Although technically not a design element, light is so important in Interior Design that I decided to include it in the Design Basics series. After all, we perceive our surroundings thanks to light: light animates space, revealing forms, textures, and colours. A successful lighting scheme can highlight the design and decoration of your home, making it come to life, and most important, enhancing the way you experience living in it.
So what’s light?
Light is a product of intense heat, and in general the hotter the source, the brighter the light. Natural daylight from the sun is a mix of different coloured wavelengths that blend together, and that the eyes perceive as white light.
White light is a wide-spectrum light and reveals all colours, while weaker sources of light have a narrower range of wavelengths and enhance some colours over others.
An example: candlelight has a higher proportion of warm coloured wavelengths, while moonlight has a higher proportion of cool wavelengths. So, despite the intensity of the light being similar, warm reds and skin tones look better in candlelight than in bright moonlight, while cool colours look better in bright moonlight than in candlelight.
Natural light enhances the beauty of every interior, and can be maximised using white, pale cool colours, reflective surfaces, and mirrors. In case of renovations, or extensions, it might be worth considering adding skylights or extra windows to increase the amount of natural light – you can never have to much natural light, in my opinion!
Daylight varies dramatically depending on the weather, the season, the time of day, location and latitude. Northern light, for example, is fairly constant in intensity and mix of coloured wavelengths, so colours don’t change much during the day. This is why painters tend to prefer studios that receive northern light.
When choosing the colours you want to use in your room, keep in mind the type and amount of natural light the room receives. To help you decide, you could place a few large colour swatches in a room, and see how they change during the day. In general, warm colours look best in warm light, and vice versa.
All lamps give off different quantities and qualities of light, depending on what they are made from and how they are constructed and powered, and they are all suitable for different applications.
There are many different kind of lamp bulbs; incandescent bulbs seem to be on their way to extinction, supplanted by energy-efficient bulbs, while LED are considered, at the moment, the most environmentally friendly of all light bulbs.
In general, incandescent lamps give off a warm white light, while fluorescent and energy-efficient bulbs tend to emit light with a greenish tinge. Halogen lamps have a pleasant light, cooler than incandescent lamps, but most need a transformer to operate (they require 12V energy supply).
When choosing your light bulb, keep in mind that:
- small sources of light produce defined, dark shadows – the smaller the source point, the more defined and darker the shadows;
- far positioned light sources produce sharp shadows – the farther the source point, the sharper the shadow;
- broad sources of light produce diffuse shadows and softer reflections.
Methods for illuminating a space
You can illuminate an interior using 3 lighting methods:
- General lighting, or ambient lighting;
- Local lighting, or task lighting;
- Accent lighting.
General lighting provides a uniform, diffused light, that allows you to see easily and move safely. Ambient lighting produces very little shadow and can be bland, because it doesn’t define form. The best way to achieve general lighting is to reflect light off the walls – using ceiling or wall-mounted wall-washers – or off the ceiling – using floor lamps, or wall-lamps.
Using uplighting gives a good, indirect diffused light that defines the space in a much more interesting way than ceiling-mounted direct light.
Another bonus of uplighting is that it “lifts” the ceiling, making it lighter and visually more distant – a good trick for low-ceilinged room, and for small spaces that you’d like to look larger.
If you decide to use uplighting, keep in mind that, since light bounces off the walls & ceiling, their surface should be flat, and any imperfection will produce oblique shadows. On the other hand, you can use indirect uplighting to show off the beauty of highly textured walls, such as exposed brickwork, or stone surfaces.
Cove lighting and valence lighting are two other effective ways to provide general light; cove lighting borders a room and uses the ceiling as a reflector, while valence lighting is a mix of indirect and direct lighting, since it illuminates both ceiling and walls.
Downlighting, in the form of ceiling mounted lamps, ceiling recessed lamps, or ceiling spot, visually lowers the ceiling. Downlights produce intense, dark shadows and can be very dramatic. If you space them closely, downlights provide a good level of general lighting, and are quite effective in brightening up dull corridors and halls.
Tip: use a dimmer to vary the intensity of the light and create different moods in the room; always check that dimmers are compatible with the light source you’re using.
Local lighting, or task lighting, provides a pool of light in specific areas where you perform visual tasks such as reading, drawing, cooking, etc. Although often over-looked, good task lighting is very important at home; the more light you have when you focus on close objects, the less tiring you get. In the kitchen, you can integrate task lighting with the cabinets, using built-in strip-lights or downlights.
For reading, working on the computer and other similar activities the best option is a floor or table lamp with a cantilevered adjustable arm, so that you can direct the pool of light where you most need it.
In the bathroom, you can integrate task lighting behind the mirror. Downlight is not enough for shaving or applying make-up – it creates shadows – so it’s best to place task lighting at the side of the mirror.
Accent lighting is a form of concentrated light that creates focal points, or rhythmic patterns of light and dark. You can use accent lighting to emphasise a room feature, highlight art and ornaments, create interest, and define areas.
In open plan apartments, or large spaces, you can use accent light to lead the eye around the room and create pools of light, dividing the space into smaller areas. For example, to define the dining area, concentrate lights over the table; if you have the room height, use pendant lamps, otherwise prefer recessed spotlights, or track-lighting.
Spotlights tend to be quite small; they provide a narrow beam of light that creates intense, dramatic shadows. Use them to direct the eye towards artworks, collections of objects, or over the bathtub to create light reflections on the water. Adjustable, free-standing spotlights are good as bedside lamps too, since you can direct the light towards the pillow to read in bed.
Accent lighting can also take the form of candle lighting, and occasional lighting.
Candles give a warm, flattering light that creates long, well-defined flickering shadows. You can use candles to create different moods in a room: romantic, dramatic, elegant or relaxing. You can also use tealights, and their holders, to brighten up a dining table, a mantelpiece, or a bathroom. Always keep safety in mind though – never leave candles unattended, don’t place them close to flammable objects, and be aware of pets and kids.
With occasional lighting I mean all those beautiful, original, evocative lights that are difficult to categorise. Some lamps generate little light, but they’re just perfect on their own, like a piece of art, or an ornament. You can use them to add character to a room, brighten a dark corner, or even add colour to a monochromatic interior.
Planning a lighting scheme
Since lighting plays such a vital role in the design of a room, it should be planned at an early stage.
When planning the lighting requirements for a room, make a list of all the activities you’re going to perform in it, so that you can better choose the type of lighting (general, task, accent) you’ll need. This way, you’ll also be able to define the number and position of power points, switches, and dimmers.
Consider the size and décor of the interior, too: a large room decorated with dark warm colours and matt surfaces will need more light than the same room decorated with a pale cool colour scheme and reflective surfaces. A small room decorated in white will need even less light, and so on.
If you’re going to do major renovations around the house, consider hiring a lighting consultant to help you assess the amount and kind of light you need. Sometimes, lighting stores have their own in-house lighting consultant, who can help you plan the right lighting scheme for your needs.
Finally, keep in mind that light has a psychological importance too, since it affects spirit, mood, and emotions – one more reason to give it the due importance.
The human body is genetically programmed to respond to light levels; in general, a very bright interior will make you feel alert and wakeful, while a soft, muted environment will soothe you and make you feel more relaxed. Too much bright light for too long can induce tension, while too little light for long periods of time can be depressing, hence the need to plan a flexible lighting scheme for your home.
In the next post of the Design Basics series I’ll talk about proportion, and the role it plays in interior design.e<
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