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Of all the ways to create drama in an interior, I believe lighting is the most overlooked. Lighting can call attention to a focal point, illuminate a task area, and create a mood. It can highlight strengths, downplay weakness, and create a sense of mystery. In this segment, we will discuss the ways to use lighting to up your interior design game.
Types of Lighting
There are three main types of lighting: task, ambient, and accent. Task lighting is exactly what it sounds like, lighting for a task. For example, under cabinet lighting in a kitchen used for food preparation is task lighting. Task lighting should be bright enough to perform the task at hand without eye strain, but not so bright as to cause glare or unwanted reflection. Use task lighting in areas where you frequently perform the same task, such as countertops, on desks, and in reading areas. This type of light is easy to place appropriately and tends to be more functional than dramatic.
Ambient lighting provides the overall illumination for a room. Most ambient lighting comes from a ceiling fixture, wall fixture, or chandelier. The goal for ambient lighting is to provide enough lighting to see and walk safely. Choosing a wall fixture is a great way to add ambient light without some of the unflattering shadows cast by ceiling lights.
Accent lighting is used to create drama in a room. This is where the magic happens! Manipulating this type of light can make a huge difference when used correctly. To do this, accent lighting should be substantially brighter than the other lighting in the room. Use accent lighting to draw attention to a focal point or architectural detail, or to create a “wall wash” to draw attention to the outer edge of a room. Much like everything else in life, create the most drama by contrasting areas of light with darker areas.
In addition to types of lighting, light also has a “temperature”. We generally consider light to be “warm” or “cool” based on the wavelength emitted by the light source. Most people prefer warm lighting in residential applications because it is more flattering and inviting. Most offices have cooler fluorescent lighting because it is more economical.
We measure light in lumens or foot-candles. Interestingly enough, both measurements originated as a comparison to candles. Lumens are the preferred measurement of artificial light. It is a little more difficult to explain, but basically, it has to do with the intensity of the light of one candle on a measured surface. Foot-candles come from the measurement of light emitted by one candle at a distance of one foot.
Lighting and Color Perception
The temperature or wavelength of lighting can greatly alter the appearance of colors in a room. Maybe you’ve had the fun experience of picking out a color based on what it looked like in the store, only to find it looked completely different in your home? The name for this is metamerism. Scientifically speaking, we see color most accurately in noon daylight, but daylight can vary based on the weather, the time of year, and your location. It can also vary depending on which direction your windows face. In general terms, daylight emits the whitest light and therefore imparts the least amount of color interference onto the item being viewed. Many light bulb manufacturers have tried to develop bulbs that more closely imitate daylight. These make great lighting for task lighting for crafts or activities where color is critical.
Types of Bulbs
Shopping for light bulbs has gotten a lot more complicated in recent years. However, there is a lot more information available on the package to help you make your decision. Some of the things you will find on current light bulb packaging include brightness, energy cost per year, the average life of the bulb, light appearance (warm or cool), and energy usage. There are several types of bulbs to choose from. Each has their own benefits and disadvantages. These are the main types of bulbs currently on the market:
Incandescent (or Tungsten)– You are probably very familiar with incandescent bulbs. This category made up the majority of home lighting until recently. This type of light is created by heating a filament until it glows. In 2007 Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act which requires manufacturers to adhere to new energy-efficient standards for basic light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs do not conform to the new standards and they will not be available once the current supply is gone.
Fluorescent- A fluorescent light bulb uses ionized mercury gas to create UV light. The light is not actually visible, we can see it because of the phosphorus that coats the inside of the bulb. The phosphorous absorbs the UV light, then re-emits it at a wavelength that is now visible. Standard fluorescent lights emit a blue or cool light and require a ballast (which is usually part of the light fixture). You cannot use these lights with a dimmer.
Compact Fluorescent (CFLs) – CFLs (or compact fluorescent lamps) work in much the same way as a fluorescent bulb, except that the ballast is at the base of the bulb. Since both fluorescent and compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, disposal may be an issue. You can dim CFLs, but you should look for a dimmer specifically designed for CFLs or LEDs. LEDs will probably be replacing fluorescents in the future.
Halogen – Halogen bulbs are really just advanced incandescent bulbs. They use a similar filament, but a halogen bulb is under more pressure. The glass on a halogen bulb is much thicker than on an incandescent bulb. You have to be careful not to touch a halogen bulb because the oil from your skin can cause “hotspots” which can make the bulb explode. Halogen bulbs produce a bright light and can get very hot.
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)– LED bulbs are rapidly replacing many of the older types of bulbs. LEDs generate light by passing an electric current through a semiconductor. They are energy efficient, and they don’t burn out. The light just gets dimmer over time. The downside of LED bulbs is that they are considerably more expensive than their older counterparts. They also last considerably longer, and the light emitted comes in a variety of “temperature” choices.
Edison Bulbs – are reproductions of the first filament light bulbs from the turn of the century. Their popularity has increased due to the renewed interest in industrial style and farmhouse style decor. They are typically not very bright, emit a yellow to orange light, and are primarily used for their appearance, not the light they emit.
How to Create Drama with Lighting
Just like highlighting and contouring with makeup can make a huge difference in your appearance, accent lighting can make a huge difference in your interior. Use light to draw attention to interesting features, and downplay less interesting areas by allowing them to stay dark. The first opportunity is to highlight architectural features in your home. Interesting ceilings look magnificent when lit from a cove. Under stair lighting can highlight an interesting stairway in addition to providing additional light for wayfinding.
Niches are also opportunities to highlight a feature in a room. The second way to use light is to highlight unique art, plants, or accessories. Track lighting has come a long way from the bulky track lights of the 80s and 90s. If you have a hallway with multiple pieces of artwork or a gallery wall, you may want to consider this option. Recessed lights can have diffused light, concentrated light, or directional light. If you use adjustable recessed lighting, you can also light a gallery wall or an individual work of art. One drawback of recessed lighting in the past was the necessity of extra space above the ceiling for heat dispersion. Newer lights emit less heat and have smaller housing units, so this problem can easily be remedied. Use up-lights to highlight dramatic interior plants. You can also create a dramatic landscape by adding this type of light.
Smart Lighting Systems
Lighting has become so technical that there are designers who deal specifically and exclusively with light. It is possible to hire a designer to set up “smart settings” so that certain lights are on during certain times of the day with special settings for events like cocktail parties, family gatherings, etc. This often goes hand in hand with other “smart” features such as climate control, audio, security, and intercom options.
I hope this gives you some new ideas on how to use light to create interest in your home. If you have some pictures of interesting lighting elements, I would love to see your ideas!
Until next time.