article: Spring 2003

Proper Lighting Adds Life
By Scott Derrick, G. Miles Interiors

Light impacts our lives daily. On a beautiful day we seem to feel more cheerful, and on a dreary day we often feel a little glum.

Interiors can impact our psyche in much the same way. Lighting may be one of the most important but overlooked elements of any good design plan. You can use lighting as a tool to create a romantic or dramatic mood in any room. Lighting can be used as a technique to enhance or minimize an architectural detail or to highlight artwork. Proper lighting allows us to read or work comfortably in a room without injuring our eyes. When you understand the basic principles and types of lighting, you can prepare a plan that will make your rooms both pleasing and practical.

Natural Light

There are two light sources to consider in any design plan, natural and artificial. Natural sunlight plays a huge role in any design plan. The more natural light available in a room, the more flexibility you have in selecting your color scheme. Light itself is invisible to the eye. We see light only when it strikes a surface. This is the most important concept to remember when evaluating your room’s natural light sources. Light activates color. Darker walls and surfaces absorb light while lighter colors reflect it. Darker rooms and walls will require more artificial light than lighter ones.

Window exposure is another key factor in assessing natural light. Natural light in any room varies throughout the day, and it changes with the seasons. A Southern exposure tends to produce an even impact on your color scheme. A Northern exposure produces a steady, cool, and blue effect on your room. An Eastern exposure provides a bright, yellow impact while a Western exposure is orange-tinged and warm. This generalization also varies with your room’s geographic location. In Arizona, a Western exposure will appear hot while a Northern exposure in Maine will be cold. Natural light varies hour by hour; therefore, spend time evaluating your room’s light throughout the day to observe the nuances of light and color.

Ask yourself what times of day you plan to use a room. What activities will take place in the room? If you are planning a vacation home, consider what times of year you will visit the home. On the Gulf coast the summer sun sets nearer the northwest horizon while in the winter it sets in the southwest. Frank Lloyd Wright considered the impact of light when he designed his masterpiece, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. He wanted the appropriate amount of light at the breakfast room table not a glare. His design work carefully linked the indoor and outdoor environments. His students often recall his meticulous attention to detail concerning lighting plans.

Artificial Light

Your design plan should achieve a balance between natural and artificial lighting. A room needs both light and shadow to create a feeling of depth and volume. Too much light or too much shadow in a room creates stark contrasts that tire the eye. An unpleasant glare is the result of too much contrast. Light from artificial sources creates cone-shaped “pools” of light in a room. Balancing these “pools” and filling shadows is one of the goals of your lighting plan.

There are three types of artificial light to consider: ambient or general lighting, task or local lighting, and mood or accent lighting. A good lighting plan combines all three of these types. Rooms typically need between five and fifteen different artificial light sources. Ambient lighting is a shadowless, glare-free light source used to navigate from room to room. It is most commonly referred to as background lighting. Overhead fixtures, recessed lights, track lights, and some table lamps are good examples of ambient lighting. If you are planning new construction, review your builder’s lighting plan to ensure adequate ambient lighting. Consider recessed spot lighting in your major living areas. Plan to use dimming devices that can control the volume of your background lighting to create a mood for entertaining. Wire your background lighting to illuminate with the touch of a single wall switch. Dimming devices can also minimize contrasts in shadows in daylight or at nighttime.

When creating your lighting plan for a room, consider your functional needs first. Task lighting enables you to work or read comfortably. It provides the appropriate illumination for activities like cooking, sewing, piano playing, and other hobbies. Like ambient lighting, it should be glare-free. The intensity of light depends upon the task involved.

Allow a china cabinet to take on a new personality when the interior is bathed in light and the sides of the cabinet remain in the shadows. Mood or accent lighting is purely decorative. Use mood lighting to create drama or romance in your room. Up-lights, torchieres, candles, and spot lights are all good examples of accent lighting.

As we age our eyes become more sensitive to glare, and we need more light in a room than normal. If your room has a beautiful, bright Gulf view, you may find dark shadows on either side of the opening. This can cause a glare that can lead to head aches and eye strain. Consider installing sconces or other light sources there to alleviate this problem. The same applies to television viewing. You may want to consider filling the dark void around a television with another light source to eliminate too much contrast. Glares can be created when someone stares into a lamp or fixture that is placed too low or caused when a lampshade is too small for a lamp. This can also occur if a bulb is too large or small for the fixture.

Less than one percent of light from a window reaches a room’s extremities. Consider using a shiny or bright surfaced console table in front of your window to ‘bounce” light further into the room.

Lamp shades add another dimension to your lighting plan by diffusing or filtering light. Experiment with different shade textures and colors to add interest to your room. Colored shades will spread colored light. Several smaller lamps tend to be more interesting than one or two dominant light sources. When you want a lamp to project neutral downward light, be sure the inside of the shade is white.

You can adjust the height and angle of many lamps to improve the quality of light around a work surface. Add fill-in lighting in these work areas along with an adjustable lamp to eliminate shadows.

Light Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs are the most widely used in residential interiors. Compared to daylight, incandescent light will appear warm and yellowish in color. It tends to provide interesting contrasts and does not alter color relationships in the room. Lower wattage bulbs tend to have a greater yellow cast while higher wattage bulbs have a white cast. The tungsten filament in the bulb tends to have a short life span and generates a great deal of heat.

Halogen bulbs give a room a crisp, cool-white feeling. Halogens offer effective color rendering and add an attractive, bright sparkle when used in torchieres, spot lights and accents. Use halogen bulbs with a dimming device. Touching a halogen bulb with your bare hands will ruin it. Halogen bulbs generate tremendous heat and are expensive to replace.

Fluorescent bulbs are found most often in commercial application because they are inexpensive and efficient to operate. They also do not generate much heat. Fluorescent light is bright and even, and its use in residential applications is on the increase. It is the most cost effective lighting available, and technology has improved its imitation of daylight. Consider these bulbs in rental situations in lamps and utility areas.

Best Tips

Here is a summary of tips to help you consider all the possibilities lighting can offer your next project:

When planning lighting, assess task lighting first then complement with background and accent lighting.
Vary the brightness of lamps and light sources.
Avoid over or under lighting.
Use dimming devices whenever possible to create a mood.
Keep your eye out for color and light balance.
Several smaller lamps create more interest than one or two major light sources.
You need between five and fifteen light sources in a major room to keep it pleasant and practical.
Prevent glare by adding light sources to dark areas of the room.

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