruding into the room.

Place a row of recessed light fixtures close to a wall (say 12” or 16” from the wall) and the resulting cone of light that each will create on the wall makes for a dramatic “wall washer” effect.

Dim these cans and sconces and they instantly become more moody, creating soft pools of light, instead of filling the room.

Spot lighting
Highlighting certain walls or features can be very dramatic. The recessed light fixtures mentioned above can be used for this, especially if they have a spot light inside that can be aimed. Halogen spot lights create particularly nice accents for art work on walls or in niches or on fireplace mantles. Track lighting can provide a form of spotlights that is highly adaptable and changeable. And there’s a lot more variety available in track lighting these days than you may remember.

Task lighting
The under-cabinet lights in kitchens are an example of a light source used to highlight a work area. Lamps for reading also fall in this category. Most often this lighting is provided by non-built in light sources such as desk lamps or nightstand reading lamps. Of course the variety possible for this is huge. Because it’s not built-in it’s easier to be more daring with your selection.

Ornamental lighting
This would include little accent lamps, including a picture lamp over a painting or a small light source behind a plant. The classic lava lamp would also be included in this category. In my house we have an artist-created little lantern with rice paper sides and a little scene that shines from inside onto the sides of the rice paper. The heat from the low watt bulb causes the scene to spin slowly.

It’s easy during construction to have an outlet installed that is controlled by a wall switch. Place this outlet in a good spot for an ornamental light fixture, such as a fireplace mantle or a wall where a painting will hang. Voila. Instead of having to walk across the room and fumble with a little switch on the back of the lamp or on the cord, you can bring it to life from the same set of switches that you’re using to control the rest of the room lights.

You don’t need to go nuts and over-think each room and fill it chock full of lighting effects. Even if a room has a total of only three or four light sources, be aware of the different effects that can be achieved if you bring a little sensitivity to bear. Pay attention in nice homes, restaurants and hotels for ideas. There’s some pretty amazing stuff out there.

For more on this subject I would suggest the book Christopher Lowell’s Seven Layers of Design. I’m always happy to give credit to my sources, and I consider this book a good one, especially on the subject of lighting.

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